John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Senegal Elections: A First Take

by John Campbell
February 28, 2012

A bottle of ink used to mark voters' fingers is seen on a table during presidential elections in the capital Dakar February 26, 2012. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


Preliminary reports from Senegal are that Sunday’s polling and subsequent ballot counting has gone well, though Western media concentrates on Dakar and other large cities. Nevertheless, an important, domestic NGO, RESOCIT, deployed more than two thousand local observers and concluded that there was an “astonishingly” low number of incidents of violence and fraud.

The general consensus is that neither candidate will have an outright majority of votes as required by the constitution, and therefore there will be a runoff. Final results from the first round are likely by Friday

For the international community and media, the chief issue was President Wade’s desire for a third term, which violates the spirit and maybe the letter of a new constitution, which he put in place. Among others, representatives of the African Union have urged him to step down. But, Wade — like any other incumbent African chief of state — has reservoirs of support, and it remains to be seen how he he will fare in the runoff.

Senegal rightfully prides itself on the depth of its democratic culture. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (including North Africa as well as sub-Saharan Africa) ranks Senegal as fifteenth out of fifty-three states. Freedom House downgraded Senegal to “partly free” because of its perception that executive power was increasingly centralized under Wade. But, there have been no coups or civil wars since independence from France in 1960. Senegal is one of the few African states in which a presidential challenger has defeated an incumbent in a credible election and gone on to govern the country.

The experience of Ivory Coast should temper unbounded optimism about the elections, however. The Ivorian 2010 polling — the first in a decade — went well. There was a subsequent runoff between the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. But, the runoff was marred by irregularities with both candidates declaring victory, setting up parallel administrations, and there was a low level civil war resolved in the end by the UN and the French. The country now appears superficially calm, but divisions persist.

I am hopeful, even optimistic, that there will be no replay of the Ivory Coast scenario in Senegal. The former was characterized by “big man” rule under Houphouet Boigny that in effect stunted the development of a democratic culture. There was a recent history of civil war and the continued existence of parallel armed forces. There are ethnic and religious divisions often bundled together under the rubrics of “settlers” versus indigenes. Valuable commodities — cocoa, oil — distort politics.

Senegal has numerous ethnic groups, but more than ninety percent of the population adheres to a highly tolerant form of Islam. (Leopold Senghor, popularly regarded as the father of his country and its first president, was a Roman Catholic.) Senegal has no significant quantities of oil or diamonds or other high-value commodities to distort politics. Senegal’s comparative advantage is its history of peace, its democratic reputation, tourism, and its geographical location. (Dakar is only five hours by air from New York). As Reuters quoted an election observer and member of the political opposition saying, “we don’t have minerals or resources here, what we have is peace and sunshine. We have to keep it. If that disappears, it could take us 50 years to get it back.”

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  • Posted by Ken

    Great post.

    Just a quick note that Senegal has had a simmering insurgency in the Casamance region in the south.

    This does not, however, take away from the country’s general atmosphere of stability in a neighborhood fraught with state weakness, civil conflict and a history of military intervention in politics.

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