SENEGAL: LAUNCH PAD FOR THE AFRICAN SPRING?

Thousands have taken to the streets, protesters have engaged in clashes almost daily with national security forces, whilst disenchanted youths continue to call for an aging leader who has been in power for more than twelve years to step down. This is not a flashback to the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of 2011. This is Senegal, in the days leading up to the hotly contested 2012 presidential elections.

For the past week, clashes have been an almost daily occurrence as demonstrators continued to rage against eighty-five-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade’s decision to run for a third term. Violence was particularly strong in the capital, Dakar, between 17 – 18 February 2012, as heavily-armed security forces engaged in a showdown with stone throwing protesters from the June 23 Movement (M23), an organisation which began on that date in 2011 after Wade proposed controversial changes to the constitution. The tumultuous series of events left at least six people dead, with many wondering if Senegal was now the epicentre of a future ‘African Spring’.

And yet, on 26 February 2012, the elections came and went without any major incidents, aside from a few boos greeting incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade as he cast his ballot (presumably for himself), perhaps indicating that the situation in the country is not as bad as once believed. Even more promising is that initial voting returns suggest Wade may not have won his unprecedented bid for a third term, despite political analysts fearing the contrary. Instead, reports indicate that Wade and former Prime Minister Macky Sall are now engaged in a tight race, with neither candidate earning the 50% needed to avoid a run-off. Despite this somewhat positive news, there is still anxiety among Senegalese, political analysts and investors alike, all of whom have kept a watchful eye on a country once considered a beacon of political stability in a region beset by corruption and violence.

How it unfolded: Unrest Hits the Capital

A country once recognised internationally as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, a region marred by violence and corrupt elections, Senegal is now in danger of becoming a dictatorship. This, of course, is something of an embarrassment to Senegalese citizens who take pride in the country’s long tradition of democracy, especially as their political heritage was what drove international investors to take a deeper look into a country which lacked the natural resources of its more conflict-ridden neighbours. Côte d’Ivoire, for example, despite having vast mineral resources, was considered a no-go area for investors after it was plunged into a national crisis which left thousands dead after Laurent Gbagbo was proclaimed the winner of the 2010 presidential election. Mauritania, located just north of Senegal, also suffered a similar fate. After holding its first democratic election in 2007, the government was overthrown in a coup in 2008. Senegal, was supposed to be different, after all it was politically stable and had better infrastructure. But that all of that changed after January 2012, when the Constitutional Council ruled against Senegal’s own constitution by dismissing opposition appeals and confirming that Wade could run for a third term, saying he is not bound by a two-term limit because his first term began before the rule was introduced. The ruling ignited a firestorm of unrest leading to almost war-zone like conditions in Dakar, whilst Senegalese opposition parties threatened to make the country “ungovernable” if Wade went through with his third term, a huge political 180 for a president who was once hailed as the “hope for Africa” a little over a decade ago.

The Seeds of an African Spring

Elected in 2000, Wade was once praised for his government’s ability to turn Senegal into the gateway for international investment in West Africa, as well as its success in increasing the living standards of almost every Senegalese citizen. To be sure, during his time in office, Senegal saw corruption decrease substantially while its literacy rate jumped from 39 to 59%. Additionally during his term, Senegal saw an unprecedented economic growth, with an average rate of about 4.4% between 2000 – 2011. So why, despite such measureable improvements, are the Senegalese largely angry at Wade’s decision to run again? The truth is far more problematic than the statistics reveal. Although Wade defeated rival Abdou Diouf by declaring himself the man of the people, or to be more exact, the ‘Street President’, these days Wade shows himself to be anything but. Despite promising economic growth over the years, Wade’s presidency has been rocked by allegations of nepotism and fraud. Additionally, Wade has come under fire for his outlandish spending projects, including spending millions on a garish 170-foot bronze statue – the so-called African Renaissance Monument – instead of directing the funds towards the citizens of Senegal. Although Wade argued that the establishment of such a statue would attract tourists, he angered the public by arguing that he was entitled to a hefty 35% of all profits generated from tourism to the statue, as it was “his idea”.

Adding to the citizens’ fury, is the widespread rumours that the courts, which had the final say on Wade’s ability to run again for a constitutionally prohibited third term, were paid by Wade’s own administration. Although this has yet to be proven, in the days leading up to the court’s controversial decision, the chief justice’s salary mysteriously spiked to US$100,000 per year – this in a country where most reports indicate that at least 23% of the population is unemployed, and where those that are lucky to have jobs only make US$90 a month at best. Meanwhile, thousands of university graduates are being churned out every year to a country with rampant unemployment. As youths form a core part of the grassroots M23 opposition movement, unrest was only a matter of time.

The Way Ahead

But does this all mean that Senegal is poised to become the launch pad of the African Spring? For now, despite the election appearing to have come and gone smoothly, the outlook for Senegal is difficult to predict. Currently, it looks as though a run-off is in store between Sall and Wade, as neither candidate holds 50% of the vote. Going forward, if Sall does in fact defeat Wade in the run-off, most analysts believe that Sall is likely to suffer the a similar fate to that of Wade: corruption will continue, especially as Sall is cut from the same corrupt political cloth as Wade. Unemployment is also unlikely to take a dive anytime soon. No matter what the outcome, Senegal is expected to lose its appeal with international investors. In 2011, this was already noted by the World Bank, which ranked the country 152 out of 183 countries for doing business. In the months and perhaps years ahead, Senegal is most likely going to remain a ticking time bomb of political unrest, similar to that of Morocco, with citizens waiting in the wings for the opportunity to launch their own African Spring.

(Image: CT Post)

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