Senegal’s elections are today. After months of mass protests against the current President Abdoulaye Wade’s candidacy, election day has finally arrived, amidst great anticipation and uncertainty. Many people are worried that President Wade, who is at least 85 years old, will win a controversial third term and worse, use his next term to install his son, Karim Wade. I am going to Harlem soon where there is a large Senegalese diaspora to follow news on the RTS (Radio Télévision Sénégalaise) and other Senegalese channels if available.
As is often stated, Senegal is the only country in West Africa that has had uninterrupted elections without military rule since Independence. It is considered by the international community to be a stable democracy that has escaped the fate of its neighbors.
And regional instability is a fact. I lived and worked in Senegal for three years until returning to the U.S. for graduate school last July 2011. During one nine month period (August 2008- March 2009), three of the five countries bordering Senegal experienced a coup. The fourth (internal) neighbor, The Gambia, has been ruled since 1994 by a dictator.
Senegal’s democracy stands in stark contrast to this trajectory. Senegal has achieved political stability, almost too much one could argue. For the first forty years, Senegal had only two different Presidents, Léopold Sédar Senghor followed by Abdou Diouf who both were part of the Socialist Party. Wade, leader of the Socialist Democratic Party, was the first opposition leader to be elected President in 2000. Despite the lack of power sharing in its first forty years, Senegal’s democracy stands as a great achievement post-colonialism in West Africa. Here we will not explore the possible contributions by the international community to some of this history of instability. Rather I want to focus on how the protests in Senegal have shown the importance of Senegalese people’s agency and commitment to democracy.
In late spring 2011, President Wade attempted to amend the constitution in a flagrant attempt to facilitate his victory today. He wanted to lower the percentage it would take to win the first round of the election (to win easily over a divided opposition) and create a Vice Presidency position (people worried for his son). On June 23, 2011, the biggest protests in a decade occurred in front of National Assembly in downtown Dakar and accompanied to a lesser extent, in cities throughout the country. The protests were successful in forcing Wade to withdraw his reform. They marked a turning point, and suddenly most radios and television stations aired aggressive critiques of Wade.
I liked what candidate (and former longtime Minister of Foreign Affairs under Wade) Cheikh Tidiane Gadio said on a television interview I saw while visiting Senegal in early January 2012. To paraphrase loosely from my memory, Gadio stated, “June 23 has shown that Senegal can handle its own problems. Senegal does not need the international community to solve its domestic problems.” Certainly, the protesters handled the threat to their constitution with a mass mobilization and succeeded in forcing Wade to back down from the constitutional amendment.
Equally interesting, rappers have played a crucial role in the resistance against Wade. Senegal has one of the world’s most important hip hop scenes, and nothing mobilizes the youth in Senegal like smart, politically charged rap. A contingent of rappers formed the group “Y en a marre” or “We’ve had enough/We are fed up” to protest Wade’s candidacy and to call for voter registration and citizen participation in the elections. While this group along with M23, the Movement of the 23rd of June, have been very successful at mobilizing huge protests and using social and traditional media to get out their views, they do not officially endorse a candidate in the opposition.
A major obstacle to their movement has been the divided opposition. The protesters agree that Wade has to go, but there is no agreement on who should replace him. At a panel I attended at Columbia University a couple of weeks ago, Professor Mamadou Diouf highlighted three leading candidates Moustapha Niasse (who was a former strongman of the Socialist Party), Idrissa Seck (current Mayor of Thies and former Prime Minister under Wade for the Social Democratic Party (PDS)), and Macky Sall (who followed Idrissa Seck as Prime Minister under Wade).
Several opposition candidates, most famously the international music star, Youssou Ndour, were not allowed to run in the controversial decision by the Constitutional Court, who also issued a decision that Wade could run for a third term. I want to emphasize that the exclusion of Youssou Ndour’s candidacy has probably made him more important than if he had been allowed to run. I was in Senegal when he announced his decision to seek the Presidency early January 2012. While his declaration made international headlines, my impression was that most people take him seriously as a musician but not as a candidate. They often cited that he little formal schooling and therefore not qualified. However, his exclusion from being a candidate has made him an even more vocal critic and visible participant in the mass protests.
The constitutional court decision on January 27, 2012 that allowed Wade to seek a third term has been highly criticized by the opposition. However, Awadi, a leading rapper and intellectual in Senegal, may have found the most clever way of mocking the legality of President Wade’s candidacy. At the end of his new music video, Mame Boye, if you scroll to minute 2:46, Awadi creates a parody of the ataya tea drinking custom to criticize Wade’s bid for a third term. After meals in Senegal, people drink Mauritanian mint tea, ataya. In this highly ritualized tradition, you are offered a first cup of tea which is more bitter and then as the tea cooks down more, you are offered a second cup of tea which is sweeter.
For those that do not speak French, I will try to translate what unfolds...
In Awadi’s video, we have an old man (representing Wade) next to a younger, paler man (representing Karim whose mother is French and who speaks little Wolof, the dominant African language in Senegal). Wade asks for a second cup of tea, but the other young men making the ataya point out that he already drank his second cup. They then point to the “ataya constitution” that the old man has posted on the wall, clearly limiting everyone to two cups. Wade insists that he did not get a second cup, prompting a young man asks if he is losing his memory (a reference to his advanced age). So Wade finally asks for a third cup. When they refuse, he takes down the constitution and stands on it, saying, “Fine, I said only two; well, I take it back” referring to when he at one time said he would only stand for two terms. The ending caption says that “any resemblance to actual persons or events was entirely on purpose and not accidental. And that what is coming next [i.e. the elections] should really be watched.”
Awadi also mocks Wade’s attempt to install Karim in power by having Wade say when he learned that Karim bought the real Mauritanian tea, “ I will tell your mom that you did a good job./ Je dirais a ta maman que tu as bien travaillé.” In reality, Wade uttered this now famous phrase when praising Karim for his mdirection in organizing the Organization of the Islamic Conference meetings in Dakar in March 2008. The management of the OIC meetings was later criticized as being corrupt.
Despite the strong and highly mediatized protests by Y en a marre, M23, and other opposition groups, many people will vote for Wade. There have also been large protests in favor of Wade, although some people claim that Wade pays these supporters to show up. But Wade does have many legitimate supporters, and faced with a divided opposition, people may choose the evil that they know rather than the one they do not.
However, I believe though that if elections are transparent today, no candidate will get a majority and elections will thus advance to a second round with just two candidates, Wade and an opposition candidate. This may give the opposition the unity it has been lacking around one candidate.
I don’t want to see the hope broken for youth who have protested in this movement and tried to take charge of their democracy. I want what I want for my own country, that we believe the system can still be changed and we act to change it.
I’m off to Harlem.