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Monday, April 9, 2012

Two Weeks of Victory for Democracy in Senegal! (Yes, Senegal got a new President.)

By Jennifer Browning, MPA 2013

Poster of President-Elect Macky Sall as people celebrate his victory in Dakar. Benno Bokk Yaakaar means “People United with Hope” in Wolof.

(This is a follow-up to my earlier post I wrote before the elections, on February 26. You can read it here.)

Senegal has had plenty to celebrate in the past two weeks. The Senegalese elected a new President, Macky Sall; the former President Abdoulaye Wade peacefully stepped down and Sall was inaugurated on April 2; and Senegal celebrated its 52nd Independence Day two days later on April 4. Macky Sall’s election is a victory for the youth and opposition protestors who had mobilized for weeks against a questionable third term bid by President Abdoulaye Wade. With a troubling coup in Mali only a few days before (see my classmate William Vu's post on 14 Points Blog on the coup in Mali here), Senegal once again demonstrated that it is the strong, stable democratic leader of the region.

However, Sall’s victory seemed far from assured before the first round of elections on February 26, 2012. The opposition was sharply divided, so people were unsure about which candidate would finish in the top two with Wade. There was a Princeton connection: opposition candidate Idrissa Seck spent a year at Princeton University as a visiting student. When President Wade failed to win a majority and the election headed into a two-candidate run off, the opposition was able to unite around Macky Sall. Sall won the run off with 68.5% of the vote.

Celebrations erupted around Senegal. This election really does belong to the young generation in Senegal. Young people led in many cases by smart and unapologetically critical rappers and followed by more seasoned opposition leaders had been rallying for almost a year to prevent President Wade from a third term.

This video gives a taste of Senegal’s unique sabar dancing, election euphoria style!

The voting also took place in the sizeable Senegalese diaspora. In Harlem and throughout the U.S., about 10,000 Senegalese people registered to vote. At a conference before the election, Columbia University Professor and head of the U.S. DECENA (Overseas Delegation of the Autonomous National Electoral Committee- Article in French on Diagne's Appointment) Souleymane Bachir Diagne explained that the Senegalese diaspora in the U.S. is much larger than 10,000. However, DECENA had challenges convincing many Senegalese immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, to sign up to vote. Apparently immigrants were worried that they could get into trouble with U.S. immigration authorities by voting.

Another problem voters faced is that while Senegal allows for absentee voting, would-be voters must declare the location where they will vote in advance, which can pose problems if they are not sure where they will be. However, despite these challenges, many Senegalese people did vote in Harlem, and throughout the U.S.

New York City had several polling stations- this is Wadleigh Middle School in Harlem.
I visited the election polling station at Wadleigh Middle School in Harlem during the first round. Along with DECENA staff, candidate representatives were present to observe the election and speak with interested voters. People presented their national ID and voter ID cards and then voted in one of the several first floor rooms. Professor Diagne recognized that requiring two IDs seems overly cumbersome and hopefully will change. I knew one Senegalese friend who did not vote because while he had his national ID card, he had misplaced his voter ID card.

Voting Room at Wadleigh Secondary School in Harlem after a long day. The candidates are featured on cards with their pictures during the first round. In the run-off election, only President Wade, 2nd from left and Macky Sall, 4th from left remained. The magenta dye was used to mark people who had voted and reduce risk of election fraud.

A Senegalese voter in Harlem shows his national ID and voter registration ID; both are necessary to vote. His dyed red fingertip marks that he voted.

List of candidates in the first round of elections on February 26, 2012. Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall would win out with 34.8% and 26.6% of the vote, respectively.
Voter registration and identification were not solely problems for the diaspora; President Wade’s government had not made it easy for many first time voters to register. Young adults were more likely to support the opposition, and with a very young population, they were an important factor in this election.

Youssou Ndour’s candidacy was not approved by the Constitutional Court. However, this catapulted him into a position of leadership of the opposition. President Macky Sall named Youssou Ndour his Minister of Culture. What many in the West do not realize is that in addition to being a world music star, Youssou is a very successful businessmen who has re-invested in Senegal, first creating a club where he performs most weekends when in town and then expanding to radio station, television channel, and music studio. While the Senegalese may not have been ready to make him President, they deeply appreciate his dedication to working in Senegal.

Macky Sall (left) and Youssou Ndour (right) at a public concert on April 3, 2012 in Dakar to celebrate President Sall’s inauguration.
Youssou Ndour’s decision to open another media outlet is also indicative of the exploding television outlets in Africa. If people are unsatisfied with the government controlled television coverage, they can simply switch to another channel. This proved very important in Senegal’s elections. In the first major protests against President Wade on June 23, 2011, many television stations actively covered center of events in front of the National Assembly building. However, if viewers had only had access to the RTS (the national television station), they may have believed that instead of the largest protests that their nation had seen in a decade, the main event that day was some renovation of the façade of the National Assembly building because that was all the RTS showed. They never turned their cameras to take footage of the thousands of protestors in front of the Assembly’s gates. In marked contrast, Youssou Ndour’s channel, (Télévision Futurs Médias) like several other private channels, featured breaking news and interviews with the protest’s leaders, ensuring that people were kept informed.

The RTS covers the incoming election results. If viewers wanted a more animated reporting, they had to switch to another channel.

Youssou Ndour may have grabbed headlines when he announced his Presidential bid on his own television station. However, the most influential musicians of election season have been rappers who started the movement “Y en a marre” (“We’ve had enough/ We are fed up”). Many young people in Senegal look up to rappers and hip hop artists who offer a witty critical commentary on society and politics. This activist critique of the status quo is largely absent from the type of music Youssou Ndour pioneered, mbalax.

Y en a marre is an ambitious movement that envisions an active citizenry pushing a transformation of Senegalese democracy. Professor Rosalind Fredericks described how Y en a marre even established “esprits” or groups with community discussions in neighborhoods where women and people of all ages participate actively. The rappers often served as spokesmen of the opposition even though they were not running for office. They used media and social network technology to mobilize people, especially youth.

Now that Y en a marre succeeded in thwarting Wade’s grab for a third term, the question is what next. In the past few weeks, cultural organizations have visibly funded several events but surely others outside of the foreign-funded cultural institutions have been organized. I think they are the expression of a real need and desire present in Senegal to celebrate but also to understand what happened and to ensure a future to the movement. As the poster on the left below has scrawled across it, “Résister, c’est le début de la victoire/Resistance is the beginning of victory.” But it is only a beginning.

Posters for events on the election protests. In the left poster, rapper, filmmaker, and intellectual Awadi is featured in a victory pose. At the event, he will speak with Thiat, a leader of Y en a marre and a rapper in the group Keur Gui and other intellectuals.

Macky Sall now has the privilege of being at the helm in a country where his people have laid out a hopeful, ambitious vision of the future. However, he surely also must know that if he falls short, if he too starts to overstep his power, there is a young generation that can mobilize to defend their democracy.

In the U.S., we too have elections approaching. I think my generation here has much to learn from our counterparts in Senegal. For democracy and freedom need vigilance and action. Otherwise, we risk losing it all.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Swift and Proper Action Vital to Mali’s Crisis

By William Vu, MPA 2013

The precipitous turns that the country of Mali and its citizens have experienced over the past two weeks have stood in stark contrast to what has been perceived as a stable democracy in the West African region. It has seeped all the joy that was witnessed by Macky Sall’s democratic yet arduous pathway to power last weekend in Senegal.

The infighting between the Malian government and the army has resulted in a Tuareg rebellion by those from the MNLA to reclaim the northern frontier of Mali as the territory of Azawad. The ranks of rebels had swelled from returning fighters from Libya, and this served as the initial catalyst to this rebellion. As of this post, the rebels have succeeded in claiming the strategic towns of Gao, Kidal, and most recently the well-known, ancient town of Timbuktu, where the military held its biggest garrison.

While some may characterize it as the new “African Spring,” the apparent impetus for the coup was the government’s inability to provide soldiers with sufficient resources and ammunition to meet the rebels in the north. This led to a humiliating defeat for the army and a forced retreat. Escalating tensions finally reached a head between the army and the civilian government, and on March 21, President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) was ousted from power by a military junta. In the interim, stepped Captain Amadou Sanogo.
Ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré

Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo

At that moment, leaders from all African nations and especially those in the region must have been on the edge of their seats. Although the rebellion had been in full swing for a couple months and reports of soldiers’ complaints against the government had surfaced, the thoughts of a coup would have been far-fetched. Democracy and stability were synonymous with Mali for two decades, a period of time that the track records that countries in the region have failed to emulate (i.e. Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone). It would be a stretch to say democracy was flourishing or that its citizens were completely satisfied with ATT and his government. There were still wide reports of rampant corruption and mismanagement, but relative to the rest of the region, Mali had served as an exemplar.

Furthermore, the presidential election was expected to take place in a little over a month before the coup began, on April 29th, with ATT expecting to leave office to make way for a new candidate. Such seamless political transitions are an oddity, given several West African leaders’ pre-disposure to extend their terms beyond the limits defined in their constitutions.  Yet with a twist of irony, ATT, who was a military officer himself, would be sacked by the same mechanism that brought him to power two decades earlier, a coup. 

Since Captain Sanogo and the junta have moved into power, the regional bloc of nations, Ecowas and the international community have failed to recognize their legitimacy. They have threatened the junta with financial sanctions, freezing of assets and the closure of land borders. As these sanctions take form, it is likely that their implementation will cripple the economy, especially since the nation’s petrol is imported. There have been reports also that commercial banks are limiting the withdrawal of funds up to $1000, as clients brace for the sanctions.

What might have been conceived as a plot to take over the reins of the government and install a military government has now turned into a chess match, with what concessions Ecowas and the civilian government are willing to offer the junta. Faced with the daily cascade of victories by the Tuaregs and the regional pressure to bow down, Captain Sanogo said on Sunday, that the junta would restore the nation’s constitution, and “organize free, open, and democratic elections” that the military will not participate in. This latter point is central because it is necessary that responsibility be returned to the civilian government. However, the military has still not offered a timeline for departure.

Taureg rebels captured control of major cities in northern Mali following the coup
Map of Mali

In the midst of all this internal turmoil between the President and the military, three discernible things have occurred: (1) The MNLA have gained control of the north, with more citizens likely to be caught in the crossfire as the fighting continues,  (2) the government remains in a state of confusion, (3) and finally the coup and the rebellion will only weaken the government’s ability to deal with the projected food crisis as the hot season approaches.

It is unsure how (1) and (2) will unfold, but it is necessary that the military and civilian government find a swift compromise. Each day that the civilian government and junta fail to find common ground, another day the Tuareg rebellion advances. Assuming that the leaders of the MNLA will not cease fighting unless they gain recognition of their independent homeland, Ecowas and the international community will have to send in reinforcements if they want to preserve the territorial integrity of Mali. Even if the Malian army reconciles its differences with the government, it appears that external military assistance will be necessary given the Malian army’s recent spate of defeats and the MNLA’s unlikeness to compromise. This is a struggle that could last for weeks, if not for months. Hopefully not for years.

(3) Finally, the event that might cause the biggest crisis is the projected food shortage. Some 13 million people in the Sahel region are facing food insecurity in 2012 as poor rains and locust attacks led to a drop in cereal production of 25 percent. Furthermore, over 200,000 people have been displaced since January with many fleeing to neighboring countries. With the conflict, the disruption of local and cross-border food markets have limited food supplies and increased prices, and it is expected that the lives and livelihoods of 3.5 million Malians were to be affected – even before the coup unfolded. Instability in the region will only aggravate the food insecurity. It is imperative that humanitarian aid continues to be ensured and that it reaches the north where the fighting is occurring. If not the stockpiles of dead bodies from starvation might dwarf those killed in any conflict.

As I periodically refresh my computer’s browser, my sense of optimism that a quick resolution between the military and the civilian government remains cautious. In no case is timing more of the essence, as the government and military not only have to deal with the Tuareg rebellion, but the impending food crisis. My thoughts drift not only to the soldier who steps upon the battlefield, but the mother who heads to the market and finds that food prices have increased beyond her budget. Thus, I can only hope that the actors in this show will make the proper decisions and soon…