Senegalese Presidential Elections: How Wade’s Attempts to Confiscate Power Failed

Throughout the world, people have demonstrated by their actions that freedom and democracy are universal concepts, and that they were determined to keep and exercise their right to choose their own leaders.  The Senegalese people have recently demonstrated their commitment by opposing Abdoulaye Wade’s plans to remain in power indefinitely and by choosing Macky Sall as their new president.

Abdoulaye Wade’s tarnished image
The 85 year old Senegalese President Wade, who was determined to go for a controversial third term, had just lost the election. At about 9:30pm GMT on Sunday March 24th, Abdoulaye Wade called rival candidate Macky Sall to concede the 2012 runoff election as preliminary results gave the latter an overwhelming lead.  Mr. Sall had held several ministry portfolios before becoming prime minister under Wade. For that, he owes his political career to Mr. Wade, but the two men fell out over the handling of public spending by Karim Wade, the president’s unpopular son mockingly called “the Minister of the Sky and the Earth”, whom many believed was being groomed to succeed his father.

In 2000, then President of Senegal Abdou Diouf lost the elections and conceded to his long time opponent Abdoulaye Wade.  Since taking power in Senegal Wade’s government has gone through several crisis, mostly mismanagement, corruption, and fund embezzlement.  Transparency and freedom of expression rights regressed under his regime.   During my trip to Senegal a few years ago, I had a chance to meet with ordinary people and learn how damaged the presidency of Mr. Wade was. Wade’s popularity had fallen amid a rising cost of living and high unemployment in Senegal. Many voters spoke simply of change, rather than of Sall’s specific credentials. President Wade’s image also suffered after he began giving an increasing share of power to his son Karim, after he was handed control of multiple ministries including infrastructure and energy. President Wade, at the last minute, tried to change Senegal’s constitution in order to remain in power.  The last straw was the announcement on November 2011 that Wade would stand for a third term despite his country’s constitutional two-term limit.  That announcement prompted fierce fights, large protests, and violence. His failures as an individual shocked Senegalese, and his positions and management style sparked outrage among educated Africans throughout the world. 

The determination of the Senegalese people
Just a year after Wade took power, a new constitution was passed in 2001 instituting a two-term limit for presidential office.  However, on November 23rd 2010, when Mr.  Abdoulaye Wade decreed that February 26, 2012 will be the date for the presidential election in Senegal; he also indicated that he would stand for a third term set at seven years by the 2001 constitution.  Mr. Wade, a lawyer himself, argued that the two-term limit should not apply to his first term which started before the constitution was changed.  His argument was ultimately upheld by the constitutional court in January 2012. Like many dictatorial regimes, hiding behind a non-independent judiciary and police forces, Abdoulaye Wade’s government had issued a ban on protesting in Dakar in response to a protest planned for 23 July 2011. Instead, protesters moved their planned demonstrations outside the city.

After the constitutional court ruling in January 2012, protests erupted the following day, buildings burned across the capital Dakar, police fired tear gas at youth demonstrators who questioned the ruling; six people died during these protests. Wade made a television appearance in which he called the protests “displays of petulance” and promised an “open” electoral campaign with “no restrictions on freedom.”  Truckloads of police in full riot gear and armed with tear gas, grenade launchers, and truncheons surrounded the presidential palace used by Wade. The protests continued into February. Riot police fired volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets in Dakar on 19 February 2012, one week before the presidential election. 

President Wade also employed another tactic, more vicious than the third term he was determined to acquire.  He wanted to adopt the process being used by President Paul Biya in Cameroon to stay in power indefinitely, which was to abolish the absolute majority of 50 % plus one votes required to win in the first round of election.  Mr. Wade tried to lower it to only 25%. These actions would fundamentally change the electoral process and bring it down to the level where he could remain in power by maneuvering to obtain just 25% of votes. Additionally, Wade sought to add the position of vice-president to his cabinet, 

Only after violent protests, Wade dropped his plans for those two constitutional changes: lowering the percentage of votes required for a first-round victory from 50% to 25% and creating the position of vice-president, which critics feared that Wade would use to ensure his re-election against a split opposition and to make his son vice-president. That was a last attempt of Abdoulaye Wade’s regime to legalize illegitimacy in Senegal.   It would have been a severe blow to democracy. That is why President Wade’s defeat is great news for Senegal and Africa.

The elections
The election itself was held without major disturbance.  In February’s first round, no candidate got more than the 50% of votes required to be declared winner.  Wade fell short of a majority, polling only 34.8% of the votes. Macky Sall came second with 26.6%, but most of the other 12 candidates backed him in the second round. The head of the European Union observer mission to Senegal, Mr. Thijs Berman, said the results were very clear, about 65% for Mr. Sall and 35% for Mr. Wade, so “there is no hesitation as to who is the winner”.  Even before Mr. Wade’s concession, thousands of Sall supporters began celebrating on the streets of Dakar, just hours after the polls closed and results started filtering over the radio waves. Mr. Sall won more than 60% of the vote. 

Post-election reactions
The congratulatory phone call to Sall, at 21:30GMT on Sunday, alleviated fears that Wade would attempt to stay in office by challenging the runoff results. In a statement released by Mr. Wade, he said: “My dear compatriots, at the end of the second round of the vote…the current results indicate that Macky Sall has won.” His spokesman Amadou Sall added: “It is the whole country that has just won … This is a big moment for democracy and President Abdoulaye Wade has respected the voice of the people.”

After President Abdoulaye Wade admitted defeat, Macky Sall spoke in front of thousands of cheering supporters in the capital Dakar.  He was sworn in on April 2nd, 2012 as the fourth President of Senegal after Leopold S. Senghor, Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade, promising to be a president for all Senegalese. In addition to the candidates, 11 heads of state attended the inauguration. Abdoulaye Wade was not in attendance. State media announced that the 85-year-old incumbent was headed to Saudi Arabia for a religious pilgrimage.

Macky Sall’s best gift to Senegal would be to strengthen the institutions of governance of his country and ensure the development of an independent judiciary and access to a free and fair justice system.  The International Institute for Justice and Development (IIJD) considers these reforms to be among the most important factors in advancing democracy, protecting human rights, and assuring sustainable development in Senegal. Only through the reform of these systems can we combat corruption, demand accountability, secure investments, and create an incentive for educated and capable citizens to contribute to their country’s future. So far, Mr. Sall has promised that he will shorten the presidential term to five years from the current seven and enforce the two-term limit. He has also promised to bring in measures to reduce the price of basic foodstuffs. However, the new president must tackle the rising unemployment and implement policies that address the needs of all Senegalese people and empower them to be masters of their own destiny.