In Senegal

Ken Silverstein

In a few weeks the Supreme Court of Senegal will reach a decision in the case of Abdoulaye Wade. At issue is whether the 85-year-old president, first elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2007, will be allowed to stand in February for election to a constitutionally prohibited third term. His case – not unlike that of Bush v. Gore – will be decided by a court of five judges, all of whom he appointed.

In October I got a glimpse of Wade’s Senegal. I was staying at a four-storey hotel in Dakar, and from the restaurant on the roof it was possible to imagine that this was a modern city in a developed nation. People were strolling along the corniche, palm trees lined the beach and cars were bustling down a newly renovated four-lane coastal road. Take the road south and it winds along to Lagon, a waterfront restaurant that caters to the traditional French and Lebanese elites and the new Dakar bourgeoisie that has grown up on sweetheart government contracts. Brass plaques on the wall identify past diners: Senegal’s last two presidents, several European heads of state and celebrities like Sting and Christy Turlington.

Northwards along the coastal road, set high on a hill, is the garish 49-metre-high African Renaissance Monument. Inaugurated in 2010, the gigantic bronze statue depicts a woman standing beside a man who holds a child aloft, the trio resolutely facing the sea. From there an intersecting road leads to the Pointe des Almadies, a rich neighbourhood at Africa’s westernmost tip and home to the Le Méridien President, a hotel with 35 hectares of gardens, a nine-hole golf course and tennis courts, all beside a sprawling beach.

Just a few blocks back from the coast Dakar turns into a series of shanty towns, their wooden and concrete shacks topped by tin roofs. Clusters of street vendors peddle clothing, spices, fish, pots and pans and anything else they can sell. In October the country was preparing for Eid al-Adha, and thousands of sheep were trucked from the countryside, where the poverty is far worse and agriculture is all but dead. In the colonial era, the French sent even subsistence farming into decline when they started bringing in rice from Vietnam that was more to their taste. The cultivation of manioc, previously the chief staple crop, was curbed, and now most Senegalese eat imported rice. Much of the rural population has poured into Dakar or its miserable, unplanned satellite cities.

What’s happened in Senegal during the past few decades is not very different from what’s happened elsewhere in Africa. Policies pushed by the IMF and World Bank have slashed government spending, increased unemployment and cut food and other subsidies for the poor. On paper there’s economic growth, yet in practice it’s meant that the rich are richer and the poor poorer. But unlike most of Africa, Senegal has a history of electoral democracy unbroken since its independence in 1960, and it’s the only country in mainland West Africa never to have endured a period of military rule or witnessed an attempted coup. Wade’s insistence that he should be allowed to run for a third term has ignited a diverse opposition that believes its protests can force the court to reject the president’s legal request – last June Wade had to withdraw an electoral reform bill tied to his re-election bid in the face of widespread protests and rioting.

The first president of Senegal was Léopold Sédar Senghor, a poet and intellectual who served from independence until 1980. A leftist who promoted an indigenous socialism, not Marxism, he took power as the head of a one-party state but in the 1970s opened the system up to other parties. He was succeeded in 1980 by Abdou Diouf, his prime minister. Over the years the Socialists became entrenched and unpopular, in part because of the neo-liberal reforms Diouf implemented, under pressure from France and the US, in the early 1990s. Wade, a lawyer, emerged as the opposition leader. He was arrested for his part in protests that followed the 1988 election, but he and his Senegalese Democratic Party won the 2000 vote, and Diouf handed over power without incident.

Wade’s presidency has been tarnished by allegations of corruption and attempts to restrict Senegal’s democracy. Constitutional amendments from the 1990s imposed a two-term limit on the presidency. A new constitution ratified in 2001 kept the limit with some alterations. Wade contends that since he’s only been elected once under the new constitution he can run again, an argument rejected by most Senegalese legal scholars. The population is also angry about his lavish spending on ‘prestige projects’ like a new $450 million airport and the $27 million, North Korean-built African Renaissance Monument, described by an opposition politician as an ‘economic monster and a financial scandal’, the scandal compounded by Wade’s claim that as the monument’s intellectual architect, he was entitled to 35 per cent of all tourist profits it generated.

Wade’s efforts to promote his son, Karim, and connive a way to have him become the next president, have stirred further anger. The bill that Wade withdrew in June would have changed the electoral system so that the president and vice president ran together on the same ticket. It was widely assumed that Wade hoped to put his son on the ticket and then step aside to leave Karim the presidency. Raised and educated in France, Karim is seen as a dilettante with little connection to his own country. He has worked as an investment banker with UBS Warburg in Paris and London. Two years ago he was roundly defeated in the race for mayor of Dakar. His father then appointed him to head a new super-ministry that controls 40 per cent of the national budget.

A US Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks reported that in 2008, while serving as the head of a government organisation that ran an international Islamic conference in Dakar, Karim ‘oversaw the construction of a number of high profile infrastructure projects … it is widely believed that Karim has embezzled a significant amount of funds. In the diplomatic community, Karim is now known as Mr Fifteen Percent.’

Something like three-quarters of Senegal’s population is under the age of 30, and jobs for young people are hard to come by. Mamadou Cisse, an employee at the hotel where I was staying, makes the equivalent of £80 a month. He pays about a quarter of that in rent, and there’s little left after he buys food, cooking fuel and gasoline for his moto. When I told him I wanted to visit the African Renaissance Monument, he scoffed. ‘You see how people live here,’ he said. ‘Wade shouldn’t have spent one single CFA on that.’

Dakar can be a chaotic city, but there is a tradition of tolerance that is rare in West Africa. Traffic jams are common but drivers actually respect traffic lights. Small brooms are often attached to the bottoms of taxis, which, though not the most efficient form of street sweeping, indicates a certain civic pride. This sort of spirit is also seen in Senegal’s politics. The armed forces are more or less invisible and have remained firmly under civilian control since independence.

At a press conference after his re-election in 2007, Wade acknowledged that the constitution barred him from running again: ‘I tell you sincerely that I cannot make a bid for another term of office.’ Last July, he told supporters that he was reneging on his promise: ‘I said it, I can take it back.’ Protests have been simmering ever since. On 20 October, a court in Dakar sentenced Malick Noel Seck, a young oppositionist, to two years in prison for writing an open letter to the head of the Constitutional Court: ‘Wade must fall, Senegal’s honour demands it! We have come to you to show our resentment and hold you responsible for our daily suffering.’ A few days later I attended a rally in support of Seck in an auditorium near Independence Square. Hundreds of people sat in folding chairs, others stood. A crowd of young people standing at the back of the stage wore T-shirts adorned with a red rose, the symbol of the Socialist Party, and the slogan ‘Free Malick Noel Seck.’ Senegal’s youth led the movement that swept Wade into office and now they’re back on the street trying to push him out.

If Wade is allowed to run, he’ll enjoy several advantages. The state-run media relentlessly promote him. He also has strong support from marabouts, Islamic religious leaders whose influence is strong in rural areas. Serigne Mbaye Thiam, a top official in the Socialist Party, told me that during the 2007 campaign he went to a village where a marabout spoke in support of the Socialist candidate. Two days later, the government sent funds to the marabout to complete the construction of a long-stalled mosque, and soon thereafter delivered him an SUV. The marabout quickly switched his support to Wade. As the cable released by WikiLeaks put it, ‘Senegalese elections are largely about money’ and ‘broad constituencies can be “bought off’ through patronage.’

The opposition to Wade is split several ways by ideology and ambition; none of the announced candidates has deep support. The Socialist Party has partly succeeded in rebuilding its tarnished image, but its candidate won less than 14 per cent of the vote in 2007. If no candidate wins 50 per cent in the first round of balloting, the top two contenders move on to a second and decisive round. Wade is likely to finish first in the initial round – even if he is crushed in Dakar and other urban areas, he retains support in the countryside – but it’s highly unlikely he’ll get the outright majority needed to avoid a runoff. If the opposition unites in the second round, it has a good chance of beating him. The episode has roused a lethargic democracy. ‘People put a lot of hope in Wade,’ Penda Mbow, a historian, said to me. ‘Now we see that we also need to control the politicians who we elect.’