Senegal’s Democracy at the Crossroads

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The pursuit of a third term in office by Senegal’s octogenarian president, Adboulaye Wade, is in clear defiance of a constitutional change he himself enacted. It highlights once again the difficulties of framing effective international responses to nonmilitary, but nonetheless illegitimate, attempts by heads of state to hold onto power. Wade’s decision was approved on Friday by Senegal’s highest court, the Constitutional Council, and led to rioting in the capital, Dakar, and other towns and cities. The court’s decision came as no surprise: its five members had been picked by the president himself.

Whereas military force was once the favored method of launching illegal power grabs in Africa, big men are turning to less violent but no less subtle arts; tinkering with constitutions, leaning on judges, and chipping away at independent institutions. By doing so, they are exploiting the difficulties outside actors appear to face in responding robustly to their cynical maneuvers. The African Union deserves credit for taking a consistently tough diplomatic line on military coups d’état in the likes of Mauritania, Guinea, Madagascar, and most recently, Côte d’Ivoire. But it has struggled to find the policy tools to respond to the so-called constitutional coup. This shortcoming was recently exposed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where President Joseph Kabila set the stage for electoral victory a full 11 months before November’s presidential polls. He did so by bulldozing through Parliament a constitutional change that reduced the contest to one round, thereby granting him a huge advantage over the crowded field of competitors. His actions barely drew a response from the international community, which viewed the amendment as an internal matter.

President Wade tried to engage in a similar bout of constitutional tinkering in June last year. His proposal would have reduced the minimum requirement for outright victory in presidential elections from 50 percent to 25 percent of the vote. More importantly, it would have created a new post of vice president. This was a red flag to Wade’s opponents, who feared he was intent on securing a “dynastic succession” for his son Karim and wished to use this newly created position as a vehicle for propelling him to the presidency, upon either his own retirement or death in office. On this occasion, Wade’s efforts were rebuffed by an unprecedented outburst of grassroots opposition from political parties, civil society activists, and young people. Stung by the response, Wade withdrew the proposal. It was not long, however, before his self-assurance returned. Wade declared his intention to stand for a third term in office, going back on an earlier promise not to do so, and—more importantly—apparently contravening Senegal’s constitution. The constitution, amended in 2001, shortly after Wade took office, states that presidents should serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. Wade is coming to the end of his second but argues that the constitution should not be applied retroactively.

So far, the international response has been muted. The African Union, which would be expected to take the lead on such matters, has yet to make any public statement about the affair. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has expressed concern about rising tensions in Senegal but said nothing about the democratic process itself. In the United States, a senior State Department official initially described the decision by Senegal’s Constitutional Council as “a bit regrettable.” That response was later beefed up by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who remarked that Wade’s candidacy put at risk Senegal’s reputation as a bastion of stability and democracy in a region of Africa that until recently was synonymous with autocratic rule and political turbulence. A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry expressed his country’s opposition to “any use of the justice system for political ends.”

Can anything be done to keep Senegal’s democracy on track? Unfortunately, time is short, with elections scheduled for February 26. Furthermore, now that Wade is officially a candidate, the chances of finding a face-saving solution that would allow him to make a dignified exit appear to have receded. The onus now shifts to the election itself. First, Senegal’s opposition needs to consolidate in order to maximize its chances of delivering an unambiguous electoral defeat to Wade. The current field of 13 is too wide and fails to match the focus and verve shown by Senegal’s grassroots anti-Wade campaigns, the youth-dominated M23 and Y’en a Marre (Enough is Enough) movements. In the run-up to polling day, close scrutiny of Senegal’s electoral institutions will also be required in order to ensure they conduct their work without interference. The role of international election monitors will be critical.

In terms of outside pressure, moral force can be exerted on Wade by leaders in the region whose opinions he respects, such as Mali’s president Amadou Toumani Touré and Côte d'Ivoire’s president Alassane Ouattara. Perhaps a role could be played by the former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who reportedly was once urged to drop his own ambitions for a third term by none other than President Wade. The United States can bring economic pressure to bear. Senegal is the recipient of a grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation worth more than $500 million over five years. Wade has to be told in no uncertain terms that his antics are putting his country’s economic health at risk.

One has to hope that Senegal’s hard-won reputation for democracy, free speech, peaceful dialogue, and institutional integrity can be preserved. But there is no doubt that it is facing the greatest test of its democratic life. Now that the problem of Wade’s eligibility for office has been overcome, thanks to his friends on the Constitutional Council, it looks increasingly likely that the question of whether he will be able to retain office will be settled on the street. A spokesman for the M23 movement has vowed to make Senegal “ungovernable” if Wade does not step down. If the ongoing street protests are anything to go by, Senegal could be in for a period of prolonged instability.

Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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