Celebrations broke out in Senegal yesterday evening as it became apparent that Macky Sall had comprehensively beaten the incumbent president, Abdoulaye Wade, in the election run-off.
Soon after, as chants of "na dem na dem na dema dema dem!" (Wolof for ‘let him go, let him go, let him go go go!’) rang out in the capital Dakar, Wade, to his great credit, conceded defeat in a congratulatory telephone call to Macky Sall.
The stream of results from the day’s voting had revealed that Sall was far ahead of his 85-year-old rival, and, as it became clear what the final result would be, people took the streets in celebration across the country.
Many Senegalese had been calling for ‘anyone but Wade’ and yesterday, millions got what they had wanted.
Although official results from the largely peaceful elections are not due to be released until later this week, early results suggest that there was a high turnout and that Sall’s victory was extensive, beating Wade in even Wade’s own home constituency.
The incumbent was increasingly seen as an illegitimate, out-of-touch and self-serving leader desperate to hold onto power – for at least long enough to ensure his son Karim as his successor.
Many saw his ambitious infrastructural projects as vanity projects, unlikely to confer benefits onto ordinary Senegalese who are suffering from rising food prices and high unemployment. And Wade’s very decision to run for a third term had triggered widespread demonstrations months previously.
Numerous anti-Wade protest movements have emerged and, following the first round of the elections, virtually all defeated opposition candidates rallied behind Sall in a bid to oust the incumbent.
With few political options, Wade was forced to court religious leaders such as the powerful Mouride Brotherhood, woo regional leaders such as those in the troublesome Casamance region in the country's south, and try to mobilise more voters to the polls. It seems his efforts were matched, if not surpassed, by his opponent.
Overall, the smooth running of the elections and Wade’s acknowledgement of defeat marks a great success for Senegal, for Africa and for democracy. This cannot be over-emphasised.
But now, as Senegal heralds in a new dawn, many are wondering just how different tomorrow will be. Just how fresh a breath of air will Macky Sall, Wade’s former protégé, really be? Has democracy – the least bad political system –simply led, this time around, to the election of the least bad candidate of the two?
“Macky” – as he is popularly referred to – is 35 years younger than his defeated opponent, but is by no means new to the political arena. He climbed the political ladder quickly as a young man, occupying numerous ministerial portfolios in his rise to become prime minister in 2004 – all under the guidance of Wade.
In 1983, a 21-year-old Macky voted for Wade and by 2000, when Wade finally unseated the socialist party at his fourth try, Macky was standing firmly by his side. By the next election in 2007, Macky was leading his master’s successful campaign for re-election as President.
It was shortly after the 2007 election, however, that the Wade-Sall partnership began to unravel.
Asked who might succeed his as president a term from now, Wade – with his disciple sitting next to him – reportedly responded “I don’t see anybody around me”.
Perhaps sensing that he was not next-in-line to the throne, Macky soon after summoned Karim Wade (Wade’s son and intended next-in-line) to explain inconsistencies in the financial reports of the infrastructural projects he was managing. The Wade-Sall relationship suffered irreparable damage and Sall resigned in 2008, after his position, speaker of the national assembly, was neutered.
This turned out to be a good move on Sall’s part and he has made a number of promises on taking office. To begin with, he has vowed to reduce presidential terms back down to five years from seven, as Wade did in 2000 before un-amending his amendment in 2008.
Sall has also said that he will tackle the “several emergencies” facing the country. These include Senegal’s “dramatic public finance situation”, food shortages in the north and unemployment.
The president-elect plans to cut some 20 ministerial positions, thus halving the size of government, and reduce Senegal’s overseas diplomatic representation. The savings will be used to lower the prices of basic goods.
And Sall also hinted that Wade and his family could face prosecution on charges of corruption. Asked about Wade’s future if he were to lose, Sall responded “Senegal is a democracy after all, with rules and laws”.
Although arguably elected more for who he is not than for who he is, Sall will have a lot of political capital when he takes office on April 1.
He was carried to victory by a strong coalition of anti-Wade politicians and widespread popular support.
This political coalition may not last long, however, and it is unlikely Sall will be able to hold it together as a ruling force. Sall’s most important opposition backers in the run-off – Moustapha Niasse, Idrissa Seck, and Ousmane Tanor Dieng – all have histories of fierce rivalry and discord with Macky. And Seck made it clear early on that any coalition with Sall would be temporary, his spokesperson insisting that "if Sall wins, Seck will resume his job as part of the opposition".
Sall’s popular backing by ordinary Senegalese may also have a time limit given the severity of the country’s problems. Unemployment is estimated to be at nearly 50%, about 54% are below the poverty line amidst rising food prices, and the literacy rate of 39% is one of the worst in the world. Sall will not want to test Senegal’s patience.
He will be hoping that his extensive experience at the highest echelons of power, especially as prime minister and speaker of the national assembly, has given him the requisite know-how and skills to get his bills passed by parliament promptly and effectively.
Sall’s experience at the top of the political pyramid and as Wade’s right hand man, however, will have brought with it not only a technical understanding of the Senegal’s political system, but an understanding of its shadier inner-workings.
Some, for example, believe that although Senegal may have got the ‘anyone but Wade’ it wished for, they got the next closest thing.
For instance, Toby Leon Moorsom has questioned why Sall’s campaign has been very quiet on Senegal’s booming mining sector. Is it despite, or perhaps because of, the fact Sall was Minister of Mines when the government struck a number of deals with foreign mining companies known to be involved in human rights abuses and severe ecological damage, and known for making vast profits?
Moorsom suggests that Sall’s “past actions show him to have been a key ally of the global one per cent”.
For the moment, Senegal is rightly celebrating a successful election that has sent positive signals to its neighbours. Similarly, Wade’s decision to step down graciously and the international praise he has received for doing so will hopefully be noticed by other entrenched leaders across the continent.
It is too early to predict whether Macky will prove himself to simply be a younger version of Wade. But, if there is one thing we have learnt from the way Senegal has gone about the election, it is that if Macky does show himself to be as out-of-touch as Wade, Senegal’s citizenry will rally together once again when the opportunity comes to send Macky the way of his predecessor.
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