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Politics under Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has come to represent a depressingly familiar picture of elite dominance and broad social inequality, writes Amy Niang. With no clear succession plan in place and the state's legitimacy continuing to erode, the absence of an institutionalised effort to achieve stability in the political system remains a salient obstacle to democratic change, argues Niang.

Politics in Senegal under President Abdoulaye Wade has always been something of a passionate wrestling of rancid tales and counter-tales. The ruling party – the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) – has the habit of accusing the opposition of sabotaging the ‘established’ democracy of the country that sent its own list of grievances to the 1789 French revolution. The opposition in its turn points to the government’s wanton contempt towards both the citizens and institutions it is supposed to preserve. While rigidly eschewing any form of dialogue with the opposition, the Wade regime never misses an opportunity to disparage efforts initiated by the latter to reflect on issues facing the country, mainly the degrading quality of life for millions of Senegalese while state functionaries ever enjoy stupendous lifestyle. Thus the nationwide consultations and dialogue (Assises Nationales), held between 1 June 2008 and 24 May 2009 and designed to institute dialogue across politics and society, were met with derision and dismissive condescension by the Wade government.

Until four years ago, claims of an orchestrated dynastical (monarchical) succession plan would have been dismissed as conflated conspiracy theory. There are inevitable lessons, however, to be learned from the recent successful coups de force from figures like Togo's Faure Gnassingbé and Gabon's Ali Bongo, to name only the most recent ones, who succeeded their fathers as the heads of their respective states. In spite of the tremendous resistance locally (protests were repressed in blood in both instances) and the international public’s outcry, the ‘monarchists’ had power, the material means and the hypocrisy of their allies on their side to carry their successional design to fruition.

Things do not seem to be going according to the octogenarian’s plan however, as the extraordinary reluctance of the Senegalese people to Wade grooming his son to succeed him seems to have shaken the confidence of both dad and son, Karim. Wade junior registered a bitter loss in the March 2009 local elections when he competed for office under the aegis of his ‘Génération du Concret’, which, while not officially a political party, has garnered all imaginable strands of opportunistic members both in Senegal and among the diaspora.

Legally, this situates creates a deadlock. Those aspects of the Senegalese constitution intended for a statute on the question of succession have been effectively atrophied. Since taking power in 2000, President Wade has fiddled with the Supreme Law a record seven times! With a national parliament dominated by a ruling majority (the opposition having boycotted the previous parliamentary elections) and a newly established senate entrusted to a class of political ‘elephants’, retrieved friends and a horde of marabouts (religious chiefs) who have traded sermons with praise songs to the benevolent 'Gorgui' ('old man', President Wade’s nickname), Wade’s got carte blanche to institute a succession. Both in parliament and the Senate, political participation has become essentially a ritual for those enjoying palatine privileges of various sorts, from trips in private jets to luxurious mansions in the much sought-after Almadies district of Dakar.

Sadly, the experience of the Senegalese state-building is a story told too many times in Africa. The rapid passage in the 1960s and 1970s from constitutions tailored along the lines of those from Westminster or French republic to rounds of military coups across Africa have become such a familiar sequence that the 'déjà vu, déjà vécu' effect has somewhat sobered the greatest of Afro-optimists.

In many places, independent heroes lasted for decades in power and ruled on the basis of an entrenched dictatorship (such as Ivory Coast's Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta and Ethiopia's Haile Selassie). As a result, the state evolved as essentially centralised without becoming necessarily a more stable entity. In Senegal, after 40 years of unbroken rule of the Socialist Party (PS), the 2000 democratic change that saw the rise of a die-hard opponent was hailed as historic, but the tremendous expectations aroused were soon to be disappointed. Nine years down the road, the state has only spoils to offer to the accomplices of the ruling party and many promises to wider society.

With frustration growing among the youth and all sectors of society, the Senegalese state thus seems to be hanging over a precarious balance. With almost an almost 90-year-old president (officially 83) addicted to power, no smooth succession plan in place, a divided opposition which is only starting to see the benefits of an eventual but highly uncertain united front, and a bankrupt state, some whisper that the military is the only opportunity structure. Was President Wade not, after all, the first head of state to embrace the pariah Moussa Dadis Camara of Guinea, becoming, in the process, his putative father? The national budget is gnawed by over 50 agencies attached in one way or another to the president's services and taking over, in effect, the prerogative of designated ministries. The Wade administration has been tumultuously eventful: with a dismal rate of change of ministerial nominations, members of the executive body seem a little more than front puppets. As a result, the state structure has been fragmented, and its legitimacy eroded.

Like any other big party made of unconnected bits of other parties, the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party’s unity, which made possible Wade’s ascendancy, was short-lived. The euphoria of a historical victory dissipated at the same time that the party started to show cracks in its unity. Where dissidents could not be co-opted or maintained with allowances or other forms of privilege, they were alienated, ostracised, smeared or jailed, from Moustapha Niasse, the rainmaker in the 2000 elections to Wade’s former Prime Ministers Idrissa Seck and Macky Sall. Wade’s legacy will not only be a record decline in democratic gains; he has also set a marked precedence for ruling parties to trample the opposition with the view to discrediting it as inept, inadequate and irrelevant. And that is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of his administration.

The implications for state-building in Senegal and similar regimes are clear: democratic change may be a prerequisite but the absence of an institutionalised effort to stabilise the system beyond the regime remains an obstacle. The Wade administration may have few days of glory left. But the damage done by his ruling style to the state-building project is immense. The nominal state has become a carcass institution with a flag and an anthem. Its leading structure is a coalition of an amorphous body made of new political aristocrats whose main characteristics are wealth and relative economic prosperity. Efforts to consolidate the democratic gains and, beyond, the institutional stability of the state are undermined by the fact that this leading aristocracy has primarily been constituted upon and derives its domination from the manipulation of state prerogatives. A direct consequence of this is the state’s inability to perform its basic administrative functions and provide for basic services to its populations. Part of Dakar and other cities are, for instance, constantly plunged in darkness due to power outages that money poured into the national power company Senelec does not seem to solve. In fact, the clientelistic tendencies of the state, while gnawing away at the state budget, also erode its capacity to invest in sustainable areas of production, and they scare investors away. The redistributive capacities of the state have suffered from the economic downturn, diminishing revenues and therefore investment in social infrastructure.


* Amy Niang is a PhD candidate at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.