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The most salient outcome of the presidential elections in Senegal is a heightened, irreversible sense of empowerment; the notion that ordinary people constitute the first and most important institution in a democracy.

After months of tension, fuelled by ex-President Abdoulaye Wade’s obstinate bid for a third term, there is a great sigh of relief that Senegal has managed peacefully to elect a new president. Most Western countries and international representations had advised their nationals and employees to pack and leave before the country collapsed into post-electoral chaos. But Wade’s positive reaction to Macky Sall’s victory helped diffuse the sort of violence and disorder many observers had predicted.

So Senegal gets to keep its ‘triple A rating’ as an experienced democracy despite an unprecedented violent election season that has left more than six people dead. Wade is known to be a wily old fox and an avowedly strategic politician, but he seems to have got it wrong this time around. His ‘constitutional coup’ was thwarted by popular determination, starkly expressed in the commanding victory of Macky Sall (known simply as ‘Macky’). Wade recognised his defeat in a dignified fashion as early results showed that his former protégé had trounced him. The smooth change brings hope in a West African sub-region beset by coups (such as the recent one initiated by mutinous soldiers in Mali).

Senegal’s relatively ‘free and fair’ elections are good news in an unstable region but how long will we continue praising and applauding African leaders for stepping down after a defeat? In the end, Wade had no choice but to leave. As with the elections in 2000, private radio, TV stations and news websites meticulously reported the results live as they came out from every local polling station. Half an hour after the vote closed on 25 March, the results were instantly relayed via Twitter and Facebook. It soon became clear that Sall had notched up a clear majority in mainly densely populated urban centres as well as with the Diaspora. It would have therefore been difficult for the government to manipulate or create confusion around the results. In this sense, the media contributed tremendously to making the elections more transparent.

Wade is seen as having conspicuously failed in upholding the ideal for which he was elected in 2000. Sall’s victory was, in some respects, a welcome opportunity for a dignified exit by a battered octogenarian president constrained by the distributional demands of party comrades and private interests. The hoped-for ‘Senegalese spring’ did in the end happen, but through the polls. What Sall’s victory demonstrates is that people’s belief in the voting card can be a powerful weapon against bad leaders. In a country where an ineffective judiciary has perpetuated a culture of impunity, elections remain crucial in advancing popular aspirations for justice and economic improvement. Sall’s victory is the result of a long civic war that has resisted the manoeuvrings of Wade and his party. Although Sall has worked hard in the past four years, travelling across rural Senegal, sympathising with farmers’ plight and reaching out to grassroots organisations, his landslide victory is, more than anything, a sanction against the Wade regime. The most salient outcome of the elections is a heightened, irreversible sense of empowerment, the notion that ordinary people constitute the first and most important institution in a democracy.


The expectations of the Senegalese in the aftermath of Macky’s election are extraordinary, but they are tantamount to the challenges that face the country in all sectors. The educational system is being crippled by a very long teachers’ strike and it is not even clear whether the school year can still be saved. Macky has inherited a heavily indebted and bankrupt state (public debt is about 35 percent of the gross national product). He will have to ride roughshod over private and party interests in order to become the ‘president of all Senegalese’ as he’s promised.

The Senegalese have already been deceived by a man whose ascent to power held tremendous promises for change (Sopi). One of the greatest tests for Macky will be his attitude to corruption on the one hand, and respect for the conclusions of the Assises Nationales — a nation-wide consultation amongst opposition parties, civil society groups and the wider population on political and economic governance, institutional stability and the need for a separation between the executive, the legislative body and the judiciary. The return of open political dialogue will depend on the ability of the PDS (Senegalese Democratic Party), Wade’s party, to compel its highly mobilised and radical elements to return to a measure of orthodoxy from which they have been aroused by their desperate attempt to cling on to power.

The Senegalese expect Macky to be bold enough to bring to justice those who have mismanaged or swindled public money. He will have to prove his detractors wrong; they say that he doesn’t stick his neck out enough. Macky has got to prove that he has not only broken with the practices associated with Wade’s rule, namely an egomaniacal style, a clientalist model between politicians and the religious leadership (the marabouts) who trade their support for money and privileges, the omnipresence of family in state affairs, and the banalisation of institutions. It is hoped that the election of Macky may well signal the end of the personality cult of the president, in the sense that Macky will be under much greater scrutiny throughout his term.

Wade ruled Senegal as a monarch so it was only natural for him to want to hand over to his son Karim. His rule had come to install Senegal in a permanent psychosis whereby the tyranny of the political clock trumped all priorities. More crucially, Macky is expected to break with the phenomenon of ‘transhumance’ whereby members of a defeated party join the winner of an election in order to keep their privileges, which vitiates the rules of the political competition and make a mockery of people’s choice. In a nutshell, what is expected of him is a new form of governance, a more ethical approach to public money and a return to political orthodoxy.

Unlike Wade in 2000, Macky’s honeymoon period will be short as demands in terms of the resolution of pressing issues such as the cost of basic goods can no longer be deferred. There is high order placed on redressing flouted institutions, on the reinstatement of accountability and virtue in public management, on the restoration of social cohesion endangered by Wade’s demagogic politics. The question is how to establish trust, or restore it where it has fallen apart? How do you heal a bruised, divided country?

The tasks that lie ahead are enormous, not least because the resolution of the Casamance conflict can no longer be postponed. The low turnout in the south of Senegal is nothing more than a result of continued isolation due to the low-intensity, but destabilising, conflict that has plagued the region for over 30 years. It is thus a reflection of disaffection; the people of Casamance have learned to expect very little from elections, they are inured to unmet promises from Senegalese politicians. In 2000, a newly elected Wade had promised to resolve the conflict within 100 days. 12 years and thousands of victims later, hundreds killed or maimed by antipersonnel mines, many having deserted their villages to escape violence, ransoms and other exactions, forgotten Casamance, once the breadbasket of Senegal, has been dying a slow death. On 25 March, in the department of Bignona and other parts of Casamance, rebel incursions disrupted the vote and precluded the fair expression of people’s preference.


Macky’s reputation is that of a quiet, discreet strategist and competent technocrat. These are qualities he will need in order to run a country where the cost of living has spiralled in the last 10 years whilst salaries have remained low. Wade’s hazardous, erratic style of governance with no clear policies was responsible for his poor record. More than any previous president, he invested the most in education but had very little success in actually improving it. Despite 40 per cent of the government’s budget supposedly being put into education, the sector has never been in worse shape. On the other hand, he used scare public resources for prestige projects: an African Renaissance statue (£22 million) and a private jet, whilst the country was plunged in darkness for months because of an unprecedented crisis in the energy sector.

Macky is also well known to the Senegalese public. He ascended through the ranks of the PDS thanks to Wade. A geological engineer by training, he was several times minister (2000-2004) and prime minister (2004-2007) under Wade, then president of the National Assembly before the big fall-out that motivated him to create his own party in 2008, the Alliance for the Republic (APR). The rebellious protégé had had the audacity to summon the president’s son Karim to account for a colossal 300 per cent budget overrun in the management of infrastructural works he was in charge of.

Wade’s 12 years have been marred by numerous corruption scandals, improper tender procedures involving his ministers, particularly his son, who held the largest portfolio in the last government. Despite having put in place one of the best reforms in the area of tenders and public procurement, recurrent nebulous practices under Wade have weakened the legal monitoring structure and made a mockery of the reforms. Wade amended the constitution 15 times between 2000 and 2011. The last straw was an attempt, in June 2011, to impose a law that would not only allow him to be elected with only 25 percent of the vote, but also to carry to fruition his ultimate plan to hand over power to Karim. This was thwarted by an extraordinary popular mobilisation that never subsided and was to eventually lead to his demise.

From 85 year old Wade to 51 year old Macky, there is a definite change in generation taking place. Furthermore, unlike previous Senegalese presidents, Macky was educated in Senegal and he has a good knowledge and experience of the country. The Senegalese want radical change however, but they are unlikely to see very much of that. Having been trained in Wade’s liberal school and indebted to a large coalition of politicians, the most important of which symbolise ossified politics and old practices – Moustapha Niasse, Ousmane Tanor Dieng, Abdoulaye Bathily, Amath Dansokho and many others, Macky will most likely have to compromise on principles.

So there might not be much change after change (Sopi), but there is hope (Yakaar) for a better future. And to celebrate hope, Youssou N’dour has promised a series of free concerts throughout Senegal. As an entrance ticket, he wants to see a ballot paper bearing Wade’s photo collected from the dustbins of polling stations.


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* Amy Niang is a Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand

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