Senegal’s Elections: ‘Hare’ Trigger for Wider Political Turbulence in West Africa?

Despite initial expectations that incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade would remain firmly in place for a third term after Senegal’s February 26 elections, Wade was unable to garner the 50% of votes required to avoid a run-off. With just 34.8%, the president has accepted that the high-stakes race will now go to a second round. The official outcome for the first round of Senegal’s elections will be announced March 2; the run-off will be held three weeks later. The thirteen opposition candidates have been reduced to one—Macky Sall, who took 26.6% of votes—and the possibility of Wade’s ouster is more likely.

Sall is one of three challengers who were at one time appointed prime minister by Wade, and later removed from office by him. The president himself is a twice-elected octogenarian who has managed to run for an unconstitutional third term in what is perhaps Francophone West Africa’s most stable country. After examination of Wade’s candidacy, the Senegalese Constitutional Council ruled that the two-term limit did not apply in Wade’s case, because it was introduced only during his second term. The Constitutional Council is Senegal’s highest judicial authority, and is intended to check the executive and legislative branches of government. Like the United States’ Supreme Court, justices are appointed by the president – in the case of the present Council, all sitting judges were appointed by Wade. Although Senegal’s democracy is relatively liberal within the region, Wade treads the well-worn (and arguably Mugabe-blazed) path of opposition-leader-turned-strongman, and is known in Senegal as “The Hare” – an animal evocative of slyness, like the fox in Western cultures.

Some of these same former prime ministers (including Sall) are supporters of Senegal’s M23 resistance movement, which was born of protests against power cuts and inflation. M23 turned overtly political (and gained its name) in June 2011 when Wade submitted a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow a candidate to win the presidency with a 25% plurality, versus the 50% requirement, without a run-off election. The failed proposal was seen as a method of ensuring Wade’s extended tenure, and facilitating a dynastic transfer of power to his son, current energy minister Karim Wade. Karim is expected to be chosen as vice-president should his father remain president: Paris-educated, and with a decade of private-sector experience in London, Karim has commanded high-ranking posts in Senegal’s government. Yet he failed to win the race for mayor of Dakar in 2009, and has managed to escape legal scrutiny for numerous corruption allegations against him (unlike some less lucky colleagues, including those so bold as to question the extent of President Wade’s power within the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS).)

In a somewhat astounding move, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo traveled to Senegal on February 21, to mediate between Wade and opposition groups—both politicians, and protesters—after clashes that had become both violent and deadly. In 2007, Obasanjo himself had tried to extend term limits in Nigeria but failed as he came under fire from other African leaders. Adding to voices of leadership becoming less tolerant of overstayed welcomes in higher office, Mali’s incumbent President Amadou Toumani Touré (a.k.a. “ATT”) has made a point of saying he will step down this April, when elections coincide with the expiry of his presidential term.

In addition to international pressure, Senegalese citizens seem galvanized all over the country (not exclusively in Dakar), making less likely a Cote d’Ivoire stalemate redux in the event of a Wade defeat. Despite the disconnect between Anglophone and Francophone West Africa, it is also possible that Senegalese are further encouraged by the people power in Nigeria that succeeded in partly reinstating fuel subsidies. Heightened violence in Senegal’s separatist Casamance region provides fodder for greater instability and fracturing, beyond popular protest, in a country that has never been divided and has a strong record on democratic  transfers of power. The free flow of weapons in the region after Muammar Qaddafi’s fall was one of the factors that reignited the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali; one wonders how many Libyan weapons have made their way as far afield as southern Senegal.

In short, Senegal seems an important test for the region, particularly as the economic pressures Senegalese face are shared across much of sub-Saharan Africa: high food and fuel prices, insufficient jobs. The outcome of the 2012 elections may not go so far to produce an African Spring, but it is shaping up to be a rather discontented winter.