Late last month, Senegal held successful Presidential elections. In what was the country’s fourth transfer of power since independence in 1960, incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade was defeated by former prime minister Macky Sall. After Wade received only 32% in the first round of voting, several opposition candidates abandoned their own bids to support Sall, who prevailed with over 65% of the vote in the second round. While a peaceful, democratic transfer of power is taken for granted in America, it is anything but commonplace in many parts of Africa. Just a few days before the Senegalese elections, Mali, its northern neighbor, was seized by a military coup. To the south, an electoral dispute in Cote d’Ivoire led to civil war in 2011. Although the Arab Spring led to the fall of several authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the transitions were often violent, and democratic outcomes remain uncertain.
Senegal offers a cautious optimism for supporters of democracy. All was not certain, however, in the months preceding Sall’s resounding victory. After being elected in 2001, Wade extended the length of his term by changing the constitution, and ignored the two-term limit by declaring his candidacy for this year’s election. He also attempted to guarantee his reelection by lowering the vote requirement from 50% to 25%. When people began protesting in January and February, he deployed riot police and aggressively suppressed the demonstrators. Benjamin Ngachoko writes: “Since taking power in Senegal Wade’s government has gone through several [sic] crisis, mostly mismanagement, corruption, and fund embezzlement.” He also increasingly endowed power to his son, his potential political heir.
On the verge of authoritarianism, Wade’s tenuous hold on power came undone in a remarkably democratic way. Although there were clashes with police and rioting in Dakar, the capital, in the months leading up to the elections, the elections themselves were noticeably peaceful. For the most part, the military stood aside. Voting was not rigged. The results were not fixed. Turnout was very high, with almost three million people – about 55% of registered voters – swamping the polls. With defeat imminent, Wade publicly congratulated his opponent on the victory.
The significance for Senegal is apparent. Democracy triumphed over the specter of dictatorship. Analysts have raved about Senegal being the beacon of democratic hope for the rest of the continent. Headlines surge with jubilation – “African Democracy 1, Big Men 0,” “Macky Sall Senegal election win 'example for Africa,’” “Victory for African democracy,” but are such statements warranted? Can Senegal really provide a model for other African states to follow?
Such questions bring to light some important underlying assumptions – namely, that “Africa” is a legitimate subject of study. Is this true? Why should we view Africa as a monolithic entity? Why is Senegal a victory for “African democracy” and not simply democracy? What is “African democracy” anyways? There are some similarities – Africa is a one contiguous landmass, was historically subject to imperialist pressures and colonization, and many African countries are struggling economically. Even so, the massive continent is incredibly diverse; each nation is religiously, politically, linguistically and ethnically unique. Attempts at political consolidation, such as the African Union, have had limited success.
Thus, expectations following the Senegalese election must be tempered by reality. While it is convenient, and certainly optimistic, to view a fair vote in Senegal as triumph for all of Africa, it is much more prudent to examine political developments on a case-by-case basis.
Senegal’s success is by no means assured; President Sall has been in power for less than a month, and he too may be susceptible to the same corruption that plagued his predecessor. After all, Wade was likewise supported with great enthusiasm, elected in 2001 on a platform of Sopi (change) and promises of liberation. Only time will tell if President Sall delivers on the promise of his election. The Senegalese people achieved a historic success, whether this success will continue and whether African states will learn from the experience cannot yet be said.
Nick Fedyk is a sophomore at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and editorial assistant for the Georgetown Journal’s online content.