Senegal has long been perceived as a beacon of democracy and stability in West Africa, a region still recovering from civil conflict, notably in Côte d’Ivoire. However, President Abdoulaye Wade’s controversial bid for a third term may be changing that perception for years to come.Once heralded as a democrat who broke the ruling Socialist Party’s 40-year rule in free and fair elections in 2000—and helped to orchestrate the country’s first transfer of power to an opposition party—President Wade is now clinging to office with possibly grave consequences for the country’s future.
On January 27, Senegal’s Constitutional Council validated his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election—along with those of 13 challengers. The vast majority of legal experts and opposition leaders have argued that his candidacy violated Article 27 of the 2001 Constitution, which allows for only two presidential terms. Wade’s supporters, on the other hand, have claimed that this clause was never meant to be retroactive, allowing the incumbent to seek a third term. The news of the Council’s decision immediately set off demonstrations across the country and caused the death of a policeman in Dakar.
Most observers in 2000 assumed that Senegal had finally evolved into a mature multi-party democracy. But Wade’s governing style soon dashed those hopes. In an effort to consolidate power, he has occasionally muzzled Senegal’s vibrant press and marginalized his party’s most promising leaders, including former prime ministers Idrissa Seck and Macky Sall, who have since created their own parties to further their presidential ambitions. In a move that gradually unified the opposition and divided the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party, Wade also began grooming his son Karim as his successor by entrusting him with a string of government positions that culminated with a large and strategic ministry in charge of development and infrastructure in 2009.
The final break between the president and the opposition happened last June when protesters marched against proposed constitutional amendments that would establish the position of vice president and lower the majority needed for a first round victory from 50 to 25 percent. The amendments were later abandoned under pressure from human rights organizations and the opposition grouped under the Mouvement du 23 Juin, or M23, which was created following the riots on June 23, 2011 in Dakar. Several prominent members of Wade’s party also opposed the revisions fearing they were designed to impose Karim Wade as the next head of state. M23 is now coordinating a series of demonstrations across Dakar to compel President Wade to withdraw his candidacy ahead of the presidential polls on February 26.
While the risk of political violence is real, Senegal is unlikely to descend into a civil conflict reminiscent of Côte d’Ivoire or Kenya. The country, indeed, has never suffered from entrenched ethno-regional divisions with the exception of the low-level conflict in the Casamance region.
The irony is that President Wade is undermining Senegal’s own democratic credentials and bucking a growing trend across the continent where incumbents are voluntarily leaving office in greater number than ever before. In Benin and Ghana, two other West African states, incumbents have either stepped down when their term in office ended or ceded power following electoral defeat. Likewise, Mali’s Amadou Toumani Touré, who has served since 2002, has pledged to leave office when his second term ends in April.
Wade’s obstinacy could not only damage Senegal’s future but also dampen the recovery of fragile states such as Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, or Sierra Leone, which is preparing for its own elections later this year.
The Senegalese people are politically astute and may yet seek redress through the ballot box to express their disagreement with the Council’s decision. They already punished Wade’s overreach in the 2009 local elections when they voted his party out of the country’s largest municipalities, including Dakar. If the past is any indication, voters will send another strong signal to the incumbent in the next election and restore Senegal’s reputation across Africa.
Gregory Houël is an independent expert on democracy and governance issues across Africa. He previously worked for the United Nations Development Programme, the National Endowment for Democracy, The Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute primarily on electoral assistance and civil society development projects. He holds a M.A. in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.