Rebecca Regan-Sachs

Africa Election Watch: Poverty and Power in Senegal

Update: In an unusually quick turnaround, election results in Senegal began trickling in last night, leading to an extremely encouraging development: President Abdoulaye Wade has conceded defeat to challenger Macky Sall. Below is an analysis of the implications of this dramatic election:

The run-up to Sunday’s (March 25) election in Senegal may have looked familiar: An aging president manipulates the law and runs for office yet again, frustrated citizens protest, polls open for another meaningless election.

But the next few days will tell whether the outcome this time will be different. The past few months have seen waves of violent protests triggered by incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade’s efforts to seek a third term, despite the constitution limiting the president to two. In January, the streets of the capital, Dakar, erupted when the president’s hand-picked Constitutional Council ruled that Wade would be eligible for a highly controversial next term.

Sunday’s election was in fact a run-off, after Wade gained only 34.8 percent in the first round of voting Feb. 26. Former Prime Minister Macky Sall garnered the next-highest vote total, winning 26.6 percent, and with most of the other opposition candidates now behind him, stands a once-unthinkable chance of beating the crafty incumbent at his own game.

The implications for Senegal’s significant impoverished population are substantial. While Wade had promised to cut down on corruption and enhance economic opportunity in Senegal, ordinary citizens have seen little improvement in living standards, even as foreign investment flows into the country’s profitable mining, telecommunications, and service industries.

Long hailed as a democratic bastion in sub-Saharan Africa (and one of the few African nations never to experience a coup d’état), Senegal has failed to fully capitalize on its legacy of stability. Ranked 26th among 46 Sub-Saharan African nations on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, Senegal trails countries with much lower GDPs and more checkered political histories, like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Malawi. Fifty-one percent of the populace is below the poverty line, with key education and health indicators lagging well behind other countries in the “lower middle income” bracket (per the World Bank).

Disturbingly, 88 percent of Senegalese citizens state that corruption has increased in their country in the last three years, with 56 percent reporting having to pay bribes in the past year to gain access to at least one basic government service. In a country where per capita income is just $1,850, such unnecessary expenditures add up quickly.

The Candidates

A former university dean and perennial opposition politician, Wade is Africa’s second-oldest leader at age 85 (though many believe he is even older). Elected in 2000 on the ticket of the party he founded in 1974, the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), Wade broke a 40-year streak of one-party rule in Senegal, promising privatization and governance reforms.

Wade did in fact attempt substantial measures to boost the economy. He was instrumental in launching the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a collaborative approach to addressing some of the continent’s starkest challenges. And he embarked on a series of large infrastructure projects, including a new, $450 million airport outside of Dakar.

Yet while citizens face spiraling food costs and rampant power outages, Wade travels with an outsized entourage and maintains an unusually lavish lifestyle for a career public servant. In one notorious example, Wade and his posse spent $1.6 million in taxpayer funds on luxury hotels in Switzerland and France the same month that over a quarter million Senegalese lost their homes in massive flooding. Perhaps most emblematic of his apparent disconnect with the populace is the recent construction of the “African Renaissance Monument,” a 167-foot, $27 million-dollar statue outside of Dakar built with North Korean, not Senegalese, labor. (Wade personally claims a third of the profit from tourist visits.)

The nadir of Wade’s popularity came when he claimed eligibility to run for a third term in office, arguing that since he took power before the 2008 constitutional reform was enacted limiting presidents to two terms, the law did not apply to him. In January of this year, the judges of Senegal’s Constitutional Court—all appointed by Wade—ruled on the question in his favor, while simultaneously disqualifying his popular rival Youssou N’Dour from the race.

Thus began several weeks of violent protests, in which at least 10 people have been killed, and scores arrested.

Macky Sall

Wade’s opponent in Sunday’s run-off was none other than his former prime minister—and 2008 re-election campaign director—Macky Sall, 50. Currently mayor of his hometown, Fatick, Sall is a former geologist who served in Wade’s cabinet as minister of Mines, Energy and Hydraulics, then Minister of State, and finally Prime Minister from 2004 to 2007.

The start of tensions between the two men began shortly after Sall was elected as president of the National Assembly in 2007. That year, Sall called in Wade’s son, Karim—widely viewed as Wade’s personal favorite to succeed him in the presidency—to answer questions before the National Assembly regarding mismanagement of public funds in Karim Wade’s role as President of the National Agency of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (an international meeting held in Dakar the next year).

In outrage over the “insubordination,” Wade engineered a political backlash against Sall within the PDS, and the National Assembly voted to dismiss him as president in November 2008. Sall promptly resigned and formed his own political party the next month, the Alliance for the Republic (APR), taking several PDS members with him. Shortly thereafter, he was re-elected as mayor of Fatick, a post he had held from 2002 to 2008.

Opinions are divided as to the source of Sall’s discontent with Wade and the PDS; he may be genuinely aggrieved at the president’s perceived abuses of power, or simply indignant at being passed over himself as Wade’s favored successor.

Regardless, the man who Wade once called his “best student” has built his campaign on, essentially, not being Wade. Promising to reduce food prices, Sall frequently hits on many of the population’s prime grievances against the incumbent.

Whether that is enough to upset Abdoulaye Wade’s longstanding political machine is an open question.

The Stakes

Without a surfeit of oil or mineral wealth, Senegal’s political engine runs on service industries like banking, telecommunications, and tourism—all courtesy of its star reputation as a stable democracy in Africa.

Should this Sunday’s election appear rigged in favor of Wade—a distinct possibility—grassroots protest movements like M23 and Y’en A Marre are poised to hit the streets again. If sustained popular fury meets a violent government crackdown, business transactions and investments could falter, causing a painful economic ripple effect for Senegalese workers. The country need look no further than its West Africa neighbor, Cote d’Ivoire, to see how an election crisis can torpedo regular commerce. Although coupled with harsh international sanctions, the prolonged instability contributed to a 7 percent fall in Cote d’Ivoire’s 2011 GDP.

If Macky Sall does manage a credible victory in this week’s election, he will take on responsibility for improving the living standards of a population long frustrated by unrealized economic potential. The nation’s largest employer, the agricultural sector, badly needs reform (Senegal must import over half its supply of rice, the main food staple), and Wade’s grandiose schemes for improving agricultural yields have fallen well short. Combined with widespread poverty and discontent with basic services—particularly in the power sector, which hinders business growth—the next president must show definitively that people, not power, are his main concern.

The silver lining in Senegal’s recent unrest may be that if its next leader does not carry out these responsibilities, its people certainly now have practice in what to do.