Opposition Politics and Lessons of Senegal




The West Africa has found itself in the news recently for two diametrically opposed phenomena: the coup in Mali just six weeks to national elections and the just concluded run-off elections in Senegal. The Senegalese elections are especially poignant for many reasons. A careless observer would quickly see Macky Sall’s win as a revolution that came unannounced but the signs and symbolisms were always there that even Abdoulaye Wade saw them early enough. I came in contact with the realities of Wade’s possible fall almost two and a half years ago but I will leave that bit to the latter paragraphs of this piece. Senegal’s political space has had Wade’s fortunes as a central theme so it would be apt to outline his story through Senegal’s democratic history.


Wade has been a major player in the elections of Senegal since 1974 when he founded the Parti Democratique Senegalais (PDS) as a Labour Party until the party adopted Liberalism by default with the laws of Senegal permitting the existence of only three parties with three distinct ideologies. With two already taken by the other parties, Wade’s party opted for Liberalism. Wade ran for the presidency for the first time in February 1978 against Leopold Sedar Senghor, garnering a respectable 17.38 per cent of the votes. He lost. He contested the presidential elections again in 1983 and 1988 after a two-year stint at the National Assembly from 1978-1980. He placed second behind Senghor’s successor Abdou Diouf each time. Wade again lost the presidential elections in February 1993 having only managed 32 per cent of the votes compared to Diouf’s 58 per cent.


The 2000 elections brought Wade a different kind of fortune. He received 31 per cent of the votes, but the incumbent, tall and gentle Diouf failed to win a first round majority for once. Wade won a historic runoff on March 19, 2000 with 58.49 per cent of the votes having enjoyed the backing of candidates from the first round including the third placed Moustapha Niasse. Wade then took the reins on April 1, 2000, putting an end to the 40-year rule of the Socialist Party. He got re-elected in 2007 beating his former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck, once considered his protégée. Wade has since amended Senegal’s constitution over a dozen times, as he sought to increasingly weaken the opposition even as he grew even more autocratic in style by increasing executive power through the several constitutional amendments he pushed through parliament. Wade, an educator, lawyer, professor of law and economics, with certificates in psychology, mathematics, sociology, physics and chemistry ought to know better but it goes to show that the possession of a Phd. is no guarantee for results or of integrity in leadership.


Wade foresaw his own possible political mortality last year. He was not unaware of his diminishing popularity in Senegal. He made moves to check the possible repercussions off that receding influence on the electorate when he tried through his party to change a part of the constitution that requires a president to be elected with an absolute majority of the votes – 50 per cent plus 1. The “Hare” as the cunning Wade is called in Senegalese politics had sought to reduce that requirement to plurality of votes cast with a minimum of just 25 per cent.


Thousands of protesters marched and gathered outside Senegal’s parliament throwing stones and other objects, immobilising the city in the process. Police dispersed them but they had done enough to themselves to dispense with Wade’s penultimate quest to stay in power for a third term. Wade later withdrew the draft legislation. His final push for the power to stay in office beyond 2012 did pull through as the country’s Constitutional Council on January 27, 2012 approved Wade’s third term bid. He did run and acknowledged on February 27, a day after the elections that he had failed to win a majority. Had Wade’s 2011 proposed 25 per cent barrier pulled through, his first round numbers of the highest votes cast but of 34.81 per cent of the total, would have been more than enough to have him win the election. He lost the runoff to Sall polling 34.20 per cent of the votes to Sall’s 65.80 per cent. Sall will be installed as the 5th President of Senegal on April 3, 2012, Insha Allah. The rest, they say, is history but before these historical events, something happened in 2009 that persuaded me that the Senegalese opposition had found the secrets to defeating the incumbent.


While a Mason fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, I became very good friends with two outstanding Senegalese citizens - Mrs. Naye Bathily and Fode Ndiaye. Just before our graduation, a family friend of Bathily’s had just defeated the son and heir apparent of Wade to be elected the Mayor of Dakar. One thing led to another but while still in exile, I was invited to Dakar, the capital of Senegal in October 2009 by its new Mayor Khalifa Sall. I arrived in Dakar at a time President Wade came under fire from the international media for paying a departing IMF official some $200,000 in cash, calling it “an African parting gift”. That remains another chapter in his 12-year legacy of roller-coaster leadership in Senegal.


It was more than a visit for me though; it was part of the Mayor’s quest to institutionalise reforms in the capital. My two weeks' stay saw myself and two of the secretaries who served with me as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory present our ideas and views on the city management priorities Sall’s administration had set for itself. Some of the objectives were ideas of a Town Council Team, including initiatives in Land Use/Town Planning, Waste Management, Transparency and Accountability to the residents of Dakar. They were projecting a “New Face, New Life” idea for the city at the beginning of a five-year term.


We had comprehensive sessions on Town Planning, Land Use, Education, Health, Culture, Sports, Waste Disposal, Relocation of Markets and the like. With Dakar being home to well over a third of Senegal’s population, Mayor Sall had a lot to do. At least two things were not working for him though, the constitution vested a lot of control of the taxation, land and administration of the city in the hands of the central government, coupled with the fact that Sall had just shockingly beat President Wade’s son, Karim, at the poll – you see why a Wade is not losing to a Sall for the first time.


Sall, a member of the Socialist Party (PS) had scored 81 of the 100 votes cast by municipal councillors to emerge Mayor. The March 22, 2009 local elections had voters, who were fed up with rising prices and fuel shortages in Senegal, overwhelmingly vote for the opposition coalition Bennoo Siggil Senegal in key locations including the capital. That was the first major blow to Wade’s then nine-year dominance of Senegal’s politics and a first indication of what was to come in 2012. There are lessons for Nigeria’s opposition groups to learn from Senegal’s very poignant recent democratic process.


The era of playing the opposition for the sake of it must either come to an end soon or we leave our people at the mercy of political actors who do not see anything wrong in having produced 112 million poor people, more than the population of any other African country. If the bigger evil called the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) must be defeated at the polls, we must do things much more different from what we used to do - the first step is realising that PDP's current crappy governance will consume us all in the end. The second is to moving from the politics of self-enrichment and personal promotion to one that recognises overriding public interest. Forming a broad-based political coalition that brings together disparate platforms of the good is the next step necessary to dislodge the toxic aberration running the country.


Senegal’s opposition saw the power of a coalition when together they handed President Wade resounding losses in local elections three years ago. That was the testing ground for the realities we see in Senegal today. Even though they yet again ran on different platforms in the first round, a previous alliance made it easier for them to align for the runoff and the results are there for everyone to see. When I spoke to Sall and his group in October 2008 about the possibilities of Wade rigging the elections, they were shocked at even the idea. It was obvious the thought was alien to them and they said that much. They were not bothered about rigged elections because they knew the people of Senegal will just not accept it, be part of it, or be paid money to do it! It is never going to happen, they added.


We will not have a democracy to be proud of as long as some political parties value themselves as successful when they present candidates that "then succeed" at the polls no matter how unknown or unpopular these candidates are. Democracy is about the majority and as long as we continue to have puppet-esque political parties, Lilliputian candidates and corrupt arms of governments that simply pursue their self interest, we will continue to have policy accidents, increasing corruption, unabashed ineptitude, abuse of law and order, insecurity, injustice and the likes as it is the way and norm of the current power brokers in Nigeria’s national political space.


What are the lessons the Nigerian opposition are learning from Senegal? Do we now see that to beat Nigeria’s biggest nemesis and evil, an early alliance starting with the local and early polls would prove very useful? Confidence must be built with opportunities such elections offer while trust is engendered through understanding as we seek to defy the ‘do or die’ politics of the powers that be to help provide the much needed leadership our people crave and need for meaningful growth and development.


Thirteen years of democracy under this dispensation has come with much more pains, poverty and penury for our people than joy. We have moved forward at times but taken giant leaps backward. The leaps and reforms the Olusegun Obasanjo years set in place in many sectors have since been eroded by careless leadership, wanton corruption, unabashed cronyism even as our debts rise in inverse proportions to projects and infrastructural provisions on the ground. It has been a case of growing national debts with poorer outcomes and zero results. If this is allowed to continue, we would have just been mere spectators that had the opportunity to take the bull by the horn, but lacked the courage to do so. Then we would have failed to birth the desired leadership that would secure our future, that of our children and grandchildren.


Senegal our little brother has shown the way, and just as Sall’s team told us how they were desperate to see Nigeria play its role as a leader on the continent, it remains to be seen if those of us that chose to be in opposition will take a cue from Senegal’s example and light the new order of change for Nigeria. It is the only way we will end the rule of these thieves of our future - the leaders squandering our resources today, providing little or no infrastructure and social services, thus ensuring they steal the future of our youths, children and generations unborn.