Senegal and the Democracy Project in Africa

Postscript by Waziri Adio

As humans, we are wired to love stories of magical transformations. And the top spot in that genre at the moment must go to the story of the president-elect of Senegal, Bassirou Diomaye Faye. On 13th March 2024, Faye was still languishing in jail. Eleven days after, he was elected the president of his country. So, he literally walked from the prison to the presidency of his country. How more enchanting can it get!

To be sure, other African leaders had walked that unbeaten path, notably Nelson Mandela and Olusegun Obasanjo. But both had more lead time between coming out of prison and clinching the highest office in the land. Also, both had a storied antecedent and a name recognition that had travelled far beyond their countries. (Who in the world didn’t—or still doesn’t—know about Mandela spending 27 years in jail?) But most Senegalese—not to talk of non-Senegalese—had a scant idea of who the 44-year-old Faye was. Faye got on the ballot only because his mentor, co-detainee and the current leading opposition politician in Senegal, Ousmane Sonko, was banned from running for office.

After their release, Sonko did the campaign rounds with Faye, under the slogan: ‘Diomaye is Ousmane’. And according to a report in The New York Times, some voters actually said they were voting for Sonko in the presidential election. But for me, this is the real magic of Faye’s enchanting story: in 2022, Faye had run to be the mayor of Ndiaganiao, his remote and rustic village, and he lost; two years after, he ran for the highest office in his country, and won at the first ballot, even when most pundits had predicted the election would go into a runoff. Simply amazing!

There are a few things to unpack in this bright and exciting story, including how this fairytale victory came about and the potential problem with a proxy presidency. But for now, we need to celebrate what the outcome of the March 24th election in that West African country signifies for the democracy project not just in Senegal but in Africa, a continent where democracy has been in rapid retreat of late.

Senegal has for long been an oasis of stability and a relatively safe place for democracy in the subregion and on the continent. Remarkably, the country has never experienced a military coup since it gained independence from France in 1960. Even during a period when military rule and one-party dictatorship were the norm on the continent, Senegal managed to, positively, buck the trend.

Senegal’s first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor (the charismatic poet, nationalist and one of the leaders of the Negritude Movement) was in office for a little over 20 years. But he stayed in power through mandates renewed thrice at the polls, and at 74, he stepped down voluntarily mid-way into his last term in office. Senegal has also achieved renown as a country of peaceful transfer (alternation even) of power among parties since March 2000 when Abdoulaye Wade, the country’s long-standing opposition figure, eventually won the presidency. (Wade himself was defeated by Sall when the former tried to run for a third term in 2012.)

However, Senegal started emitting worrying signs about the durability of its hard-won status about three years ago. Macky Sall, who came into power as an opposition figure and started out as a reformer, led the backsliding. Sall got into office in 2012 via a runoff after coming second to Wade on the first ballot. Sall had won the runoff by a wide margin after rallying a coalition of opposition parties to his side. True to his promise, he spearheaded the amendment of the constitution to reduce the presidential tenure from seven years to five years. This took effect from his second term in 2019, which he won easily. However, there was an air of uncertainty over whether the 2016 amendment gave Sall the leeway to contest for a third term, the way an earlier amendment gave Wade the leeway to run for a third term. But there was clear opposition to this. In July 2023, Sall had to categorically state that he was not going to run. Some believe he did this grudgingly.

Before then, the country had been roiled by protests, led by youths and urban dwellers who feel left behind by recent economic growth in the country. The growing army of the disenchanted found a rallying point in Ousmane Sonko, a former tax inspector and whistleblower turned opposition politician, who secured about 16% of the votes cast in the 2019 presidential poll. Some Senegalese regard Sonko as a rabble rouser and a divisive figure, but most of his supporters see him as a champion of the masses. The Sall government prosecuted Sonko for a series of crimes, including rape, defamation and incitement. But that only made him more popular. Faye was arrested and jailed for a Facebook post defending Sonko and for allegedly defaming judges. The Sall government was also cracking down on protests, resulting in the imprisonment and deaths of protesters, and the hardening of opposition to the government. 

Protests were not particularly new in Senegal. Protests were common anytime the country went through bouts of economic downturn. Repression of protesters and opposition figures was not new either. However, many had cause to worry for democracy in Senegal because of the overreach by Macky Sall, especially his decision to postpone the presidential election indefinitely over allegation of corruption in how the candidates emerged This fed into the narrative that Sall didn’t want to leave office in the first instance. His action, which drew national and global outrage, was described as a civilian coup.

The recent and disturbing spate of democratic reversals on the continent, especially in the Sahel region and among France’s former colonies, provided a dark backdrop to the political drama in Senegal. This heightened anxieties about Senegal. Since 2020, seven successful military coups have taken place in West and Central Africa: Mali, in August 2020 and May 2021; Chad, April 2021; Guinea, September 2021; Burkina Faso, January 2022; Niger, July 2023; and Gabon, August 2023. There are worries about the expanding coup belt and a coup contagion in the Sahel. Given the dangerous dance in Dakar, and the strong anti-France sentiments, there was a real worry for the survival of democracy in Senegal. Thankfully, Senegal pulled back.

The constitutional court overruled Sall, and insisted the election must go on. Though Sall did not cover himself in glory in most of the three years to the election, but he didn’t stand in the way of the decision of the court. He released both Sonko and Faye ten days to the rescheduled election. He didn’t pull the stops to swing the election for his preferred candidate, Amadou Ba, a former prime minister. Both Ba and Sall accepted the outcome of the election and congratulated Faye even before the results were officially announced. Sall has also received Faye and Sonko at the presidential villa ahead of transfer of power on April 2nd. The point here is that democratic resilience will always be tested. What will make the difference is how well the democratic culture has settled in.

Since the outcome of Senegal’s elections, I have read a lot of analysis about the value of strong democratic institutions. This is a good point. But institutions are manned by people. One of my take-aways will be to paraphrase late Claude Ake: you cannot have enduring democracy without having people who have fully imbibed the culture and spirit of democracy. Sall and Ba could have dug in or played the bad losers and set their country on a different path. They and the other political actors, including those who triumphed, decided to play by the rules, even if grudgingly.  

Faye will become Senegal’s youngest president on Tuesday largely by luck. His victory was driven in the main by the support for Sonko, which itself issued from a widespread dissatisfaction with the establishment and sympathy for his perceived persecution. Sonko, 49, projects himself as anti-establishment and anti-imperialist (read France). A former tax inspector like Faye, Sonko resonates with Senegal’s youth in a country where the average age is 22. Sonko was banned form contesting because of a conviction.

Faye, who was still under trial but not convicted yet, threw his hat into the ring from prison, and ran as an independent because their party, PASTEL, was also banned. Apart from being a vote for Sonko, Faye’s victory was also a vote against Sall and his party. Faye’s chances further brightened when two major opposition parties endorsed him (one of them was the party of the former president, Abdoulaye Wade, whose son, Karim Wade, was banned for not renouncing his French citizenship). Clearly, the opposition united against the ruling party. This point has been well made, even underscored by Nigeria’s experience in 2015: in the African context, a united opposition stands a better chance of dislodging an incumbent party or candidate.

Olusegun Adeniyi has done extensive work on how opposition parties can defeat the incumbent on the continent. The overriding lesson is that there is a path to power for the opposition through the ballot box but the opposition leaders and those dissatisfied with the status quo need to team and organise better. Also, they should not give up easily or embrace anti-democratic forces because they are yet to achieve their goal. The Sonko that came a distant third in 2019 became the dominant force in Senegal’s politics in 2024.

The other point worth emphasising is that economic stress and growing inequality will always put the democracy project to test. This is playing out across the world. Reports by Freedom House, Pew Research Centre and Afrobarometer have documented the regression of democracy across the world, including in countries considered the bastions of democracy. The only antidote to this setback is good governance and meaningful improvement in the lives of the generality of the populace. This is the best way that democracy can be guaranteed. The intrinsic value of democracy is without doubt. But for democracy to endure, it must also have what Amartya Sen and others call an instrumental value or what we call democracy dividends.

There is a key lesson here for Faye, the politician of the moment in Senegal and the rest of continent. Public adulation can be fickle. In fact, it can be a burden. The dreamy-eyed youths of Senegal expect Faye to come in, wave a magic wand and create an Eldorado. Honeymoon period vanishes quickly, Faye would soon realise. The fact that Faye has never held any leadership or executive position in government may be a handicap. As Boubacar Boris Diop, a Senegalese novelist and journalist, captured in a 21st March essay for The New York Times, the election was not fought on rigorous interrogation of the policies and plans of the candidates. It is difficult to know if Faye is actually prepared for the office.

This doesn’t mean he should be written off. Just to say that how he goes about compensating for this perceived weakness will make a lot of difference. Faye may soon find out that while someone can win an election by luck, more than luck will be needed to govern well and to discharge the burden of expectations. Another key issue to watch will be Faye’s relationship with Sonko on whose back he rode to power. In his acceptance speech on Tuesday, Faye addressed Sonko as President Ousmane Sonko. He went with Sonko to visit Sall at the presidential palace, and Sonko was actually making his way to the owner’s corner of the car sent to pick them until an officer gently nudged him to the other side. Post-inaguration on April 2nd, it will be interesting to see if this will be a sole presidency by Faye or a joint presidency between Faye (mentee and elected president) and Sonko (mentor and non-elected ‘president’) and to see if how their relationship pans out will get in the way of governance.

In the meantime, congrats and best wishes to Senegal.  

More Sensitivity to Disability

A justifiable outrage followed the ill-treatment of Mr. Adebola Daniel, a Nigerian with disability, at an eatery at the international airport in Lagos last week. The airport authority swiftly investigated and sanctioned the outlet, which in turn has apologised to Mr. Daniel and pledged to conduct disability sensitivity training for its staff. But it is important to use this episode to rethink and change how Nigeria as a society relates to and provides for citizens with disabilities. What transpired in that outlet is not an isolated case. It is replicated thousand times daily, in different forms, all over the country. It is a society-wide thing.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 29 million Nigerians suffered from one form of disability or the other as at 2018. That is about 15% of our population. But even an insignificant percentage does not justify treating fellow citizens as if they are less than human simply because of their physical conditions.

Produced the with support of the MacArthur Foundation, a 2022 report by Agora Policy provides grim statistics about the fate of People with Disabilities (PWDs) in Nigeria: only 1% of PWDs are employed in the formal sector; only 2% of PWDs have access to education; 92% of PWDs are in dire need of rehabilitation services; 96% of PWDs have no access to assistive devices; and 98.5% of public buildings are not accessible to PWDs. Nigeria is a tough place to have disabilities. In some parts of the country, physical disability is seen not just as a source of shame but also as a curse. Many things need to change.

Some progress has been made, but work needs to be done. Nigeria has a national law disability: the “Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act”. It was signed by former President Muhammadu Buhari in January 2019. The bill became law after more than a decade of persistent advocacy by activists. The law, which has been adopted in only 19 states, gave a five-year moratorium period for some of its provisions to take effect. That window expired last year, meaning all the provisions of the law should be in full force from January 2024. We also have a National Commission for Persons with Disabilities. But many Nigerians are not even aware of the law or the commission. Enforcement will be key, including adequate provisioning.

We need to change how we design and operate public spaces, including public buildings, public transportation and other public infrastructure. Most importantly, we need attitudinal and behavioural change in the way we treat PWDs, beyond the token of having sign-interpreters at public events. We need to adopt the John Rawls ‘Veil of Ignorance’ approach to design and achieve a more inclusive society. No one invites disability on themselves, and the person that is physically whole today, may not be tomorrow. We are all vulnerable. It is thus in our enlightened self-interest to create a society that works for all.   

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