It was a presidential election pundits predicted would be marred by violence, protests and perhaps even a boycott.
With a ban on opposition rallies at the iconic Independence Square and the stubborn candidacy of Abdoulaye Wade raising the ire of civil society and opposition candidates, the stage was set up for a massive confrontation on election day.
But when millions of voters made their way to the polls in Senegal on February 26, elections took place with little incident.
Dignified, peaceful and respectful is not how some would ordinarily characterise contentious elections on the continent – not least in West Africa – and Senegal’s polls took place without violence, incidents of intimidation or cries of irregularities that usually beset elections of such importance.
The success of the elections notwithstanding, there is still no clear winner and Senegal is set to return to the polls for a second time as a runoff between Macky Sall and the incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade.
|“ If we want this spirit to continue, then the powers that be must tap into this resource towards entrenching democracy here.”
- Ousmane Sene
Residents of Dakar, the country’s capital, say that the peaceful commencement of elections demonstrated Senegal’s commitment to democracy.
But it is not easy to forget that at least six people were killed in the lead up to the polls and that the country had experienced violence and tension, much of which, spilled on to the streets.
Al Jazeera’s Azad Essa speaks to Ousmane Sene, director of the West African Research Centre in Dakar, about the country’s democratic culture, its fault lines and the dangers of reading the remarkable turn of events as a case of Senegalese exceptionalism.
Q: There was a fair bit of tension in the lead up to the poll. While the world waited for blood and gore to progress to the polls itself, elections proceeded with little incident. Please explain what took place?
A: This is what was supposed to happen on the day of the polls: People were supposed [to] wake up, have breakfast, get their voter card and their identity card, queue at the polls and cast their vote.
Then they were supposed to go home, have a meal and drink some Senegalese tea. And this is precisely what happened.
Of course, there was some fear that once results would start coming out, there might be some commotion. There was also some speculation that President Wade would not agree with the results, but these were just speculations.
The question we might ask now: Is What happened a result of years of democratic practice in Senegal, dating back to pre-independence times? Or is this an extension of what happened in the year 2000 when our elections were magnificently arranged and everybody said that the Senegalese democracy has made a leap forward?
People [back then] were saying we learnt to transfer power from the ruling party to the opposition party in a very civilised and peaceful manner.
But people did say that this was only the year 2000, and in the interim, President Wade had rocked the boat so much that we had surely gone backwards.
Isn’t it now a statement from the people that we are full democracy, a mature democracy? Elections are taking your ballot, casting it for the candidate of your choice… and the positive reading is that this is the case. There is also hope that this will continue until the second round is over and the results are known.
Q. That is the positive reading. What about the clashes that took place between security and opposition supporters before the elections?
A: Somewhere in all of this, if political leaders were to operate in a highly civic attitude and if the police were trained to be a people-friendly force – in such a way that people gathering somewhere does not spell danger – and the first reaction is [instead] perhaps to come engage in some type of diplomatic negotiation with the people before sending tear gas… if this [would] happen, it would be another leap forward in the Senegalese democracy.
But I don’t think this was the approach of the police forces. I understand that people demonstrating near the presidential palace is a hazard and they need to stop it, but there needs to be an alternative way of engaging because ultimately, this is about protesters wanting their voice heard. This is something that needs some work.
Q. It was symbolic for the opposition to mobilise at the Independence Square and authorities did not want the opposition to set assemble there. At the same time, surely it was reasonable to ban rallies, albeit illegal, in a place that posed a security risk to the president’s home?
It was both. Remember this is a place that is dedicated to those who gave their lives during the two world wars, fighting for the country and fighting for the emancipation of the country. Now these were (also) demonstrations for freedom of expression and freedom to exercise their rights.
So they wanted access to the Square and every inch of Senegalese territory.
This was combined with something that could have been considered a hazard. After all, from Independence Square to the presidency is just a stone’s throw. If there is a spillover and people demonstrating up to the gates of the presidential office, this could be a little dangerous for the president. I quite understand that.
They both should have tried to handle the situation differently.
From now on, the police should learn to negotiate their way out with people instead of opting for a confrontational situation.
But my contention is that if people are allowed to express themselves, none of this might ever (have) happened.
Q. How do we understand the scale of violence that took place? At least six people were killed…
A: I think the question is not about violence, but more about the nature of confrontation.
It is worth noting that the confrontation that took place was not between supporters of opposing political parties. All the bloody confrontations were between police forces and people demonstrating. The moment police stopped denying protesters from entering a certain place [as they did with the ban on protests at Independence Square], everything went back to normal.
And because it was not a confrontation between two antagonistic political parties, this means that whichever side you were on, you had the chance to express your political affiliation.
For instance, in one polling station I was in, a very old man said: “the person who supports [President] Wade is doomed to go to hell”.
Remember, this is a Muslim country where people are very religious, such references are not taken lightly. Yet people just laughed him off and I thought to myself, ‘this is election-day, this old man is threatening everyone with the fires of hell, but we are letting him go’.
This is symptomatic of the ability to state your allegiances and this is the type of spirit that must prevail. And if we want this spirit to continue, then the powers that be must tap into this resource towards entrenching democracy here.
One must remember that people resort to violence under certain circumstances.
And we are not saying that violence is to be precluded forever from Senegal’s political arena.
This is not true. It can erupt anytime, depending on the stakes.
But it’s the second time that Senegalese people have proven that they can go to the polls peacefully, go home peacefully, receive results peacefully and go back to work the next day.
Q. Did the media exaggerate the tensions on the ground and the possibility of more violence?
A: There was a lot of tension before the election and we did not expect the peaceful unfolding of the election process on the day of the polls. And if we expected it, we were not very optimistic about it actually taking place in such a manner.
Too much blood had been spilt. And there were all sorts of things being said about obstructing the vote.
I think at some point, people decided that the violence was more than enough and this had to be taken to the polls to decide.
Q. Is there a danger of reading Senegal’s successful and mature democratic values as a special case on the African continent?
A: We are no exception. Let’s not talk about the Senegalese exception or some sort of manifested destiny of Senegal in Africa.
There are some ingredients for potential conflicts, that exist in other countries, that do not exist here.
We are not used to voting along ethnic lines or religious lines. And you could say we are immune to some of these ingredients for tension: ethnic divide, religious divide, which makes it easy for us to have an election without major problems.
This country is 94 per cent Muslim, but consider that it selected a Christian as its first president. The Muslim leaders (at the time) even told Leopold Senghor that he would stay as long as he wanted to. And when Wade stood up to Senghor all those years ago, people could have framed it as a Muslim versus a Christian issue. But nobody did that.
The second president [Abdou Diouf] was a moderate Muslim with a Christian wife. Wade is also a very moderate Muslim – although he parades around claiming to be a Mouride and is perhaps overdoing it – but he also has a Christian wife.
The second thing is the point about Senegal’s maturity regarding voting and elections. Voting is something people are used to here.
Imposing something on to somebody is frowned upon here. And this is why people are so against [President] Wade’s perceived attempts to groom his son as president. His son has no legitimacy, no political background and it is therefore out of the question for that young man to come from nowhere and think about ruling us. This worked against Wade in the public sentiment.
We are not the exception, but we certainly have a different political experience.
Q. But so many countries on the continent are not immune to these ingredients as you put them. They are fraught with ethnic and religious fault lines. How then do they replicate your democratic experience?
A: Hold on, let Senegal forge ahead. Let the country go beyond this hurdle.
The second round is due to take place soon. Let’s make sure we are able to jump above this hurdle and make sure we vote peacefully and with a large turnout.
And again, after we vote, we go home, eat our national dish, which everyone knows is rice and fish and seek our delicious attaya (tea).
You have already tasted it, I think? So let’s do that on that Sunday to come and then when Monday comes, let’s all go back to work.