3 Keys To Understanding The Unrest In Senegal

Since January 31, massive protests have been rocking Senegal. Senegalese youth and opposition have been taking to the streets to express their anger and frustration at the president’s efforts to run for a third term in office.  Since last week, several people have lost their lives, and Senegalese security forces have been violently repressing the popular uprising. What’s happening in Senegal which had a reputation as a rare “beacon of democracy” in an unstable region?

Here are three keys to understanding the situation:

President Abdoulaye Wade is  clinging on to power

Wade came to power in Senegal during the 2000 presidential election, and was re-elected for a second term in 2007. Originally quite popular, the veteran politician has seen his popularity dwindle in recent times. The apparent grooming of his son, Karim Wade, to take over his role as president, problems of corruption and Wade’s inability to affect the change that Senegalese want to see are among the factors that have led to disillusionment.

In theory, because of the two-term limit imposed by a constitutional amendment enacted during his term in office, Wade should not be able to run in the upcoming election. However, Wade, with the assistance of an Atlanta-based law firm, is arguing that the two-term limit does not apply to him since it came into effect after he took office. The Washington Post notes “[Wade] claims the law is not retroactive, and since he was elected under the previous constitution which had no term limits, he should be allowed to run for another, seven-year term.”

This attempt to modify constitutional provisions is not Wade’s first foray into ‘electoral reform.’ The Senegalese government tried to enact a provision last June that would have allowed a presidential candidate to win elections in the first round with only 25% of the vote – rather than more than 50%. This particular reform was defeated through massive popular mobilization and unprecedented riots, and Wade withdrew the proposed legislation.

Constitutional council decision to validate Wade’s bid for a third term precipitates protests

On January 31, the Senegalese government allowed an initially banned protest from taking place. Hundreds of people gathered to await the constitutional council ruling with regards to whether Wade could run for a third term. The decision of the constitutional council (composed of five individuals picked by Wade himself) to validate Wade’s bid led to the eruption of massive protests, particularly in the capital, Dakar. Analysts and observers argue that the decision to allow Wade to run for a third term was a political one. Opposition leaders are calling the decision a “constitutional coup”. Indeed, when the body supposed to uphold the democratic principles entrenched in the constitution makes a decision that severely undercut these principles, it’s hard to see it as anything but an act of rubber stamping.

The protests in Senegal have been more violent than the country is used to. Salvatore Sagues, Amnesty International’s west Africa researcher, told AFP that “the bloodshed was a ‘dramatic escalation’ of violence in the country normally seen as a beacon of democracy among often troubled neighbours.”

The United States, former colonial power France, and UN officials have all called for calm and restraint. France and the US also indicated that they would like to see a new generation of rulers in Senegal, prompting the Senegalese Foreign Minister to retort that “If these comments are indeed coming from the authorities cited by the press, I want to say to them that Senegal has nothing to learn from anyone about democracy.”

A mobilized youth but weak opposition

Opposition against Wade has been mounting slowly, over time. The popular mobilization last June to counter Wade’s attempt to reform electoral law fueled the organization of grassroots movements, most notably M23 (June 23 Movement) and “Y’en a marre” (“we are fed up”). These groups are mobilizing the large youth population – encouraging them to register to vote, campaigning for a better popular understanding of democracy and politics.

While these groups represent a powerful force, they are not united behind an opposition candidate in the election. Aside from Wade, the council approved 13 other candidates to run in the election including three former prime ministers and main opposition leader Ousmane Tanor Dieng. Nevertheless, there is no clear front-runner, no figure ahead to challenge Wade.

What next?

In spite of Wade’s efforts to manipulate electoral laws to allow him to remain in office for another term, his election on February 26 is by no means guaranteed. It’s difficult to imagine that he will reach 50% of the vote in the first round, especially if the youth vote shows up – Wade’s desire to change the law to lower that threshold to 25% means he thinks so too. However, the current lack of a “stand-out” candidate supported by other sectors of society – youth, military – means that the second round could go to Wade if he is able to convince voters that his reforms need more time to get results.

Senegal has not seen military coups since its independence from France in 1960, and is a stable country where foreign investment and tourism have been flourishing. Though formal employment opportunities are still rare and there are some concerns regarding fundamental freedoms – expression, assembly, equal rights – Senegal still has a strong peaceful tradition.

Today, Wade compared the opposition to “A breeze […] which rustles the leaves of a tree, but never becomes a hurricane.” In the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see if the opposition – which has already said it won’t boycott elections – is able to get organized so as to produce a viable contender to challenge Wade in the second round.