A Silver Lining in Senegal’s Political Unrest?

This week, Senegal’s presidential campaign opens amidst stones, tear gas, grenades, student protests and calls for popular resistance by a coalition of opposition parties and civil society organizations.

Senegal’s current president, Abdoulaye Wade, is seeking re-election despite his term limit and dwindling popularity. Though some Senegalese support Wade, there are escalating riots over his bid to stay in power. Last week, four people including a student died from clashes between demonstrators and the police. The president is down-playing the protests, but the mounting tension is notable in a country known for its political stability. Senegal seems to be heading into the ugly lane of pre-electoral violence.

Unbeknown to many admirers of Senegal’s record of stability and democratic success, an internal conflict has been simmering for 30 years, with a separatist rebel movement opposing the national government and seeking independence for the region. Fighting has been especially acute in the restive region of Casamance, where AJWS focuses its grantmaking in Senegal. On January 10th, the government carried out a series of aerial bombings targeting members of the rebellion. This prolonged conflict not only adds up to the declining political climate in Senegal but also highlights Wade’s failure to address the conflict in 100 days, as he promised during his first term.

The current political development in Senegal is not a typical story in the tradition of African leaders clinging to power by force and corruption. It is a story of a broken promise by a veteran political figure who was propelled to power by young Senegalese. Wade’s original rise ended 40 years of one party rule in this country. The way the political situation is unfolding is all the more important for what it says about Senegal’s commitment to democracy and Wade’s promises of change when he came into power ten years ago.

The Senegalese people are, however, committed to finding a different ending. For the youth of the new movement, Y’en a marre, which means ‘fed up’ in French, their last resort is to speak through the polls. This movement was started by a group of friends composed of young rappers and journalists to protest the rising prices of commodities, power outages and corruption in Senegal. Within months, it grew and attracted many young people when the current president attempted to amend the country’s constitution, which would facilitate his re-election and the appointment of his son as vice president.

We know how elections go in this part of the world. They can easily trigger violence and are often manipulated by those in power. Significant progress has, however, been made in recent years with successful elections in countries such as Ghana, Niger and recently Zambia. The same success can happen in Senegal if all political parties commit to a free and fair electoral process and let the people select their next president. Fortunately, many Senegalese and especially young people have understood how they can take matters into their own hands—fighting for their rights at the ballot box.