Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 March - 5 April 2000
Issue No. 475
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Beyond the dole-cracy

By Gamal Nkrumah

Gamal Nkrumah FM radios and cellphone networks revolutionised Senegal's presidential election, whose second round was held on 19 March. This day will go down as a landmark not only in Senegalese, but also in African political history, for it showed how sophisticated telecommunications and information technology can make it almost impossible for governments to rig results.

The myth of the unassailability of the incumbent president in Africa has been shattered once and for all, thanks to the reporters who surrounded the polling booths with their mobile phones. As soon as the results were out and the winning candidate named, the news was broadcast all over the country, making it impossible for government officials to revise the results at a later date if they failed to fit the desired outcome.

But for many Senegalese, the real shock was not the fall of the ruling Socialist party, but the reaction of their new president elect. Abdoulaye Wade has long prided himself on hiw struggle for a "Modern Senegal"; yet on hearing the news of his victory, his first public act was to visit his marabou, or religious guru, Grand Sheikh Saliue M'Bakke. Wade belongs to the Mouridiya, Senegal's richest and most politically influentual sufi order. The Mouridiya commands vast estates and resources which give it considerable finacial clout in the impoverished West African country. Their headquarters are in the holy city of Touba, to which Wade promptly journeyed to pay tribute to the man who had interceded with God on his behalf to bring him to power. This act of devotion was particularly shocking to the younger voters -- the vast majority, in a country where the under-30s make up 90 per cent of the population -- who had voted for him precisely because he appeared determined to pull Senegal out of what they see as the morass of its outdated traditions.

Ironically, outgoing President Abdou Diouf paid little attention to the powerful sufi orders during his own campaign, and some were quick to suggest this as the cause of his political demise. Indeed, many Senegalese believe him to be a freemason. What is certain is that he is a very private man, who shies away from religious matters, and is not in the habit of discussing his confessional allegiances in public.

The role of the sufi orders in Senegalese life has been amplified of late as they have emerged as the main social force opposing the rise of Wahabist zealotry. The Wahabis, many of them students returning from Saudi Arabia, want to institute shari'a law. They are also vehemently opposed to Senegal's more traditional, mystical brand of Islam, from which they want to root out any residual pre-Islamic practices. This attitude contrasts sharply with the genius of the Senegalese people. Though predominantly a Muslim country, Senegal has always been a secular state and an exceptionally liberal society, where the Christian and animist minorities (which together make up less than ten per cent of the population) have long been treated benevolently.

Of late, political discord has been superimposed upon the long-standing religious harmony, as these minority groups, concentrated in the lush southernmost province of Casamance, have become the focus of an intermittent war of independence. One of the first tasks awaiting Wade will be to appease the secessionists and come up with a negotiated response to their demands.

Leopold Senghor, himself a Christian, was the first Black African to be admitted to the exclusive Paris literary institution, the Academie Francaise. As Senegal's first post-independence President, he instituted multi-party democracy in 1974. To begin with, though, the political domain was strictly controlled, with only four parties permitted to participate. It is one of those, the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), designated as "liberal" by its founders, which has formed the vehicle for the political career of Abdoulaye Wade. Liberal, however, is an elastic term, especially in Africa. During the latest election campaign, the highly-animated Senegalese media nick-named Wade's PDS the "Partie de la Demande Sociale" (Party of Social Demands), on account of its identification with the downtrodden masses.

Senghor and Diouf's Senegalese Socialist Party (PSS), by contrast, was never left-wing, even in its own eyes. Thanks to the monopoly on power which it excerised since independence in 1960, it was able to accumulate an unparalleled organisational strength. Single-handedly, it was the Senegalese political establishment.

The first round of this year's presidential elections saw eight candidates step into the ring. Ironically, it was Diouf who won the first round. However, his majority was not big enough to avoid a run-off with second-placed Wade.

After his visit to Touba, Wade went to Luga, the birthplace of his rival, Diouf. There, the frail mother of the outgoing president clasped the hands of both men, and said, "The two of you are both my sons. So whoever wins, I cheer, for I know you will take good care of your old mother." She might well have been the personification of Senegal itself.

In the heat of the election campaign, Diouf came under fire for running the country by dole-cracy -- dole in the Wollof language means "force". Yet he has made sure he will be remembered very differently -- as one of the first African presidents to bow out of power with a good grace, having surrendered control to a democratically-elected successor.

Yet of the many ironies of this election, the most interesting, perhaps, is that all the leading candidates were, at one time or another, Diouf's men. Moustapha Niasse resigned last year from Diouf's government as foreign minister. Djibo Leity Ka, another presidential hopeful, also held office under Diouf. Ka polled a hopeless seven per cent, while Niasse took a more reasonable 16.76 per cent. Both men then publicly urged their supporters to vote for Wade.

Diouf, who won the 1993 Presidential election with 58.4 per cent of the vote, took 41.33 per cent this time in the first round, which saw Wade poll almost 31 per cent. Once Niasse had told his supporters to vote for Wade, the latter's victory was a forgone conclusion.

The Niasse factor cannot be underestimated. Having established himself as the effective king-maker, his popularity rating is now soaring. Indeed, observers believe that Niasse is quickly gaining new followers, especially among the younger voters, who appreciate his dynamism, relative youth and clean record.

If Senegal was able to make this historic transition peacefully and with such maturity, this is in large part due to its almost unique political culture, where constructive criticism of the government and individual politicians is de rigueur. There are numerous newspapers which openly debate political matters, analysing the platforms of the various parties and scrutinising the candidates' every move and word. As one Western reporter, the BBC's Mark Doyle, commented wistfully, "The level of political consciousness among individual voters [in Senegal] is much higher than in most of Western Europe."

There was a time, not so long ago, when that really would have been saying something.

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