In ancient Egypt Pharaohs were the political and spiritual leaders who ruled until natural death or assassination. Their reign was hereditary and considered dynasties. By and large this brand of autocratic rule has been found throughout the African continent since antiquity and has become synonymous with modern African politics. Within the last several months local populations and the international community has posed challenges to these political dynasties. In Egypt for example, former President of 24 years Hosoni Mubarak was ousted from power through civil unrest and is now being tried in court for corruption and human rights violations. After losing the presidential elections and refusing to concede power the French military intervened and bombed former President of Ivory Coast Laurent Gbagbo out of power after 11 years The 42 year reign of Libyan strong man Mummar el-Qaddafi came to a bloody end by the hands of NATO backed Libyan rebels. Collectively all three former African heads of state have been in power for a total of 77 years, which would be the equivalent to approximately 19 consecutive U.S. presidential terms. This illustrates African leaders disregard for democratic order and their unwillingness to relinquish power in the face of popular dissent, caused by eroding social and economic conditions. This is evident in the recent Senegal riots.
11 is not enough
Bitten by the “pharaoh complex,” President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal breached electoral term limits by announcing his candidacy for a third term prior to a ruling being made by the Constitutional Council to decide whether he can legally run. He attempted to extend his 11 year reign and political shelf life by proposing electoral reforms that would reduce the number of votes needed to secure another term. Secondly, he moved to abolish the senate vote needed to determine presidential succession in the event that the incumbent is unable to complete his term. Lastly in 2010 he appointed his son Karim Wade, who has no prior political experience, to various ministerial positions which included Minister of State, Minister of International Cooperation, Regional Development, Air Transport, Infrastructure and Energy which accounts for 46% of the state’s budget. These measures were designed to secure his son and running mate succession to the presidency thereby ensuring Wades political dynasty continues into the future.
Systemic problems under Wade’s administration
The relentless rolling blackouts and Wades proposed electoral reforms were the tipping points that unleashed a wave of civil unrest in Dakar and throughout the region. Riots, street protest and the vandalizing of government ministries and power company offices highlighted deep cracks within Senegalese society which is often seen as a beacon of democratic stability in West Africa.
Firstly the bold attempt by Abdoulaye Wade’s Democratic Socialist Party (PDS) to introduce these kinds of reforms is evidence the regime overplayed its hand in thinking Senegal would just accept it with little to no fanfare because of a fragmented opposition and control over two-thirds of the parliament. Secondly, the disillusionment with Wade’s administration particularly by the youth (citizens under 25 represent 68% of the population) who were his strongest supporters during the 2000 and 2007 elections is a clear indication of Wades weakening power and influence over his constituency. Thirdly of Senegal’s 12.9 million citizens, 55% live below the poverty line surviving on less than $1.25 a day. The rate of productivity is low and unemployment and underemployment rates are high. Senegal’s annual population growth is approximately 3% with some 100,000 young individuals entering the labor market each year with scarce employment opportunities available to them. In addition there is a lack of access to basic education and illiteracy is widespread, especially among women and girls. Lastly the rising cost of living and food staples like bread and rice in Senegal and across the continent  has contributed to both hunger and malnutrition. Considering all of the above it is not surprising Senegal ranks 144 out of 169 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index and civil unrest has occurred.
Challenges to the regime and looking ahead
Given the current climate of mass protest, electricity and gas shortages, rising cost of basic needs and pressure from the international community regarding its fiscal irresponsibility and misuse of aid, Wade’s chances for re-election is in question but anything can happen between now and February . As it stands the opposition is still divided and fragmented along party lines. The inability to consolidate a coalition and the cunningness of Wade’s ability to subdue opposition is also a factor on the outcome of the upcoming elections.
Despite this, Wade’s former protégé and current Mayor of Thies, Idrissa Secka is being touted by the media as a contender for the presidency. Secka and Wade’s relationship soured when in 2004 Wade publically accused Secka of embezzlement of state funds which ultimately led to him serving a 7 month prison sentence. The current political climate moving toward support for Secka is indicative of a growing trend of discontent for this nepotistic and maladaministrative style of governance. It also reflects a heightened demand for the people to begin having greater say in how the country is governed and the desire to hold their political leaders to a higher standard of accountability.
The riots that spread throughout Senegal in June were symbolic of the growing intolerance throughout the continent for neglectful and corrupt leadership. The emergence of organizations like Y’en a Marre (fed up), has placed sustained pressure on governments to become more accountable to its citizens. With the inner political circles in Dakar faced with these challenges and conscious of the growing changes across Africa, it’s likely they will do what they can to avert further acts of civil disobedience that would set the stage for full scale unrest, akin to what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Senegal’s tradition for peaceful democratic transitions is crucial toward the further stabilization within the West Africa region and Africa as a whole.
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