President Abdoulaye Wade has claimed victory in Senegal’s closely fought presidential election which took place on Sunday. Wade needs 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off election in mid-March. Official results are not expected until Monday, and it was not clear whether Wade was on track for outright victory. If confirmed, it will be Wade’s second term in office in a country, which uniquely for West Africa has suffered no coups in the 45 years since independence. Only three men have led the country in that time.
The French educated Wade turned 80 in May last year but his leadership of Africa’s most stable country shows no sign of flagging. But Senegal’s much vaunted stability has come at a cost. The country has suffered economically, unable to diversify its economy beyond a near total dependency on peanut exports. Over half its 11 million people live below the poverty line and if the country keeps growing at its current 2.6 percent rate, the economy will have to grow at a 7.5 percent rate over a decade to cut poverty rates in half. It also suffers from an independence movement in the south of the country.
The French arrived in the 1850s and ruled Senegal for the next hundred years. Senegal gained its independence in 1959 and for a short while formed a federation with French Sudan before the latter broke off to form the new country of Mali. Senegal was also united with The Gambia for much of the 1980s. Casamance, the area to the south of The Gambia has been the site of a sporadic separatist movement called the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MDFC). The MDFC are Jola people who claim they have suffered discrimination at the hands of Senegal’s majority tribe, the Wolof.
Leopold Sedar Senghor was an educator and poet who served as the country’s president for its first 21 years. Senghor was educated in Paris and stayed on to teach at university. He joined the French army at the outbreak of World War II and spent two years in a Nazi POW camp. He returned to Senegal after the war and joined the colonial government. In 1948 he founded a political party, the Bloc democratique senegalais. Senghor was a strong supporter of federalism for newly independent African states. And because Senegal was the intellectual centre of French West Africa, Senghor was elected president of the Federal Assembly of the newly minted French Commonwealth states until its failure in 1960. Then he became Senegal’s first president. Bolstered by a strong French military force, Senghor served five terms as leader before resigning in 1980.
His replacement was fellow Socialist party member Abdou Diouf. Diouf would go on to lead Senegal for the last two decades of the 20th century. He was progressive and institutionalised democracy, decentralisation and allowed a progressive liberalisation of the economy. In the presidential election of 2000, opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade defeated Diouf in an election deemed free and fair by international observers. Wade took 60% of the vote.
It was Wade’s fifth attempt at the presidency and ended the 40 year rule of the Socialist Party. Wade leads the liberalist Senegalese Democratic Party . Wade won the 2000 election in a coalition that saw the third place finisher Moustapha Niasse installed as Prime Minister. Wade oversaw the completion of a new constitution which reduced the presidential term from seven to five years. Wade’s most significant challenger in the 2007 election was former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck.
Seck was Prime Minister from 2002 to 2004 but was then controversially removed and jailed on allegations of corruption and threatening state security. He was released last year for lack of evidence. Seck was favourite to force Wade into a run-off ballot and opposition supporters have not yet accepted Wade’s outright victory. Critics say Wade has not done enough to combat rural poverty, weak infrastructure, rising prices and a lack of jobs. Seck said only electoral fraud would make it possible for him to win in the first round. Meanwhile a spokesman for Socialist Party candidate Ousmane Tanor Dieng dismissed Wade’s early victory announcement as a "fantasy".
Senegal will find out on Monday whether Wade’s fantasy has come true.