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close this bookThe Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)
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close this folderSenegal: Democracy pays dividends
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View the documentThe Senegalese economy
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View the documentEEC-Senegal cooperation: a variety of instruments


Until recently, Senegal was French-speaking Africa's only democracy. This, the authorities say, has more to do with colonial heritage than national tradition and it is an historical premise which has its importance in both the practice and the development of the country's political institutions, particularly since a State organisation and operation model often reflects the ambitions of those who design it, in addition to all the socio-cultural and economic factors.

At first sight, Senegalese society has all the hallmarks of a democratic organisation. There is less State pressure on the individual than in many other African nations and the coercive attitude typical of the authorities elsewhere on the continent is virtually imperceptible here. Officially, the country's democracy is a real and positive thing, but the Senegalese themselves can be virulent in their criticism of its political workings - and for domestic far more than historical reasons.

Democracy grinds to a halt

Democratic organisation goes back a long way, but it was set aside nonetheless just after independence in June 1960, when the then Head of State, eminent grammarian Lold Sedar Senghor, was the next leader to be seduced by the one-party system, which lasted until 1978. The single party in question, the Senegalese Progressive Union (UPS), in fact looked more transparent because it included the socialist faction of former Prime Minister Mamadou Dia, although Dia was abruptly removed from power in 1962.

Senegalese politics are heavily influenced by what goes on in Paris and the events in France in May 1968 had their constitutional fall-out, leading to the reestablishment of the post of Prime Minister and a start on a multi-party system in only four years. The new system was made official in 1978, with the recognition of two new parties - the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) and the Independence and Labour Party (PIT). But hidebound regulation of the division between the ideological positions on which the parties were lined up meant that Senegal's democracy was stillborn, its machinery doomed first to freewheel and then grind to a halt. Paradoxical though it may seem, President Senghor thought and decided that the PDS, led by Abdoulaye Wade, the brilliant lawyer, could be nothing but a fairly right-wing free-market organisation and the PIT, Marxist or with Marxist leanings, could only be the extreme left. Only his own party, the Senegalese Progressive Union (UPS), bore the label of social democracy. So the rules of the democratic game were hard and fast and destined to lead, not to a proper pluralist system, but to governance by a dominant party which outstayed its welcome in power, radicalised the official opposition and aroused frustration in all those passed over by an economic policy totally reliant on external aid. The other consequence - one of the most perverse effects of this democracy programmed to seize up - was the development of a one-party cult in Senegal, even among the opposition, because there was no alternative to State direction.

With Africa's economic problems, national constraints and widespread one-party government, successive Senegalese authorities found it easy to develop a democratic image and to reap the dividends on the international scene.

Yet although Senegal's system has a long way to go before it becomes an average democracy, many African peoples - not leaders - would still find much to envy in the lot of the Senegalese. Despite such a firm commitment to the one-party system in its choice of leaders and its attitude to them, Senegal has, to a very large extent, the basic features of pluralist opinion, an aspect of public life which is reflected in great freedom of debate, in religious freedom in a country with a Moslem majority, in the right to be politically active without running any major risk and in the (for an African country) profusion of newspapers, whose lively tone is at variance with the conformity and 'poor standard' of the official media.

Opposition commits hare kiri

In Africa more than on other continents, the State has wanted to be a real provider and opportune or opportunistic sticking to the existing power has helped slow the move towards democracy and bolstered the one-party cult which, in Senegal, has taken hold of the opposition too. The Senegalese opposition was fairly moderate to begin with - more as a 'force of proposition' in the eyes of its principal leader, Abdoulaye Wade - and it has become more radical because of the lack of any alternative. But political combat in Africa has more to do with wielding power than achieving objectives or furthering any concept of the society that is to be built and, in 1990, the Head of the PDS yielded to temptation and joined President Diouf's Government, with neither condition nor portfolio. Just what concessions and assurances did Wade get to go into the Government and why? Newspapers and people close to the PDS leader maintain that there has never been an answer... and Senegalese housewives are still waiting for his promised slash in the price of rice.

Much the same has happened with the PIT. One or two of its leaders joined the Government at the same time as the PDS representatives, but this has done nothing to alter the policy of President Diouf and Habib Thiam, his Prime Minister.

Joining the Government spells hare kiri for the opposition and its principal leader Abdoulaye Wade, they say in Dakar - but without the honour that usually goes with this traditional Japanese form of suicide. The fact that the Government's only Minister of State is standing against President Diouf in the presidentials in February 1993 added to the confusion and made the head of the PDS's position more untenable and, in mid-October, he (like his two partisans) was forced to try and right the situation by resigning from his Government functions. But will this be enough to bring him better fortunes in the presidential elections, particularly in a country where, despite the waning authority of the holy men, particularly in the towns, Moslem brotherhoods can still greatly influence the voters' behaviour?

The other handicap, as one former PDS leader put it, is that the Senegalese opposition has failed to steer democracy or make sure it is properly rooted.

Anxious not to be outpaced

The democracy label attracted international aid for the Government and Senegal has the highest per capita rate of aid in Africa. This has its advantages, of course, but there are disadvantages too, not least the very common belief that aid is inevitable if Senegal is to survive.

The emergence of or the opening to democratic ideas in most of the other countries of Africa since Frans Mitterrand's famous speech at La Baule in 1989 has brought the Senegalese authorities the threat of competition in an area where Senegal has so far been treading a lone path on a continent where democracy was interpreted in widely different ways and was much subject to the carping of the leaders.

Anxious not to be outpaced in the democracy marathon slowly being run on the continent, the Senegalese Government has embarked upon a vast overhaul of its system, setting up a new electoral code, whose first merit is that it was adopted by all the political parties. Voter identity, the secrecy of the ballot (individual booths must be used), the count and transparency in all electoral operations in general are much more stringently controlled than before.

Votes, for example, will now be counted by about 30 committees, each one chaired by a magistrate and comprising representatives of the political parties, but none of the State - 'a real innovation', the Minister for Home Affairs emphasised, although he objected to the 'lack of a State presence' in this matter and thought the Government was at fault ' for going along with it. 'We have gone; further on this one than they have in France,' he added.

But if this is democratic progress for the people, what is the point in regretting going one better than those set up as the example?

There is a limit on the number of terms a president can serve now too - two lots of seven years - and independent candidates can stand, on far easier terms than before.

But one of the most important provisions in the new electoral code concerns the basis on which the President of the Republic is elected. The new Article 28 says that 'henceforward, no-one may be proclaimed elected on the first round unless he has obtained an absolute majority of the votes cast, representing at least one quarter of the electorate, and... if no candidate has obtained the requisite majority, there shall be a second ballot... to take place on the second Sunday following the first round'. There are a number of advantages to this: three of them are that it forces the Government to announce how many people are on the electoral roll before the election, it broadens the basis on which the president is elected (thus avoiding an ethnic, minority-based election in which list manipulation could bypass heavily populated areas hostile to a particular candidate) and it can encourage greater civic duty among the citizens.

Senegal has made a huge effort to update its democratic system in time for February 1993. It has been an expensive undertaking, very expensive indeed bearing in mind the country's income and requirements, and part of the cost has been covered by the international funders, with the European Community giving something like ECU I million.

But going beyond the heavy cost of a better system of democracy, what Senegal's political leaders, opposition included, have to do - and this is most important - is to create optimum conditions in which to safeguard the returns on democracy from which the country has derived so much benefit in years past.

Lucien PAGNI