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Tensions in Senegal Raise the Heat in the Region


In Dakar, men during prayers held by a political coalition after the deaths of antigovernment protesters recently in the capital and up north. Senegal is expected to hold a presidential election on Feb. 26 in a vote closely watched internationally. PHOTO BY JOE PENNEY

DAKAR, Senegal — Senegal has always been praised as the most secure country in West Africa since its independence in 1960 from France. Its capital, Dakar, perched on the western edge of the Atlantic coastline, is a city of very rich and very poor, mosques and outdoor athletic fields, hawkers and cultural aficionados. A highway hugs the rough bluffs along the ocean, and a French military base operated in town until virtually closing in 2010, with 450 soldiers remaining.

More important, Senegal, which is holding a presidential election on Feb. 26, has never experienced a coup, unlike all its neighbors. So when violence erupted recently in Dakar and up north, and three protesters died (two were shot) and one police officer was killed, the West African beacon seemed suddenly dark.

Senegal has never experienced such political violence before, and many people in the nation are worried by this trend. After the violence in Dakar, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged “all political parties and national stakeholders . . . to pursue peaceful means to resolve all electoral grievances.”

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What set off the protests was President Abdoulaye Wade’s decision to run for a third five-year term, despite the Constitution’s rule against third terms. The protesters, many of them young men and unemployed, are demanding that Wade step down.

Despite steady but limited growth, Senegal remains one of the world’s least developed countries. Wade’s legacy in the past years now features charges of nepotism, corruption and restricted civil liberties, says a report from the Congressional Research Service, written by Alexis Arieff, an analyst in African affairs.  The US State Department, the report says, considers relations with Senegal to be “excellent,” and the US sent about $106 million in aid in 2010.

Senegal’s presidential election, therefore, is being closely watched by the US and internationally to see if the country can manage its reputation for calm in a tense region. Leaders in France and the US have said that Wade should not run, and the European Union is sending 90 monitors for the election, which has a runoff in March.

Other presidential elections due in West Africa, namely in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, are also worth noting. Mali is in the midst of an ethnic battle in the north, and Guinea-Bissau’s coastline is plagued by drug smuggling.

Constitutional favoritism

Wade (pronounced wahd), who says he is 85 but may be older, contends he is exempt from the third-term law because it was passed while he was in his first term, so it doesn’t count. Moreover, his re-election bid was recently approved by the Constitutional Court, which is run by Wade-appointed judges. The court also issued a list of approved opposition candidates and upheld its decision on a third term for Wade after hearing appeals. Violent protests also occurred in June, when Wade tried to change the Constitution to allow the winner of the first election round, on Feb. 26, to take the presidency with a minimum of 25 percent, a move meant to ease his victory. The plan failed.

More than a dozen candidates are opposing Wade, but only five carry weight. Three are former prime ministers of Wade: Macky Sall, Moustapha Niasse and Idrissa Seck;, while a fourth, Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, is Wade’s former minister of foreign affairs. The fifth, Ousmane Tanor Dieng, heads the Socialist Party, which held power for 40 years before Wade won in 2000.

All these candidates have nominally aligned themselves with civil society groups to create M23, to defeat Wade, whom they accuse of staying in power through a “constitutional coup.” But M23 failed to keep Wade off the candidate list, and as the campaign heats up, the major opposition candidates are splintering.

President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal
President Abdoulaye Wade, who is running for a third five-year term on Feb. 26, 2012. JOE PENNEY

In another twist that sparked international attention on Senegal’s pre-election jitters, the court ruled that a popular Senegalese musician, Youssou N’Dour (and two other opponents), could not run. But the N’Dour candidacy was a nonstarter all along, regardless of worldwide attention on him. 

Human rights record

Senegal is predominantly Muslim, with a population of 12 million, ranking 155 (out of 187 countries) on the UN human development index. Its record on human rights was praised last year by Navi Pillay, the UN’s chief human rights official.

“In a part of the world which has seen more than its fair share of conflict and human rights violations in recent decades, Senegal has been notable for its stable democracy and a steady improvement in human rights,” Pillay said.

But she expressed concern over Senegal’s refusal to put the ex-Chadian dictator, Hissène Habré, on trial for international crimes. Habré has been living under house arrest in Senegal since being ousted in 1990. Pillay also said that Senegal needs to combat the trafficking of children across West Africa.

The government’s efforts to enhance the rights of women were also noted by Pillay, but she said that it needed to remove discriminatory laws, such as the one enforcing the husband to be the sole head of the family. She also brought up the plight of the Talibé children, who are recruited by Senegalese mosques to beg on the streets.

Instability in Mali

Elsewhere in West Africa, Mali, which is northeast of Senegal, will hold its presidential vote on April 29 and parliamentary vote in July. Like Wade, President Amadou Toumani Touré will be running for a third five-year term. The country, with a population of nearly 14 million, has been independent since 1960 as well, but it has endured military dictatorships and other authoritarian rule for 30 years. Touré, a former military officer, is considered a democratically elected president. Mali enjoys a free press and free speech, says Freedom House, a nonprofit advocacy group, says, but severe punishment for libel still exists under a 1993 law.

The country is one of the poorest in the world, ranking 175, below the median average for sub-Saharan Africa, on the human development index. Mali also is a busy place for women and children trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labor, Freedom House says. Traditional forms of slavery persist, particularly in the north.

Exact numbers on trafficking for sexual exploitation are hard to come by, says Celhia de Lavarene, founder of STOP (Stop Trafficking of People), a nonprofit group. But she confirmed that it is increasing.

“Mali has always been known as a source, transit and destination country,” de Lavarene wrote in an e-mail message to PassBlue. “Until recently, young women and girls from Mali were forced into domestic servitude. Lately they have been trafficked for sexual purposes. Youg girls and women from Mali are trafficked to Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger and sometimes Cote d’Ivoire.”

The Mali government “has failed to show evidence of progress in prosecuting and convicting traffickers,” she said.

Violence is also flaring between government troops and the ethnic Tuareg minority, despite a 1991 peace agreement. A new Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym, MNLA), is intensifying its threat in northern Mali. About 10 percent of its 1,000 fighters are former soldiers of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya. The Tuareg are demanding more autonomy and development aid, though a 2009 peace treaty with the extremist faction has led to some cooperation between the government and the rebels to combat drug-smuggling in Mali, which is mostly desert.

Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé, prime minister of Mali, speaking at the UN General Assembly in September 2011. MARCO CASTRO/UN PHOTO

In January, the UN refugee agencysent emergency teams to the countries around Mali to cope with an influx of more than 20,000 people who fled fighting by the Tuareg and the government. Most refugees have gone to Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

“In the past three weeks, at least 10,000 people are reported to have crossed to Niger, 9,000 have found refuge in Mauritania and 3,000 in Burkina Faso,” a UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said in Geneva recently.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is an additional  threat to security in northern Mali, where numerous international aid workers and European tourists have been kidnapped since 2008 and several were killed.

Guinea-Bissau, a drug-trade route

Guinea-Bissau, south of Senegal, is to hold a presidential vote on March 18, after the death of President Malam Bacai Sanhá on Jan. 9. The country, a former Portuguese colony of 1.5 million, has never had any president finish his term since independence in 1974. Coups, an assassination and repressive regimes have marked the leadership, though some democratic elections have occurred. Sanhá, voted in an emergency election in June 2009, died before his term was up. Raimundo Pereira, the acting president, recently called on international election monitoring support.

The UN opened a peace-building office in 2009 in Guinea-Bissau, a country rich in fish, wood, phosphate, bauxite and possibly oil. A main export is cashews.

The Security Council is also watching Guinea-Bissau, which ranks one step lower than Mali on the human development index. The council called on the government last month to continue pursuing reforms, particularly on the security sector, encouraging a pension fund for the military and efforts to fight drug trafficking. Guinea-Bissau has become a transit route for South American dealers sending cocaine worth $1 billion a year through the country north to Europe and elsewhere.

Other presidential elections are scheduled in Sierra Leone in November and Niger in December.

Additional resources;
A Charity to Run and Keeping Up With UN Folks

Africa Upgrades Its Business Climate

Climate Change, Migrations and Few Welcome Mats

Where Will the News Be in 2012?

Congo Elections, Hardly a Hinge Moment

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joe Penney

Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.

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