Senegal abolishes senate: selfless gesture or selfish politicking?
New Senegalese President Macky Sall’s genius idea to deal with fund relief was to abolish the Senate, his country’s upper house of parliament. The money taken from the pockets of fat-cat politicians (most of whom weren’t on his side) would go directly to humanitarian aid. It’s a lovely idea, but SIMON ALLISON wonders about his motives.
I have no idea what former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has been doing since he was unceremoniously and unexpectedly dumped out of office in elections in February, but I like to imagine he spends at least some of his time scratching his bald and remarkably shiny head and wondering how his successor managed to abolish both the senate and the vice-presidency and still be hailed as a reforming democrat.
The biggest decision of new President Macky Sall’s brief tenure has been to tell the country’s senators to pack their bags and go home; their services are no longer required, their salaries and associated costs much better spent mopping up the consequences of severe flooding. There remains a lower house, so there is still a representative body, and Sall argues that the senators didn’t do very much anyway and were outrageously expensive. There was no need to dismiss the vice-president, as there hasn’t been one since Wade established the position in 2009 (for which he came under fierce criticism, the general consensus being that he was trying to pave the way for his son to succeed him). The lower house ratified the president’s decision, and it will go next to a vote in the Senate. Even if the Senate turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, the final say goes to a ballot of both houses, which is weighted in the ruling coalition’s favour.
It’s actually a lovely, feel-good story: the $16-million or so that is saved by not having an upper house will be put towards humanitarian aid, helping to rebuild Senegal in the wake of some of the worst flooding in its history, displacing tens of thousands and killing 13. It’s such a good story, in fact, that other countries want to copy it. In Nigeria, former Lagos Governor Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu called for his country to follow suit, saying Nigeria’s senate wastefully replicated the functions of the House of Representatives (he must have been serious, too, as he risks talking his wife out of a job – she is a current senator).
To put Sall’s decision in context, it would be like Jacob Zuma pushing for the abolition of the National Council of Provinces (what do they do anyway?) and putting the savings into a Marikana fund for widows.
There’s one crucial detail that’s missing from most of the coverage of this story, however. It just so happens that whereas Sall’s coalition of former opposition parties are firmly in control of the lower house, it is the remnants of Wade’s party – the new opposition – which dominate the senate. So, in addition to helping out those flood victims, Sall is also consolidating his political position.
“That criticism (that Sall is stifling opposition) could be valid,” said David Zounmenou, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. But he’s not convinced. Zounmenou follows Senegalese politics closely, and believes Sall is trying to remain faithful to his electoral promises; and, more importantly, undo some of the excesses of Wade’s political heritage. This includes re-assessing institutions; if they do not contribute anything politically and are a drain on public resources, then they should go.
“I don’t see Macky Sall doing anything to compromise Senegal’s democratic architecture,” Zounmenou told the Daily Maverick. For one thing, it is Senegal’s long and entrenched democratic record – briefly but unsuccessfully threatened by Wade – that brought Sall to power in the first place.
The truth is, if Wade had made a similar move against either of the houses of parliament, he would have been ferociously criticized by the opposition parties, human rights group and even other governments. Wade, however, had a history of repressing political freedom, and there was a very real danger of him turning the presidency into a pseudo-monarchical inherited position. Sall, new in office, has a clean slate and very high approval ratings. His response to this year’s flooding has been particularly good, a marked contrast to Wade’s apathy and his administration’s lethargy in similar situations.
For now, therefore, we will give President Sall the benefit of the doubt – and recognize that whatever else he may be, he is a very canny politician. DM
- “Flooding: a politically charged issue in Senegal,” on VOA News
- “Senegal senate abolished to pay for floods,” on BBC news
Photo: Senegalese President Macky Sall (Reuters)