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Senegal’s defeated president: in praise of the anti-hero

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

There were many good reasons for Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade to gracefully concede the presidential election. His age, reputation, the constitution, the results – together, these all made his third term impossible. Nonetheless, we should laud the example of an African president who was, eventually, prepared to listen to his people and step aside.

You could say Wade had no choice but to concede the presidency. But that hasn’t stopped wannabe Big Men before. A defining feature of most dictators is the blithe disregard for the will of the people. And, while it’s certainly true that Senegal’s vibrant pro-democracy movement created the conditions necessary for him to leave, this alone was not enough to keep the peace. For that, the man who controlled the guns needed to decide not to use them. That Wade held his fire is to his credit, and it’s from him that we should draw lessons for Africa’s future.

It’s tempting to look for a grander narrative. That Senegal is fighting the good fight for democracy in Africa (peacefully, of course), that it is spearheading Africa’s political renaissance, that it turns the tide against the decades of bad leadership which has characterised so many countries on our continent. Grand narratives, however, are evocative, emotional and appealing – but all too often misleading. We must not discard caution in our excitement.

There are reasons to be disquieted by Senegal’s new president who, as an establishment politician formerly with close links to Wade is hardly the poster boy for change. Particularly concerning are his dubious mining connections. And as the only country in Africa not to experience any form of coup or civil war, Senegal’s history indicates it is more likely to choose peace over violence.

But there is a narrative to be found in all this, even if it’s a more nuanced than the simple triumph of good over evil.  It’s about recognising the bad guys when they make the right call.

Wade is the latest of a series of African leaders who, when pushed, have decided to run, resign or concede rather than cling to power. Tunisia’s former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was one, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak another. I was in Tahrir Square in Cairo on 2 February last year, for what was essentially Mubarak’s last stand. The plainclothes policemen and thugs he sent to attack the peaceful demonstrators used knives, bottles, Molotov cocktails and even attack camels, but there were no pistols, machine guns or grenades. The difference this makes can be seen in a simple comparison of casualty figures. In Egypt’s revolution 846 people were killed. In Libya, with a population less than a tenth that of Egypt, Gaddafi clung to power and estimates of the death toll are all in the thousands, some in the tens of thousands. An example closer to home is, of course, that of South Africa’s last National Party president, FW de Klerk. Even though the Nobel Peace Prize committee recognised his contribution, it’s generally to Nelson Mandela most plaudits are directed. Mandela deserves them, but so too does De Klerk. There was plenty of appetite within the National Party, and particularly the security forces, to do whatever it took to maintain apartheid. Given the heavily militarised nature of the apartheid state, this could have become very ugly very quickly. It took courage to stand against this hardline faction, and even greater courage for De Klerk to dismantle the state he had spent his life protecting.

Ultimately, I believe that whether or not a particular situation will degenerate into violence depends on who has the biggest gun. Given that this is almost always the case when presidents and dictators are threatened, they choose violence. This means they get the blame when things go wrong, as they so often do. But they should also get some credit when things go right, or things aren’t as bad as they could have been. Wade’s timely exit falls into this category.

We’re all glad to see him go, and we’re all happy Senegal has lived up to its reputation as Africa’s strongest democracy, but we should also recognise that, without Wade’s acquiescence, things would have been different.

The reason this is important is because it will affect how the international community deals with Wade. In establishing their Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Governance, and attaching a whopping big cheque to it, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation recognised that African presidents have a difficult time adjusting to life after office, and if at least financial independence could be guaranteed they could perhaps remove one of the motivations for trying to hold on to power.

Similarly, it would be wise to make Abdoulaye Wade welcome in the international community, because we want other African wannabe dictators to follow in his path. People like Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika, who also has designs on keeping control longer than he’s supposed to, will be watching Wade’s fate with interest. If Mutharika and his ilk can realise there is life after the presidency, and they can leave a strong, positive legacy by stepping aside, then perhaps this option will be more appealing than squatting in the presidential palace. DM

Read more:

  • Senegal’s Game of Thrones on Al Jazeera.
  • Thoughts on Senegal’s elections on the Sahel Blog
  • Tahrir Square and Mubarak’s ‘restrained reaction’ on Daily Maverick.

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