The flawed beacon of democracy in Africa

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Flag map of Senegal (image: courtesy of GDJ)

Senegal, a Francophone West African country, is recognized by many political analysts as the beacon of democracy. That can be understood since a coup d’état has never taken place in that country. The army knows that its place is in the barracks. Another fact that distinguishes Senegal is that it is really the backyard of France. Those ties started during the colonial era when the French used that country as a ‘watch tower’. Military operations that aimed at rounding up and training African troops for the Second World War, the Indochina War and the French War in Algeria relied on Senegalese politicians (Blaise Diagne is one of them) and the Senegalese soil was used to marshal soldiers for the war. During World War Two, the West African soldiers who supported France against Nazi Germany were brought to Senegal from all the French colonies. They fought  well on the war front and were called Senegalese riflemen, although not all of them were from Senegal.

Strategically, France built her training institutions in Senegal. Dakar, Saint Louis and many other cities were the locations of important institutions like the William Ponty Teachers’ College for West Africa, the military academy, and the premier university, Cheikh Anta Diop University. Many African intellectuals and officers are products of these tertiary institutions. The first Ivorian President Houphouet Boigny and famous Ivorian writer, Bernard Dadié, trained in that college, as well as presidents of Mali, Niger, Upper Volta, and so on. Cheikh Anto Diop University was the preferred institution for those who aspired to university education. That prestige still stands. Despite the general crisis of education in Africa, those who train in that university are highly regarded.

Since France had so many vital institutions in that country, they had to control its political life. President of Senegal, the academic Leopold Sedar Senghor, trained in Paris and taught French in France. He also worked for the Academy of the French language, the gate keeper for the sanctity of the language. Unlike English, words cannot be coined and introduced into French easily. While we have world English or Global English, there is only one ‘type’ or variety of French, officially: that which respects the rules laid down by the French Language Academy. Senegalese political personalities were accepted as parliamentarians in France. The influence of France is robust and, in general, Senegalese citizens see themselves as French citizens, except that Wolof (the predominant language in the country) is their favorite medium of communication. Eating habits and many other basic practices in Senegal are totally tailored to the French model. The largest businesses are owned by French nationals.

The prevailing socio-political environment facilitated the emergence of the Western model of democracy and the army never meddled in politics. But that democratic image is currently facing threats, and many are wondering where the roots of such a change originated, in a country where peaceful transition is the norm. Senghor, the first president handed over to his prime minister Abdou Diouf who, in turn, handed over to Abdoulaye Wade who was succeeded by current president, Macky Sall. During all those decades, only minor skirmishes took place. One instance was when Wade attempted to maneuver the election of his son, Karim Wade, whom the Senegalese did not want as president partly because of his remoteness from the local political realities. He was seen as a bourgeois young man born to a Senegalese father and a White French mother.   Surprisingly, for the first time, people have taken to the streets and clashes between them and law enforcement forces have become frequent and worrisome. The person responsible for such historical malaise is Ousmane Sonko, a 49-year-old former tax inspector who is the face of the opposition. He is a young politician, former mayor of one of the main cities (Ziguinchor) and is opposed to the heavy control France has over the country. He is seen to be radical, and sides with the poor and downtrodden. He is liked by the youth, whose aspirations he shares and defends.

He lost to the current president during the last elections in 2019 and is gearing up for the next election in 2024. His political party is Patriots of Senegal for Ethics, Work and Fraternity (PASTEF), founded in 2014. In 2016, he was perceived as a tax inspector-turned-whistle blower, since he exposed the illegal practices of the Senegalese elite and several international companies that used shady practices to avoid paying an estimated USD 8.9 million dollars in taxes. Sonko was then discredited as a result of his activism.

France is said to be the main force behind a tireless and cunning opposition to Sonko’s election. Senegal has considerable oil reserves. The winner of the coming elections will handle the consumption and sale of that lucrative resource, exploitation of which will start in 2024. The incumbent, Macky Sall, is pro-France and is said to be working towards the election of someone who shares his position in the unconditional defence of French interest in Senegal. It is believed that Sall is trying to contest for a third term, which is not allowed by the national constitution.

The campaign against Sonko’s participation the 2024 elections has taken several forms. He was accused and tried in April for the rape of 20 year old masseuse (Adji Sarr) weeks ago.  He was also said to have intimidated her with death threats. The rape charges were later dropped but he was sentenced to a two-year imprisonment which will prevent him from contesting the coming elections. Sonko was under house arrest for some time, however his supporters keep agitating vibrantly against the actions of the government. Radio France Internationale, a major French media house, is said to have aired anti-Sonko programmes but the onward march for the voice of the Senegalese opposition and the radical anti-imperialist who is also the voice of the voiceless is still on.  Senegal has secured a peaceful and democratic reputation that she would gain in working to preserve. Falling into the camp of the Pronunciamientos would be a big downward fall for that country.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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  1. Very interesting. I think it is time for the african youth to open their eyes to do not allow France and its mandataries in africain countries so called presidents to defend their particular intersts. I know only one thing, whatever Macky is doing for keeping Sanko from power he will be failled, because we cannot prevent the sun spreading its brightness out.

  2. Wonderful analysis containing all facts on the scheming by France to control Africa through the Senegalese example.

    See Macky Sall, a man who was elected on good will by the people now stabbing the people in the back just to perpetuate the interest of France who would never leave Africa alone.

    Senegalese should understand they are a beacon of democracy, the African type that allows everyone to have an opinion and a say in leadership.

    Senegal should never allow that long held African institution be watered down through the perpetuation of a Macky Sall/France interest in agreeing a poodle forced on them.

    Viva Senegal. The beacon of democracy in Africa.

  3. Good morning, I think I must first and foremost commend the efforts of Senegal which seems to have given birth to a smooth power transition by dint of Democracy!
    You see, the days of colonization are over and those agitating for Sonko’s release or if you like being allowed to contest the upcoming Senegal general elections, must bow down their heads in shame!
    Can’t we think? Take the political tention in I’vory Coast years back, for instance, everyone including the independent electoral commission of Ivory Coast, that the incumbent president ( Laurent Bagbo) lost the elections to Alhassani Watara but was still controlling the army under the influence of some faceless French soldiers. How did it end? Many lifes were lost because the of one Bagbo!
    It’s not to say Ivory Coast is not a democratic country, but the interference of the French military as colonial masters motivated Bagbo not to handover power peacefully.
    The problem of my motherland ( Africa ) stinks my heart especially when it has a connotation with the whites.
    Thanks to Senegal for saying no to top much holding up to power. Who knows whether it would not turn to tyranny should Sonko be allowed to contest and win?
    As a Ghanaian graduate, I cannot possibly comment on this without bringing to bare instances of Democratic governance.
    I must state unequivocally that,Ghana is independent by way of freedom from our colonial masters ( England). But we’re not democratically independent of the whites influence in terms of Economic,Social and Political jurisprudence.
    As an English colony,we still can’t practice democracy to the fullest. . Point is this,if your Independent Electoral commission sides with any political party,there would never be fair play in the game of politics and election results.
    If you ask the EC of Ghana to tell you the real percentages in terms of figures the parties got in 2020, heaven can break loose but you won’t get it. Is what we call a democratic country?
    Let me conclude by saying that,no African country ( West Africa) for that matter should embrace political subjugation, economic exploitation and Social degradation.
    Kudos to the democratic atmosphere in Dakar.
    …..Thank you….
    Sakara Mumuni

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