from Africa in Transition

Senegal’s Wade Struggles to Hold Power

February 24, 2012

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Elections and Voting


Normally placid, elegant Dakar is roiled by pre-election demonstrations. The issue is President Abdoulaye Wade’s apparently desperate attempt to hang on to presidential power via a third term bid this weekend. Wade claims his re-election would be legal under the frequently revised (by Wade) constitution. The Constitutional Council has ruled that his first term does not count because the two-term limit law was introduced after his first term began. His opponents have objected to the decision. Former Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo, as head of an African Union observer mission, has gone to Dakar, apparently to try to persuade Wade to step down. Thus far, Wade has refused. So, the stage appears to be set for a contested election this weekend – Wade (like Gbagbo in Ivory Coast) almost certainly has more popular support than outsiders estimate. If he does win, extensive court challenges seem inevitable.

Wade is at least 85 years of age, and probably older. Why does he want to hang on to power? Certainly he is not unusual among African chiefs of state who seek to remain in office. Obasanjo, for example, sought – but failed – to gain the ruling party’s nomination for a third term as Nigeria’s president in 2006; he was stymied because of a rare coming together of Nigerian opinion against a third term. Perhaps that makes him especially qualified to try to persuade Wade to go.

Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese billionaire based in London, has tried to encourage African chiefs of state to leave office as required by their respective constitutions. His Mo Ibrahim prize consists of $5 million over ten years and $200,000 per year for life thereafter, in effect relieving a retiring chief of state of any reasonable financial requirements. Yet, in 2009 and 2010, the prize committee was unable to find an eligible winner, finally awarding it to Cape Verde’s former president Pedro Pires last year.

The politics of Sub-Saharan Africa’s fifty-plus states resist generalization. But, in too many politics is winner-take-all and is shaped by patron-client networks that make it difficult for a chief of state to relinquish power once he has it. Such governance issues –with many computations and variations – remain a significant barrier to genuine, sustainable development.