Obasanjo’s influence on the Senegalese elections


Senegal: How Mediator Sidetracked the Opposition

It can be argued that the opposition was the main loser in the so-called mediation initiative by former Nigerian President Obasanjo. Obasanjo also kept M23 busy enough to abandon street demonstrations that had become a daily occurrence.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo arrived in Dakar on Tuesday, 21 February at the head of a joint AU-ECOWAS election observation mission, officially in Senegal to monitor the presidential elections held on 26 February 2012. As soon as he landed in Dakar, at the head of a strong delegation that included people like former OAU Secretary General Edem Kodjo, Obasanjo said he was here not only to observe but also to help mediate an acceptable outcome to the current stand-off between the opposition and the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), and put an end to the occasional irruptions of violence that are becoming a bit too frequent.


A lot has already been written about these elections (including in the columns of Pambazuka News) in which the front runners include the incumbent, 86-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade, who has already served two terms, and 13 other candidates including three former prime ministers of his (Mustapha Niass, Idrissa Seck and Macky Sall) and Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, who served as his foreign minister for nine years. All four are part of a coalition of civil society organisations and political parties called the June 23rd Movement (M23), named after the day when the people of Senegal forced the National Assembly to suspend a discussion on and cancel a proposal to amend the constitution of the country in a way that would have made it possible for the president to be elected along with his vice-president, and with a lower score.

The core and driving force of the June 23 Movement, however, is a group of young people led by rap musicians and journalists called “Y’en A Marre” (Enough is Enough), that was born in December 2010, at about the same time as the ‘Arab Spring’ — in protest against the frequent power failures, rising cost of living, etc. In the eight months of its existence, the June 23 Movement’s actions were increasingly reminiscent of some of those associated with the Arab Spring, including the invention of its own ‘Tahrir Square’ (Liberty Square in Cairo) by choosing to hold regular mass gatherings on Dakar’s Place de l’Obelisque, where a monument of independence is located. More recently, an alternative venue, Place de l’Independance (Independence Square), at the heart of the administrative and commercial district of Dakar (Dakar Plateau), just a few hundreds of meters away from the Presidential Palace, has become the site of what was becoming like an ‘occupy Dakar’ movement.

The run-up to the elections was marked by increasing violence, with 12 people killed during the past four weeks alone, most of them as a result of police brutality. The main points around which the debates and protest movements have centred include the validity of a third term for the incumbent. Abdoulaye Wade was first elected at the head of a broad coalition of opposition forces that uprooted the regime of the Socialist Party that had ruled the country from 1960 to 2000. He was re-elected in 2007 for a second term of five years, following the amendment of the constitution. The new constitution limits the number of terms a president could serve to two. Wade and his Social Democratic Party argue that the first term does not count. The opposition in the June 23 Movement says it does. The main campaign of Y’en A Marre, and the Coalition of opposition parties called Benno Siggil Senegal (Unity for the Redress/Dignity of Senegal), and other members of the M23 has been to make Abdoulaye Wade refrain from running for a third term. On 27 January 2012, the Constitutional Council of Senegal validated the candidacy of 14 of those who wanted to run for the presidential elections, Abdoulaye Wade. This is when the upsurge of violence began, as the June 23 Movement multiplied its mass gatherings and demonstrations calling Abdoulaye Wade to respect the constitution of Senegal and withdraw his candidacy.

It is in this context that the transmutation of the AU-ECOWAS Election Observation Mission into a mediation mission could be better understood.


Even though, it was not clearly specified that he was designated as a mediator considering the acute political crisis in Senegal, everybody could guess that Obasanjo would be doing some mediation.

From Tuesday 21 February, when he arrived in Dakar to Friday 24 February, Obasanjo met with M23 leaders, including those of the Y en A Marre movement, the ‘key’ presidential candidates and, of course, incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade.

All M23 leaders and opposition presidential candidates reasserted that Wade could not run for the presidency this time round, and should be forced to withdraw his candidacy. Some M23 leaders vehemently supported the idea of a postponement of the elections; but there were clearly different positions within the M23. A camp led by Alioune Tine, leader of the human rights organization RADDHO (Rencontres Africaines des Droits de l’Homme) and coordinator of M23, Idrissa Seck (a former prime minsiter who fell out with Wade), and Ibrahima Fall (a former law professor and former high level UN official), both of whom were presidential candidates, pleaded for the postponement of the election, arguing that the environment was not favourable for peaceful elections. Other leaders of coalition of opposition parties, such as Macky Sall (former speaker of the Senegalese National Assembly and former Prime Minister), Mustapha Niass (former Prime Minister), and Tanor Dieng (head of the Socialist Party of Senegal), did not make that specific request. In fact, Macky Sall argued strongly for the holding of the election on as scheduled.

President Wade and the FAL Alliance supporting him stated in all their declarations that the elections would be held as planned. The press reported that Obasanjo asked Wade to withdraw his candidacy and that the latter reacted violently and rejected his proposition.

After the three days of meetings with all the political actors, M23 civil society leaders, other opinion leaders, the European parliamentarians’ observation mission and other observation missions and diplomatic missions, Obasanjo came up with the following proposals:

1. That Abdoulaye Wade be allowed to ‘rule’ for two more years (implying then the postponement of the elections); and after these two years a transitional government will be formed to organize a presidential election without Wade;

2. That there be an audit of the voter register by an independent expert chosen by the opposition (the reason being that there are rumours according to which the computer system had been tampered with in order to enable the incumbent to win the elections);

3. The creation of an Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC; the current electoral commission was set up by the current regime with virtually no input from the opposition parties).

In response, Alioune Tine, on behalf of M23, made the following counter-propositions to Obasanjo:

1. That the Parties (Wade’s camp and M23) undertake to postpone the elections, form a transitional government led by Wade — who would be allowed to continue, and hold the presidential elections six or nine months from now, but it would be elections in which he, Abdoulaye Wade, would agree not to participate in;

2. That during the transition period, discussions will be initiated immediately for the establishment of a new Constitutional Council or an independent Constitutional Court;

3. That both parties agree to establish an Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that will be responsible for the preparation and organization of the entire electoral process, instead of the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Elections (as is the case now);

4. That during this period, both parties agree to appoint an ‘apolitical’ Minister of the Interior;

5. That both parties agree to review the Electoral Code.

After his meeting with Obasanjo Macky Sall, whose coalition is a member of the M23, and who had been campaigning vigorously and was seen as a very serious contender for the presidency, declared that he did not discuss (let’s rather say that he did not agree with) any scenario of postponement of the election. He thus rejected both propositions (those of Obasanjo and those made by Alioune Tine). Several other presidential candidates expressed similar views, including Wade’s camp.

Later Obasanjo convened a press conference in which he said that there was “a great divide” between the opposition and the ruling camp because of a lack of dialogue between the two parties. Interestingly enough, he added that the AU-ECOWAS mission did not side with any camp, and that their main mission was to build peace. Acknowledging that there were ‘rumours’ that they were siding with this or that party, he invited the candidates to call for peace and to calm their supporters. ‘What is at stake is Senegal itself and nothing else’, he said.

Obasanjo’s press conference was marked by the loud presence of young members of Macky Sall’s political party, with placards on which were written in English, slogans such as: “Tomorrow there will be election here”, “Obasanjo go home”, “Alioune Tine is not our leader”, “Obasanjo, leave our home”. They were at the back of the room shouting these different messages, in English.

Many actors thus viewed Obasanjo’s initiative as being, again, a case of a member of the ‘usual suspects’, the syndicate of the African presidents, coming to negotiate for incumbent president Wade an extension of his term.

Later on Saturday 25 February, one the eve of the elections, Alioune Tine acknowledged that he did concede that Wade could be given one more year in office. Civil society leaders such as Mouhamadou Mbodj of Forum Civil rejected both the Obasanjo and M23-Alioune Tine propositions, accusing them of wanting to condone a flagrant violation of the constitution.

Main opposition leaders (Macky Sall, Mustapha Niass, Tanor Dieng, etc) also made it clear that they, of course, disagreed with Obasanjo, but also with the M23-Alioune Tine’s propositions.

It was therefore clear that the M23, whose fragility was easily discernable, had definitely split into several factions, and that the most significant political wing of it was in total disagreement with the civil society part led by Alioune Tine. The common ground of the movement had been opposition to Wade. Without a common, substantive programme for social transformation, it was difficult for one to see how such a coalition could be sustained over the medium and long term.

It was actually difficult to follow the rationale of decision making within and choices made by the M23 as a whole (meaning here both political and civil society wings). Did Alioune Tine and others consult all the members of the M23 before making propositions in the name of the M23? It was amazing to notice that all the opposition presidential candidates rejected the propositions of M23 as expressed by Alioune Tine. The main rift seems to have been between civil society organizations and the traditional opposition parties within the movement. Upon closer examination, the fault lines within the civic movement also become quite clear.

Y’ en a Marre seems to be a new a social movement whose slogans and actions seem to indicate the beginning of a profound social transformation. The movement has not only been calling for the respect of the constitution (“Touche pas a ma constitution” / Hands off my Constitution), but also urging the youth of Senegal to register as voters. The most interesting slogan, however, was the one that calls for A New Type of Senegalese Person (NTS-Nouveau Type Senegalais), one who is characterized by patriotism, integrity, professionalism , time consciousness, non-violence, etc.

It is important to note that the opposition came out weakened in this process somehow linked to AU-ECOWAS mission’s mediation efforts. As information was being circulated that the opposition was advocating for a postponement of the elections, they appeared to the public as not sufficiently prepared and not ready to go for election. This idea was reinforced by Wade’s camp which continuously accused the opposition of wanting to avoid going to the election because they knew they would lose. Yet, even though it has never been accepted publicly, reliable sources said that Wade’s camp were considering alternative scenarios, including the possibility of something more or less similar to some of the proposals made by Obasanjo.

It could therefore be argued that the opposition was the main looser in this so-called mediation initiative. It would not be an exaggeration for one to state that Obasanjo had kept M23 busy enough to abandon the organization of the usual street demonstrations that had become a daily occurrence. During the first four days of the mission’s presence in Dakar, Obasanjo subtly managed to shift the center of gravity from Place de l’Independance (the new Tahir Square to which the “Occupy Dakar” movement had shifted), to Radisson Blu Hotel (the most prestigious and expensive hotel in Senegal), where he was based. This could go down in history as a wonderful diversion that benefited the most experienced and perhaps the most brilliant political figure of Senegal: President Wade himself.

Therefore, instead of an electoral campaign coming to an end with debates on candidates’ programmes on offer for the Senegalese people to choose from, the latter went to bed on the eve of a presidential election more confused than ever. Once again, both their political and civil society leaders failed them (the Senegalese people). Some could add with the complicity of somebody called Olusegun Obasanjo.

Bitter and, once again, probably feeling fooled by Wade, opposition candidates or their representatives later resorted to the media, with declarations accepting that they had failed to prevent Wade from participating in the elections as a presidential candidate, and calling for a massive vote against his candidacy and tried to make it clear that they never advocated for a boycott of the election.

As for Y en A Marre, their position has for the past few weeks been that voters should consider Wade as an illegitimate candidate and refrain from even considering voting for him.

Hawa Ba is former editor of Pambazuka News French. She currently heads the Senegal Country Office of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).

Via All Africa

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