Why democracy prevails in Senegal but fails in Mali

Senegalese and Malian soldiers train with U.S. special forces in Mali. By Staff Sgt. Michael R. Noggle, via Flickr.

People took to the streets in Dakar, Senegal, yesterday, celebrating what many had feared would never happen: opposition leader Mack Sall gained around two thirds of the vote in the second round of the presidential elections, and incumbent Abdoulaye Wade accepted defeat, personally calling Sall to congratulate him.

Meanwhile in Bamako, the capital of Senegal’s neighbor Mali, people were slowly starting to venture out to the streets again after a sudden coup d’état brought normal life to a standstill for several days.

Why did democracy prevail in Senegal and not in Mali? Why were people in one country able to express the need for change at the ballot box, while in the other weapons had to speak?

At the time of the coup, Mali was looking forward to holding presidential elections in a few weeks. Having reached his term limit, Malian incumbent Amadou Toumani Touré — or ATT — wasn’t running again.

This made the coup, which was led by young officers without connections to the political establishment, especially baffling for observers and Malians alike.

It was in Senegal, actually, that observers were concerned that violence might break out. The incumbent Wade had staged what some called a “constitutional coup.” Using creative legal arguments and his leverage over the country’s supreme court, he managed to get on the ballot for a third time, despite having introduced presidential term limits into the constitution himself. Many feared that Wade was intending to build a dynasty, handing over power to his son, and would be willing to employ violence against the opposition movement, as well as rigging the vote, to stay in power.

This fear was nurtured by several deaths of protesters and policemen in the run-up to the first round of polls. But violence ultimately became supplanted by cooperation between the various opposition movements.

The strategy paid off. Mack Sall ended up taking about 70 percent of the popular vote, according exit polls. No serious irregularities were reported, and Wade seems to be determined to gracefully bow out, allowing Senegal to continue its tradition of inclusive political decision making. With the exception of the conflict around the independence of the Casamance region, Senegal has managed to address its political conflicts through democratic mechanisms, giving grievances little chance to deteriorate into violence.

The large-scale protest by the M23 and “J’en ai marre” protests also contributed to the outcome and acceptance of the elections. They managed to visibly demonstrate public discontent with President Wade. They also provided a venue for activists of different opposition parties to meet, get to know each other and ultimatively cooperate to the extent necessary to defeat the incumbent. The protests may also have restrained Wade from trying to “manage” the outcome of the vote, or to claim power by violent means. As thousands of people showed repeatedly their willingness to defend their constitution and rights through largely peaceful protest in the streets, the social cost of large-scale rigging or suppression was clear in the eyes of those in power.

In Mali, however, this has not tended to be the case. There, marginalization and violence are virtually ingrained into the fabric of the state, which has been facing roughly one violent insurrection by Tuareg rebel groups every decade. The latest, which has its roots in a complicated history of exclusion and broken promises, began in January but has already engulfed the whole northern part of the country.

Weakened by nepotism and corruption in its ranks, the Malian army so far hasn’t stood a chance against the heavily-armed Tuareg, many of whom just returned battle-hardened from the civil war in Libya. After two months of defeats, the rank-and-file soldiers and young officers stationed in Bamako seemingly had enough and mounted a mutiny, which more or less by accident became a full-blown coup d’état.

The soldiers clearly felt little hope that the upcoming presidential elections would bring any significant change. The political class in Mali and the upper echelons of the security services are perceived as highly corrupt, with links to smuggling networks and Islamist extremists. This also explains the tentative support that the coup had among the general population — although this too is already waning due to incidents of looting by soldiers in the capital.

In the run-up to their respective elections, both Senegal and Mali were presented with major challenges. But where Senegal managed to strengthen its democracy in the face of the contentious candidacy of an incumbent president, Mali was thrown back into military rule after its political elites failed to deal with a rebellion born out of frustration.

The difference, in the end, was a matter of whether these societies had managed to foster an inclusive and peaceful dialogue in which elites can’t simply cling to their power and corrupt practices, and citizens are organized enough to hold them accountable.

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