Foreign Policy Blogs

Senegal & Mali: A Tale of Two Democracies

Senegal & Mali: A Tale of Two Democracies

Bottle of ink for voter identification at polling station in Dakar, February 2012 (Reuters)

It’s been quite a week in West Africa.

As mentioned earlier this month, Mali is facing its share of troubles since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in neighboring Libya. Observers knew that the return of Tuareg fighters from Libya would likely increase tensions in northern Mali and perhaps lead to a new Tuareg rebellion. However the events of the last week, where a group of soldiers overthrew the democratically elected government just a month before elections were scheduled, still took most analysts by surprise.

Part of that may be because the wary eye of the outside world was focused on yesterday’s run-off election in Senegal. Back in January, the Constitutional Council allowed incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade to use a legal loophole to defy term limits and run for a third term while also disqualifying his most popular rival, international singer Youssou N’Dour, from running in the election. Needless to say, this turn of events infuriated the opposition and brought renewed critical attention to Senegal, a country typically seen as an island of democratic stability in a region better known for conflict. Several heavy-handed and violent incidents between government forces and opposition protesters did little to relieve fears of an outbreak of major election violence. Although voting in the first round was largely peaceful, as no candidate received the necessary votes needed to avoid a run-off, the potential for post-election violence remained as a major concern for the region.

Mali, however, presented a completely different situation. President Amadou Toumani Touré first became a national figure as the leader of Mali’s last military coup, which ended the dictatorial regime of Moussa Traoré in 1991. However instead of retaining power, Touré handed over power to the democratically elected civilian government the following year. After leaving political and military life, he returned to win the presidency through the ballot box in 2002 and 2007. Yet unlike Senegal’s Wade and even with a growing conflict in the north, Touré made clear he would not try to pursue a third term and would leave office peacefully. The first round of elections was scheduled for late April and while expected to be fiercely competitive, they were not expected to be violent.

Yet in the span of a few days, the fate of democracy in Senegal and Mali took very different turns. While Mali suffered a surprise military coup, the second round of elections in Senegal passed without incident and with Wade peacefully conceding defeat to his rival, Macky Sall. As news of the results came in, Senegalese civilians took to the streets to celebrate the apparent triumph of democracy. As Khadija Patel put it on Twitter, “Abdoulaye Wade has conceded defeat… Take a bow, Senegal. You spoke, he listened.”

Meanwhile, the fate of Mali’s twenty-year-old multiparty democracy remains unclear. Although the new military regime claims that it will hand over power to a democratically elected government, they have also stated there is no set timetable for that process and have suspended the constitution and dissolved government institutions in the meantime. On Thursday, presidential hopeful Soumaila Cissé posted on Facebook that his home had been attacked by armed men hours after the coup, yet another worrying sign of what may be in store for Mali.

The timing of the military coup, purportedly to oust the Touré’s “incompetent regime” and its handling of the Tuareg rebellion in the north, seems odd as the regime was about to end anyway. However as Alex Thurston points out, military coups almost by definition suggest the belief of the military that civilians are unable to cope with the situation at hand, and therefore elections are of no use to fixing the perceived crisis. But with Tuareg rebels vowing to take advantage of the current chaos in Mali and continuing clashes, it may be that the coup will only make matters worse for the military in trying to quell the growing rebellion.

So democracy stumbles in Mali while it prevails in Senegal. In the end, perhaps it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that the stars aligned in this way. President-elect Sall is due to take office next week in Dakar but most attention on the region will likely stay with Mali as international condemnations of the coup continue to come in, human rights groups urge the ruling junta to respect the rights of the population, and analysts struggle to understand the possible consequences and solutions to the coup for one of the region’s most established democracies.

Yes, it’s been quite a week for West Africa.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa