brad brown_cc.jpgWhen it comes to Africa, few have the background to put news in perspective and often a little knowledge gleaned from one country is applied to another. Many forget that Africa is not a country but a continent as big as Europe, India, Brazil and Japan combined.

Recently, the U.S. press carried news of opposition party demonstrations that turned violent in Dakar, Senegal. The trigger was discussions in Parliament on changing the constitution to elect a vice president on a ticket, as in the United States, and to have a threshold for a runoff of 25 percent. (The U.S. has no presidential runoff). The proposal was later withdrawn. So Senegal will remain without a vice president position.

There were charges that President Aboulaye Wade, now in his 80s, was trying to establish a dynasty by running for a third term and wanting to pass the office to his son, a powerful government minister, through getting him on a presidential ticket as  vice president, although this is conjecture. The demonstrations turned violent and the military came to the aid of the police as power stations were burned and small businesses were damaged.  There were charges of police abuse. Comparisons with other African countries, where a single person has held the presidency, and with uprisings in parts of the Middle East and North Africa were drawn.

A history of Senegal’s 51 years of independence would help. The Socialist Party held power for 40 years under two presidents, each for 20 years. Initially, it was the only party allowed.  Wade struggled for years to establish a viable second party, including serving time in prison. He formed the Democratic Party Senegal in 1974, shortly before competing parties were allowed to register for election in 1976.

It was generally believed that he actually won the majority vote in the last election he lost before he was elected. He was re-elected to a second term.  Even with another term, he won’t serve as long as his predecessors.

Unlike the demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa, Senegal’s was permitted but, unfortunately, did not stay peaceful.  The economic problems and power shortages are issues that stress out many people. However, at the end of the day, there were no dead bodies.

While charges were made by the opposition that Wade was seeking to establish a dynasty, the evidence suggests the only way that could happen is by elections. And, in the last local balloting, the Socialist Party took many seats away from Wade’s Democratic Party and his son was defeated.  Certainly, an oligarch would never let that happen. Wade showed himself a democrat by allowing and accepting the voters’ decision.

On July 23, there were two demonstrations. The first was held by the opposition and the multitude of presidential aspirants spoke. While they were given permission, they were restricted from blocking the business areas where violence and destruction had occurred. The party of the president held a rally the same day, bringing busloads of people in from around the country, as well as the attendees from the capital. Estimates of the crowds ranged from 3,000 for the opposition and 500,000 for the president’s party to 50,000 and two million, respectively. As a democracy, Senegal should be proud of having both peaceful events.

Things are not always as simple as the press makes it seem. When reading about Africa, do not jump too quickly to conclusions.

Photo: Brad Brown