Africa's democracy


THE CONTRAST over the last week between the stories of Senegal and Mali speaks eloquently of Africa’s unsteady path to democracy half a century after both countries celebrated their independence. In Senegal, following elections on Sunday, power transferred peacefully from defeated incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade to his rival, Macky Sall, while in Mali soldiers last Thursday seized power after two decades of relatively successful democratic rule.

Wade’s welcome concession of defeat – he only received a third of the vote – was not always a given. Increasingly autocratic and aloof and tending to nepotism, he had dangerously come to see his own rule as the personification of the nation, and many of his subjects did not expect him to stand aside.

“The defeat of Wade,” Le Quotidien, a Dakar daily wrote on its front page, “has transformed itself into a victory for the people, and for Senegalese democracy.” The country, a one-party state with a weak parliament and judiciary for much of its history, has nevertheless strong democratic traditions which the voters were clearly prepared to defend in the streets. The message got through.

It is still not being heard by Mali’s erratic new rulers. Despite promises by the military of a new constitution and elections in which they would not stand, West Africa’s Ecowas bloc yesterday threatened sanctions and the use of military force to reverse last week’s coup. Current Ecowas head, Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara, and five other regional leaders will travel to Mali to seek “the re-establishment of constitutional order”, a statement said.

The coup, triggered by army anger at the government’s handling of a northern rebellion, has been condemned by the UN, Mali’s neighbours and major powers Yesterday, however, in the capital Bamako, several thousand came out to oppose “foreign interference”.

Across the region, democracy, despite setbacks, has been edging forward. In Niger and in Guinea, military rulers surrendered power to the people over the past 18 months. In Ivory Coast, an attempt to ignore an election victory by Ouattara provoked a citizen uprising successfully backed by foreign intervention. In Liberia, a losing opposition candidate cried foul last autumn after a poll widely seen as fair. The voters were not moved. And even Nigeria’s imperfect elections last spring were a step forward. The Arab Spring’s democratic impulse found powerful popular echoes throughout the continent – it is Mali not Senegal which is today out of step.