Democracy has probably seen better days in Africa. Coming on the heels of an ill-advised and fraudulent election in the Congo, Senegal is conducting its own presidential elections on February 26 that have already been plagued by undemocratic developments. Those elections will probably be more organized and better administered than Congo’s—since that’s not hard to achieve—but opposition to incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade has intensified in the last two weeks. The Economist reports:
The rioting started on January 27th, when the constitutional court decreed that Abdoulaye Wade, the incumbent president who has ruled for 12 years, could stand in the upcoming election. He is finishing his second term in office but the court ruled that the constitution’s two-term limit does not apply to him, since it only came into force after his first election win in 2000. The rule change was written into the constitution by Mr. Wade himself.
Senegalese democracy such as it is may survive this abuse of power on the president’s part and lack of backbone on the judiciary’s, but as riots throughout the country have shown, citizens there are not happy with the way things are working.Western observers tend to see these events through ideological spectacles and interpret the riots as motivated by support for democracy. No doubt there are some who feel that way, but many of those rioting against a new term for Wade would not be unhappy if their own favored candidate could stay in office forever. They are rioting about the prospect that a leader they don’t like will cling to power, rather than rioting out of an aroused sense of outraged constitutional propriety.Regional, tribal and religious issues generally loom larger in African politics than the issues western NGOs care about. It’s less about what the constitution says (constitutions and laws aren’t often strictly enforced in weakly governed countries with sketchy institutions), than about who gets what and who rules whom.Turning the Africa news into a morality play about democracy makes little sense. If we want to help Africa, the first thing we have to do is to understand it on its own terms. Right now, on the whole, the western media isn’t doing this well.