Hassan Hami
4 May 2024

Political Transition in Senegal: No Significant Break, Enlightened Continuity

On the occasion of the swearing-in ceremony, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, the new president of Senegal, walked side by side with his two wives, looking serene and confident. It is this image that European commentators, especially in France, have concentrated their comments on. The solemn moment of a peaceful transfer of power after democratic elections highly commended would not have mattered to them.

The commentators preferred clichés and assessments from a distance. What happened reminds Osmane Sembène’s scream in 1963, according to which European movie-makers and ethnologists looked at Africans “as if they were insects.” What if they took a look at the specificity of Senegalese culture instead? No answer so far.

However, the specificity of Senegalese political culture should be looked at as a textbook case. Everyone remembers the clear response of President Abdou Diouf (1981–2000) in 1983, who was criticized for having abolished the post of Prime Minister during a far-fetched constitutional reform. He ironically replied that he was “tall enough to fill both positions.”

Abdou Diouf came to power in 1980, when President Léopold Sédar-Senghor thought it was time to relinquish power, devote himself to his passion as an outstanding writer and poet, and warm his seat in the Académie française.

Abdou Diouf himself ceded power to Abdoulaye Wade in 2000 when he realized that holding on to it risked plunging the country into a constitutional impasse that was dangerous for Senegal unity and stability. By the same token, it is worth reminding the peaceful transfer of power between Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall after a short-lived political stalemate.

About a month has passed since President Bassirou Diomaye Faye came to power. What interpretation can be made of what happened a few months earlier, when the country was about to succumb to the calls of gravediggers of all stripes? What is the significance of the peaceful transition of power in this country? Why is the political culture in Senegal unique in terms of perception and impact? Why has the hand of the former colonial power been so transparent, if not absent?

Moreover, how does this transition relate to the violent political changes in the sub-region? What does the transition have to do with the transformation of geopolitics in the sub-region? What role did the Senegalese religious brotherhoods play or not in the successful outcome of talks prior to the organization of the presidential elections as planned?

Finally, would President Bassirou Diomaye Faye change the conduct of Senegalese foreign policy? As a neophyte in the field, he may have to deal with hardliners within the “deep state.”  The latter would be watching so that the new power would not make mistakes or provoke diplomatic turmoil with incalculable consequences.

A smooth transfer of power left critics speechless

It is worth recalling that in the aftermath of independence, President Léopold Sédar-Senghor, a Christian, ascended to power thanks, in part, to the support of the religious brotherhoods. The latter have always been called “grand electors.” Although a defender of a certain form of secularism, Léopold Sédar-Senghor was close to the Mouridiya brotherhood. His opponent, Mamadou Dia, had no choice but to accept the fait accompli while the Tijaniyya brotherhoods kept mute. 

However, if the weight of these brotherhoods was important, there was also the influence of the former colonial power. Indeed, successive French governments worked hard to secure their interests by putting in power in their former colonies leaders who had been ministers or deputies in the French National Assembly.

This was the case for Léopold Sédar-Senghor in Senegal and Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d’Ivoire, to name but a few. The idea was to prevent leaders who duplicated the precedent of hardliners such as Ahmed Sékou Touré in Guinea (1958–1984) and Modibo Keita in Mali (1960–1968) from ascending to power and thwarting the former colonial powers’ interests. In Mali, President Modibo Keita was overthrown in a coup d’état by Moussa Traoré in 1968. In Guinea, the stranglehold of Sékou Touré (twenty-four years in power) had given hard time to political and strategic planners in the former metropolis.

Senegal, on the other hand, has used time to build strong institutions. When the time came, Léopold Sédar-Senghor ceded power to the man of confidence, Abdou Diouf. The transition that followed was difficult in the beginning, but the most important thing is that it took place and allowed the country to avoid the hazy mazy fate of some neighboring countries.

Senegal could have been caught by the wave of “creative chaos,” a paradigm dear to political planners overseas, but wisdom prevailed in the end. Several explanations can be put forward. I will mention at least three.

Firstly, moderation, which is paramount to Senegalese society, draws it from a history that favors dialogue and debate to resolve endemic issues. Moderation is reinforced by the ascendancy of arbitration (and mediation) as a means to cool down tumultuous inter-societal relations.

This tradition extends to the political field, as was the case with the abovementioned arbitration of the brotherhoods between Léopold Sédar-Senghor and Mamadou Dia in 1960. We may mention a series of arbitrations (mediations) to resolve succession problems within the Senegalese brotherhoods, notably the Mouridiya, the Tijaniyya, the Hammaliyya, and, to a lesser degree, the Qadiriya. A Senegalese-Senegalese arbitration, but also a Moroccan-Senegalese one, thanks to the audience of the Moroccan brotherhoods in Senegal.

Secondly, the neutrality of the army. There has been no record of a serious coup attempts in Senegal. In the heat of the temptation to seize power in neighboring countries by armed forces, the Senegalese army has remained calm. Biased observers would say that the power in Senegal has always been able to play the goat and the cabbage so as not to collude with the interests of intranational actors, including religious brotherhoods, and European interests, including those of France.

As a matter of fact, the Senegalese military institution has stayed away from politics. Even at a time when the country was threatened by separatism in Casamance (1982–2014), the army did not seek to overtake the government’s strategy to decide the appropriate way to end the rebellion.

At the time, when Ibrahima Fall, a prominent intellectual, was among the few voices defending the principle of the right of peoples to self-determination, including in the Moroccan Sahara, the Deep State made sure to curb his exaggerated enthusiasm. Fall was, respectively, Dean of the College of Law in Dakar, Minister of Higher Education, and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He had defended a state thesis on the right of people to self-determination. He sought to apply his paradigm everywhere. The wave of separatism in Casamance brought him back to reality.

However, it is worth stressing that if the Senegalese army played a decisive role following the creation of the Senegambia confederation (1981–1989), its intervention in Gambia to put an end to the rebellion in this country was also designed to defeat the rebellion in Casamance.

Moreover, the Senegalese army was observing what was happening in neighboring countries and was convinced that successive coups d’état would never provide adequate responses to peoples’ social and economic expectations. 

As a result, the Senegalese army adopted a constructive position when President Macky Sall proposed at the end of 2023 the postponement of the presidential elections to a later date. Some believed that the gravediggers of Senegalese democracy were going to come forward to bring about discord. To their disappointment, the institutions reacted wisely and consistently, and the Constitutional Court wisely fulfilled its mission.

Thirdly, the loss of momentum among European influencers, particularly in France. The assessment here is not exaggerated. It is just a reminder that the times when the engineering of the political map, including the choice of candidates at all levels in some African countries in consultation with Paris, are now over. Does this mean a complete break with this type of practice has occurred? Time will tell.

Lobbying for candidates is a practice that exists even in countries with strong democratic traditions. The saga of interference in American, French, German, Indian, and other elections by lobbyists and foreign interests has been in the headlines since 2012. What is new in the Senegalese case is the fact that the loss of momentum of the French ascendancy coincides with a shift in regional alliances towards a new geopolitics without the exclusive predominance of the former actors who had a hold on every inch of power.

Diplomatic facelift without shaking the edifice

Yet if moderation, arbitration, the neutrality of the army, and the political maturity of the Senegalese political class are salient factors, the fact is that the new president will be judged on the basis of the diplomatic approach he will adopt to gain his African peers’ support and welcome.

It was interesting to see President Bassirou Diomaye Faye undertake his first visit abroad, to Mauritania. This is not surprising to observers who are familiar with international politics. Indeed, in the past, newly appointed heads of state or heads of government have sought to make their mark by breaking the tradition of making the first foreign visit to a traditional partner. The gesture is often aimed at the intranational chessboard in order to give the new leader a chance to distance himself from the traditional decision-making centers (or the deep state).

One of the most interesting examples was Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s visit to Iran in 2012. While this visit was justified by Egypt’s participation in the Non-Aligned Summit, it was nevertheless a daring challenge to the rules of geopolitics at the time.

Tehran had broken off diplomatic relations with Cairo the day after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in protest against the signing of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Anyway, Morsi’s visit was a sword in the water. Iran did not change its policy towards Egypt, and Cairo fell out with its Arab Gulf neighbors.

Another example is that of the two French presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 and Emmanuel Macron in 2017, who decided not to make their first visit outside Europe, the day after their election, to Morocco. They preferred Algeria. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez did the same in 2020, during his first term.

Even in Morocco, the day after the formation of the first coalition government led by the Justice and Development Party, Saad Dine El Othmani, the new foreign minister, made his first foreign visit to Algeria in 2012.

This was no doubt to remind Algerians that the spiritual father of the party, Dr. Abdelkrim Al-Khatib, was of Algerian origin and that it was time to turn the page on their hostility towards Morocco. It was a calculated gesture and a clever maneuver in both directions: to demonstrate, once again, Morocco’s good faith and to force Algerian decision-makers to get out of their double game.

All these examples show that foreign policy neophytes believe they are doing the right thing by upsetting the geopolitical balances established and respected by their predecessors. They are often caught up in reality on the ground and by the constraints of realpolitik.

So what about the new president, Bassirou Diomaye Faye? The assessment made above applies, except that this time he would have solid arguments. First, in Nouakchott, President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani has demonstrated, so far, that he is a statesman consistent with his beliefs. He is diplomatically keeping his country less impacted by regional conflicts and disputes. He is very careful not to pass judgment on the issue of political transitions in neighboring countries. Although he came from the army, he behaved moderately towards the new military rulers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

Secondly, the Mauritanian head of state does not allow himself to be dragged into a policy of sterile axes that Algeria is desperately trying to revive with the aim of excluding Morocco and burying the Arab Maghreb Union. Needless to say, diplomacy based on axes shows a deep misperception of geopolitical changes on the part of Algeria and, curiously, on the part of Tunisia. President Kais Saied was due to pay a working visit to Nouakchott to convince the Mauritanian president to join the three stillborn axis (Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia). Faced with the cleverly communicated refusal, President Saied’s visit was postponed or even cancelled.

Moreover, President Ould Ghazouani was the only Maghreb head of state present at the swearing-in ceremony of President Bassirou Diomaye Faye. King Mohammed VI, invited to the same ceremony, was represented by the head of government, Aziz Akhnouch. Unless we are not aware of, it has not been established that the heads of state of Algeria and Tunisia received a similar invitation.

Third, the new Senegalese president would be aware that the balance of power within ECOWAS is becoming increasingly fragile. Mauritania left ECOWAS in 2000 and considered rejoining when Morocco applied to join the organization in 2017. A resolution might have been made, therefore, to resolve the pending problems between Senegal and Mauritania in a bilateral framework.

Fourth, Senegal and Mauritania have a lot to build together economically. The significant gas discoveries in both countries put them at the forefront of regional and global energy geopolitics. They are stakeholders in the Africa-Atlantic gas pipeline project (Nigeria-Morocco-Europe gas pipeline). The creation of an area of common prosperity is therefore possible and unavoidable.

In addition, the African Atlantic area is set to undergo unprecedented development over the next two decades. First of all, steps are taken to establish a viable organization of the countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean at the initiative of Morocco, bringing together twenty-three countries. Then there is Morocco’s initiative towards the landlocked countries of the Sahel to allow them access to the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, there is the “Atlantic Partnership” initiative Morocco and the United States in New York launched in 2023 on the sidelines of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly to cover, for the first time, the northern and southern Atlantic Ocean.

Promising Partnership on the Horizon

All this means that Senegal and Mauritania have a say in the reshaping of the regional geostrategic chessboard. They have confirmed through genuine acts their willingness to be part of regional development projects. Morocco has engaged in an approach of co-development and win-win partnership.

Morocco has demonstrated that it has clear ideas about triangular cooperation that give no room to partnerships based on asymmetry. The dynamic and interdependent balance of power is the diplomatic tool that Morocco has been able to use to bounce back on a geopolitical chessboard. Morocco had struggled for at least three decades to get there.

Therefore, it is worth claiming that we are witnessing the inception of an area of beneficial regional cooperation encompassing countries stretching from south to north; this includes Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco. This regional space is unifying insofar as the landlocked countries of the Sahel will gradually join it, in the same logic that propelled the Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline project to the forefront.

At an even more unifying level, but based on the idea of complex interdependence, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavian countries can be part of it. This means that the African and European parts of the Atlantic can be integrated into an overall vision in which the economy is the leading engine.

We could go even further by arguing that this dynamic could revive the idea of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (2014) between the United States and the European Union, which was put on the back burner during the term of US President Donald Trump (2016–2017) insofar as the United States and Morocco are the initiators of the “Atlantic Partnership.”.

Some would argue that relations between the United States and the European Union have their ups and downs, due to the procrastination of some EU countries with respect to the war between Ukraine and Russia. They may add that Washington views with suspicion the relations of some European countries with China, which it considers to be more daring than what would have been tolerated.

However, these pertinent arguments would not prevent a future improvement that would result from the weariness of the United States and the European Union and would push them to join forces. Joining their forces would allow them to face the emergence of new challenges that require an unequivocal return to the level of cooperation both parties had reached in the past.

A fundamental issue needs to be addressed: What about France? It is undeniable that France has a role to play. To this end, it needs to adjust its perception of African realities. Those who believe that President Bassirou Diomaye Faye was going to wipe the slate clean to be in line with his critical statements against Paris a few months ago are invited to put some water in their wine.

Indeed, exercising power for new leaders everywhere is a different story. It has nothing to do with wishful thinking. Bassirou Diomaye Faye would not be a president of rupture, either with regard to intra-national socio-cultural balances or with regard to strategic diplomatic choices he would be keen to make.

Similarly, those who hope that the episode of the tug-of-war between Léopold-Sédar-Senghor and Mamadou Dia, rivals on the eve of the 1960 presidential elections and president and prime minister in the aftermath of these elections, will be repeated once again in Senegal, must temper their ardor.

Indeed, the idea that President Bassirou Diomaye Faye is only a shadow of his mentor, Ousmane Sonko, could have been appropriate if the Senegalese political chessboard was static. This is no longer the case since the Senegalese political class has understood that the country is called to a promising economic boom that only the stability of institutions and the collaboration between the new decision-makers and the guardians of the temple can bring to fruition.

If France is experiencing some difficulty maintaining its ascendancy in the various regional geopolitical spaces, particularly in Africa, it is because some  within the decision-making system refuse to give up and accept the logic of beneficial interdependence that now rejects the classic asymmetry of power. Therefore, French decision-makers are aware of the painful choices they have to make to clean up the chaotic situation that France created during colonization and has maintained since the independence of African states.

There was a time when observers of African affairs spoke of the existence of asymmetrical axes such as the Paris-Rabat-Dakar one. Nouakchott was ignored because of its political and diplomatic ambivalence at the time. Today, the perception of African relations in terms of axes is no longer relevant.

First of all, because Morocco rejects asymmetrical relations between independent countries. Secondly, France is wasting time struggling to keep its status as the only beneficiary, as it used to be in the past. Experts in strategic matters are aware that Paris is trying not to lose everything in the Maghreb, the Sahel, and West Africa in general. Finally, Senegal nurtures its ambitions as a major player that has a say in the emerging regional geopolitical chessboard.

Senegal is a partner to be reckoned with. The new president will continue his predecessor’s regional strategic choices. There will be no break in the epistemological, political, or diplomatic sense of the term. There will be a new style, but these strategic choices will not be disrupted because Senegal, like other African countries, is integrated into the logic of South-South interdependence. This interdependence is more open and more seasoned in the face of other forms of hegemonic cooperation that can no longer be accepted.

Therefore, the French media, which feed on the crumbs of military ethnology and in countries that constitute “democracies of opinions or media democracies,” to paraphrase an expression Philippe de Villepin, former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, used in 2015, must make up their minds. African populations, including those who claim to be culturally French-devoted to the core, have woken up and are no longer listening to these media or taking what they say for granted.

Source : https://www.moroccoworldnews.com

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