It was the former United States "US" president, Barack Obama, who famously said that "Africa did not need strong men but strong institutions".
This contention is aptly at play currently in Senegal. Arguably, one of the most robust democracies on the African continent, Senegal is also considered a beacon of press freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Therefore, it is baffling for Senegalese democracy to crash from grace to disgrace in a short space of time. In the frantic pace of political selfishness, passion may have strained, but it should not break so quickly the so-called strong institutions of Senegalese democracy.
Senegalese democracy and institutions, arguably, are disintegrating because they are not as strong as we were made to believe. Like many African countries, Senegalese democracy is anchored on the mercy of benevolent strong men until it comes in contact with Macky Sall, who masqueraded as benevolent until when he was challenged.
President Sall, spooked by the prospect of prosecution, sought to run illegally for a third term to stay in power. If this fails, his strategy is simply to disguise enduring influence to effectively hand picked his successor.
Alas, the tragedy unfurling in Senegal, is a clear testament of a pseudo democracy that relies on strong individual but not strong institutions.
On a flip side, though, one can argue that the continent needs both strong men and strong institutions. Because it takes strong men to build strong institutions that would endure in their own spheres of influence.
Also, one will be justified to say that some of the nations builders of many modern states such as Chairman Mao of China, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Dr Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia, Chiang Kai Shek of Taiwan among several others were neither true democrats, nor full blown despots.
Nevertheless, Senegal's extraordinary model of success is not based on marriage between institutions and strong men but corrupt strong men.
The current debacle of Senegalese pseudo democracy is a testimony that it is founded on a faulty foundation where greed and selfish interests are the order of the day.
That is why the system crumbled in a tense stand-off between opposition leader Ousman Sonko and president Macky Sall, exposing the frailty of Senegalese institutions.
Thus, it will be difficult to substantiate the strength of Senegalese institutions when its leaders can shamelessly exploit their economy to enrich themselves. When the police, the paramilitaries, and the military could be manipulated by the president to randomly kill their own people. When loyal thugs can be armed and shooting at innocent protesters at will without consequences.
No country’s institutions can be referred to as strong, where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality, bribery, and corruption. In a country where one man controls, politicises, and weaponised the judiciary against perceived enemies and political opponents, that country can not be termed to have strong institutions.
We have seen the ups and downs of democracy in Senegal beset by poor governance. But yet still, we marvel the success story of their democracy and the strength of their institutions.
It started with former president Abdoulie Wadda, who did not want to relinquish power without a struggle, amid widespread protection, and violence. Without that, he sought to change the Senegalese constitution to enable him to cling on to power for a third term in order to pave the way for his son to succeed him.
They were lucky to stop former president Wadda from illegally usurping power against the constitution of the country. This was just a narrow escape, but not because of the strength or the robustness of their institutions.
Therefore, one will think there will be lessons learnt, but no, there is not a continual momentum of improvement in the status quo since then.
However, one trend that persists has been a growing repression of opposition in Senegal under Macky Sall’s government.
The contention therefore, is that, Senegal, like many African countries, is ruled only with some semblance of democratic process. Instead of strong institutions, they rely on repression and political manoeuvring to remain in charge, especially when they are challenged.
Senegal and Africa as a whole need a true change to transmute to the next level of development, and that cannot be achieved without focusing on building strong institutions.
Most African governments’ achievements are based on centralised authoritarian states. And like in Senegal, these can sometimes impress. But democracies are better at delivering sustainable progress over the long term when they are husbanded by strong institutions, not strong men.
Nonetheless, social media and other technologies mean autocratic leaders need more subtle strategies than simply unleashing loyal thugs. This is where politicised judiciary becomes handy for them. But, they are equally facing new and dynamic oppositions.
With this, there will be more repression, and it will look worse in Africa. But there is hope for democracy in Africa in the long term.....Albeit, there is a barrier of pain we will have to go through to get there.
In conclusion, the words of former president Barack Obama that “development depends on good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many countries in Africa for far too long” are well in place.
Senegal must not allow President Macky Sall to succeed in destroying the country’s stride to democracy and institution building. What terminal damage he can do in another term does not bear contemplating.
For the long-term stability of Senegal, Ousman Sonko should be free and be allowed to contest for the 2024 presidential election.
Editors note: Ebrima Scattred Janneh “EB” is the Anchor of The Dialogue With The Youths Show on Gunjuronline TV.
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