Senegal held its presidential election on Sunday, in a controversial vote that’s been a topic of intense debate among Harlem’s Senegalese community and among Columbia students studying in Senegal.
President Abdoulaye Wade’s decision to run for a third term violates Senegal’s constitution and has led to widespread protesting and rioting in Senegal. While Senegal is often considered a model of African democracy, Wade’s actions—which were approved by Senegal’s highest court—have raised concerns about authoritarianism.
Two Columbia students—Caitlin Hoeberlein, CC ’13, and Lakota Pochedley, CC ’13—are currently studying in Senegal and have witnessed the tumultuous political climate.
“The general atmosphere is pretty tense,” Hoeberlein said in an email. “The students in my program have been advised not to leave our houses/immediate neighborhoods Friday, Saturday, and especially Sunday.”
She also noted that classes have been put on hold due to the instability. The winner of the election will not be announced for a few days.
The Institute of African Studies held a panel on Feb. 13 to discuss the election. IAS Director Mamadou Diouf said at the panel that Wade “shouldn’t be running for president.”
“The whole discussion is about interpreting the constitution ... [Wade] doesn’t know why people are interpreting his constitution against his own interpretation and what legitimacy they have to do this,” Diouf said.
But Basbe Sall, a Senegalese immigrant and server at the Senegalese restaurant Africa Kiné in Harlem, said that he trusts Senegal’s court to interpret the law. He added that he would vote for Wade, who is from his hometown of Kébémer.
“They know the law better than us,” Sall said. “A lot of people don’t trust the constitutional committee, but I think they’re doing their job. The rest is between them and God. You’re going to be judged by God.”
Ibou Ibrahima, who works at the Senegalese Café des Ambassades in Harlem, said that Wade’s presidential mandate has expired and that it’s time for the country to elect a younger leader.
“[Wade] doesn’t have the right to present himself as a candidate today in terms of what the constitution says,” Ibrahima said in French. “It’s also his age. He’s 85 years old. It is preferable that he goes to retirement ... I would definitely vote for the opposition.”
Columbia students and faculty have also been examining the merits of Wade’s attempt to win a new seven-year term.
At the IAS Elections Panel, postdoctoral student Etienne Smith said it’s a problem that Wade has been in office for more than a decade, arguing that this is part of a broader problem of Senegalese political leaders remaining in office for too long, and that has stopped a new political generation from forming. Smith is currently in Senegal with a team of researchers.
“This tells a lot of the Senegalese political system ... This tells a lot about the impossibility of the Senegalese political class to renew itself,” he said.
Some, though, cynical about Senegal’s political culture, have said that Wade’s old age means fewer years of corrupt rule.
“Most of the other candidates, they’re not really good to be trusted, because it’s not one person you can name who is not corrupt,” Sall said. “At least I know that [Wade] is not going to finish the seven years coming.”
Other students have noted that Senegal’s culture of political activism has manifested itself in ways other than protesting, which has led to unique research topics.
“It’s been really interesting for me because I’m interested in the hip hop/youth culture, and how [the Senegalese] use hip hop to express their political voice,” said Pochedley, one of the students currently in Senegal.
Marshall Thomas, CC ’12 and one of 21 Columbia students who have studied in Senegal in the past decade, is fascinated by Senegal’s politically charged graffiti and newspaper articles. He said that he cannot imagine an authoritarian regime coming out of the elections, considering the country’s pro-democracy stance.
Diouf believes that the interest generated by the elections has raised important questions about democracy in the 21st century.
“What you have today is an internal discussion and an external discussion,” Diouf said at the panel. “This [election] has international repercussions. And the international repercussions are key, actually, in the possibility or not of actually stopping the electoral process and opening up new negotiations.”