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A Day Without Malice
By Michael Lambert (Univeristy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

2000 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

This year I arrived in Senegal on February 27, election day. News reports suggested that Dakar's residents were prepared for the worst. Most downtown boutiques had been boarded up in anticipation of youth violence. Abdoulaye Wade (pronounced wod), the opposition leader, threatened to take power by force if the ruling Socialist Party ‘stole’ the elections.

The Senegalese had reason to fear that violence would erupt. I was in Senegal during the 1988 presidential elections. On election day I awoke to the sound of tear gas grenades exploding on the university campus. The street on which I lived was lined with gendarmes in full riot gear blocking access to the university campus. The next three months were among the most disruptive in Senegal’s history. Youth attacked gasoline stations, public buses, and other symbols of state power. The government shut down the schools, bus system, and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Members of the opposition, including Abdoulaye Wade, were arrested for inciting violence.

As election day, 2000, drew on it became clear that this day would be different. Downtown, nary a soul was on the streets. Not a rock was thrown to break the windows that had been carefully covered. During the evening, groups of men gathered on street corners visibly gleeful as they listened to the preliminary results of the first round of elections. Since the 1988 elections, the opposition has worked hard to ensure that the electoral process would be fair. They won the right to an independent electoral commission, and the rights of the Press have expanded considerably, including the right to independent radio stations. By early in the evening, it was clear to everyone that there was no way that the incumbent, Abdou Diouf, could win in the first round. The second round was scheduled for March 19.

The Senegalese people approached March 19 with the same trepidation as they had February 27. Few doubted that Wade would garner more votes than would the long time incumbent Diouf. They also knew that this time the Senegalese people would not tolerate electoral fraud. The people had struggled long and hard for open elections. The nation had a long history of electoral politics dating from the last century and the era of French colonial rule. As early as 1914 residents of Senegal's four communes had elected a Black African, Blaise Diange, to represent the colony in Paris. Electoral politics lost ground during the post colonial era. Senegal’s first President, Leopold Senghor, oversaw the dismantling of democratic institutions during the 1960s. During the 1970s, Senghor made small concessions to the opposition. He allowed a three party system with state-defined ideological positions: communists, economic liberals, and socialists (Senghor’s party). Senghor assigned Abdoulaye Wade the task of leading the liberal party. Wade accepted and understood that though he could run for President, he could not win. Wade believed that he would be rewarded for his loyal opposition by having the mantle passed to him when Senghor resigned. Instead, Senghor selected Abdou Diouf, his technocrat underling, to be his successor.

Wade devoted the next 20 years to unseating his rival. In this, as in previous Wade-Diouf face-offs, the point was not economic or social policy. Few people could tell me how the policies of the two candidates were different. The point was ‘sopi,’ the Wolof word for ‘change.’ This was the potent slogan that Abdoulaye Wade brandished during each presidential campaign.

Because policy and ideology were immaterial, an odd coalition formed around Wade as the second round of elections approached. Even the communists rallied to the coalition to ensure that Wade, an economic conservative, would unseat his socialist rival. Only one member of the opposition, Djibo Ka, sided with Diouf. It was as if the opposition were running an experiment: they knew that together they had the numbers to win. The point was not to get a government that would represent your ideology or a government that would implement your policies. The point was sopi - change. The Senegalese people had to see for themselves that they could topple a regime, even a regime as deeply entrenched as the Socialist Party, by brandishing the ballot box as their only weapon. Then and only then would they believe that there was democracy in Senegal. Without sopi there was no democracy.

Tension rose as the second round approached. President Diouf had carried 40% in the first round, but with the opposition almost unanimous in its support of Wade, the incumbent seemed to be heading defeatIf the electoral process were fair. I was told that for the first time foot soldiers had been given live ammunition.

March 19 came and went without violence. What happened behind the scenes, however, would become the subject of much speculation over the ensuing days. Some claimed that Diouf's ministers, knowing the election was lost, planned to order troops to smash the ballot boxes and thus nullify the election. Others claimed that these same ministers instructed Diouf not to say anythingthat they would fix this problem. Some claimed that Diouf was so fed up with the shenanigans of all his men that he awoke the next morning and promptly called to congratulate Senegal's new president, Abdoulaye Wade.

As I went to the celebratory gathering outside Wade's house, a friend who normally would have advised me to stay clear of crowds assured me that today, of all days, I would be safe. My friend said that this election was for the youth, the disenfranchised unemployed youth who periodically rocked Dakar with protests and maintained a daily regime of aggressions. It was as though the election had magically cleansed the city of malice. The same youth who rocked Dakar in 1988 were staging a powerful protest of silence. They proclaimed their commitment to pacifism and generosity in the absence of fraud.

That night as we sat on the roof we could hear tear gas canisters exploding in the near distance. For a moment we thought the period of post-election generosity was over. Later, however, we learned that the ruckus was at a meeting of Djibo Ka’s party. His party members had demanded his resignation because he had supported Abdou Diouf during the final round of voting.

Ironically, by losing this election Abdou Diouf might have won his greatest victory. When he took office in 1981 Diouf liberalized the political system. He allowed parties of all leanings, liberalized the press, and allowed independent radio stations. Having been at the helm during an era of economic hardship, Diouf claimed that his legacy was democracy. No doubt he would have wanted this legacy affirmed through an unredoubtably fair election in which the affection of the Senegalese people would sweep him to another term. During his final days, Diouf might have understood that there would never be democracy without sopi. He might have seen that losing was the only way to claim his legacy.

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