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Interview with Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade
The Washington Diplomat / March 2005

By Larry Luxner

Several months ago, 800 U.S. and foreign dignitaries watched as the National Democracy Institute bestowed its highest honor, the Averill E. Harriman Democracy Award, on the present and former leaders of seven countries ranging from Chile to the Philippines.

But the loudest, most sustained applause seemed to go to President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal — yet another indication that, despite his nation's small size, Wade has managed to attract international attention through his efforts to spread good governance throughout Africa.

"Winning this honor has given me a new vision of the future of democracy in Africa," he told the Washington Diplomat in a recent interview. "It makes me more conscious and aware of my duties to help whenever my fellow heads of state request my intervention."

Wade, now in his early 80s, says he's been "very helpful" in resolving electoral issues in the Central African Republic, Togo, Niger and Guinea. In Madagascar, Wade says he succeeded in getting the president-elect, Marc Ravalomanana, "gain his seat in a democratic manner through dialogue and understanding with his contender."

Even before becoming president, Wade was regularly consulted by opposition parties to help arbitrate their disputes with ruling governments.

"I appeared to them as a non-violent person who truly wishes for positive changes in a democratic fashion," he explained. "The opposition sees me as one of them because I have been an opponent myself for a very long time, and I am therefore in a better position to facilitate negotiations because they trust me."

Senegal, a former French colony that won independence in 1960, sits along West Africa's Atlantic coast between Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania. In 1982, it joined with Gambia to form the confederation of Senegambia, but the hoped-for integration between the two countries never came to fruition, and the union was dissolved in 1989.

Senegal has a population of 10.3 million and is divided into 10 administrative regions. The country is a major producer of fish, peanuts, phosphates and cotton; it's also a major tourist destination for Europeans as well as African-Americans. Its Gross Domestic Product of $5.2 billion translates into per-capita GDP income of only $530 a year.

In January 1994, Senegal undertook a bold and ambitious economic reform program with the support of the international donor community. This reform began with a 50% devaluation of Senegal's currency, the CFA franc, which is linked at a fixed rate to the French franc. Government price controls and subsidies were steadily dismantled.

After seeing its economy contract by 2.1% in 1993, Senegal made an important turnaround thanks to its reform program, with real growth in GDP averaging 5% annually between 1995 and 2001. Growth now hovers between 6% and 7% a year, mainly due to a jump in food crops.

As a member of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, Senegal is working toward greater regional integration with a unified external tariff. Senegal also realized full Internet connectivity in 1996, creating a miniboom in information technology-based services. Private activity now accounts for 82% of GDP.

"We have succeeded in increasing agricultural production by 600%, with corn alone going from 80,000 tons to 500,000 tons in one year," said the president. "Despite the locust invasion that made a rampage throughout western Africa, Senegal managed to curb the damage to its crops and registered only a 10-15% loss on our farm sector."

What Wade is especially known for, however, is bringing true democracy to his country. Elected to office in March 2000, the president vowed to stress good governance, infrastructure growth and regional integration. Most Senegalese seem pleased with his efforts.

"As far as democracy is concerned, we have made great steps forward," he told the Diplomat. "At the beginning of my term in office, there were lots of marches and demonstrations. For a little tiny thing, people would take to the streets. Now, there are very few demonstrations. People are given the freedom to demonstrate and voice their grievances. All they need is to be educated about democracy, and it brings peace and understanding. The exercise of freedom requires a little education, and that is what we have done."

Wade says there are no political prisoners in Senegal, and that establishing a newspaper no longer involves bureaucracy of any kind. All one has to do, he insisted, is register the newspaper as an enterprise like any other, and begin publishing.

"We now have over 10 newspapers circulating throughout the country without any restrictions whatsoever," said the president. "Freedom of speech is fully exercised, to the point that some foreigners even feel it goes overboard — that articles are defamatory, a breach of privacy and and even an incitement to public disorder. I have endured all of that in the name of democracy."

Few Americans know much about Senegal, which is why it's especially important for Wade to make people aware of his country's vocal support for the U.S. fight against terrorism.

"After Sept. 11, we were the only African country that stood by the side of the United States," he said. "As tiny as we are, we did not hesitate for one second in calling immediately for an African summit to condemn terrorism. We had no means of doing that, but we did it. The summit adopted a Dakar resolution which firmly condemns terrorism."

Wade is also proud of Senegal's accomplishments, particularly in education, public health and infrastructure.

"We have devoted most of our efforts to the educational system, with 40% of the government budget going to education. This has never been matched by any country in the world," he said. "UNESCO has just ranked us as a world leader in education. In addition, we have devoted 10% of all public expenditures to health. This has resulted in reducing the prevalance of HIV/AIDS to around 1.5% nationwide. And we have the best roads in West Africa."

On the macroeconomic front, said Wade, "our efforts have been recognized by the IMF and the World Bank," to the extent that the World Bank recently approved a $30 million poverty reduction package "based on the good economic performance achieved by Senegal through the outstanding leadership of its current president."

One area where Wade has especially made his mark is through promotion of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). This initiative has been described as the "love child" of Wade, along with President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, and South Africa's Thebo Mbeki, the continent's richest nation.

According to a recent article posted by AllAfrica.com, a Washington-based news service, "NEPAD emerged from ideas by Mbeki, Obasanjo and Wade and were a well-received initiative throughout the world as it presented a truly African initiative to end misery on the continent. It also emphasized presenting a Western-friendly face, recognizing African responsibilities of good governance, curbing conflicts, creating a climate for investment and respecting human rights and democracy."

Although the initiative's reputation has been somewhat tarnished by the South African and Nigerian government's support for the recent rigged elections in Zimbabwe, the need for such a Marshall Plan-type initiative is fairly obvious. During the "lost decade" of the 1990s, foreign aid allocated for African development programs fell from $24 billion a year to $14 billion, while foreign investment in Africa tumbled by 40% and poverty increased — especially in countries where AIDS has taken the greatest toll.

"NEPAD is a new vision for Africa, and it is clearly perceived and accepted by all Africans," said Wade. "Members of the G8 countries like Canada and Japan, and others like India, have offered large amounts of money for development projects, though until now we have not implemented any projects due to the lack of proper expertise in selected areas."

Another institution where Senegal has been particularly influential is the African Union, formerly known as the Organization for African Unity.

"At the African Union level, Senegal has contributed tremendously through the application of new reforms, among them full gender parity," said the president. "Senegal brought before the executive committee an amendment that insured the appointment of five women and five men in the AU's Commission, which is per se the government of Africa. This is the only institution in the world with such a gender parity."

He added: "Senegal participates in all UN peacekeeping efforts, though we ended up pulling our troops out of Liberia for lack of equipment. Senegal is active in Côte d'Ivoire, and in Sudan's Darfur region, where we have 458 soldiers. I am now personally leading mediation efforts between Rwanda and Congolese rebels. I am also preparing a new proposal for an African army that is being discussed at the AU."

Last year's ethnic bloodshed in nearby Côte d'Ivoire worried many Senegalese, though Wade said he is firmly against the removal of French troops from that country, which like Senegal is a former French colony with strong ties to Paris.

"I recently expressed my own opinion on the French presence in Côte d'Ivoire. I said that the presence of French troops was necessary to protect the country from economic turmoil, civilian massacres and tribal wars. Of course, Côte d'Ivoire is an independent and sovereign country, though it is tied to France by a military agreement they signed years ago in full sovereignty," said Wade.

"Senegal itself has military agreements with France, and this does not disturb me at all. It is part of our full cooperation contracted in full sovereignty. Even if Côte d'Ivoire is to exercise its sovereignty and break ties with France, it would not be prudent to remove French troops from there. I am making myself personally available and ready to contribute to a new dialogue. For the time being, I am working with [Nigerian President] Obasanjo, who is in charge of this matter at the AU."

Wade has earned an additional measure of respect at home through his successful bid to end a 22-year-old conflict in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, near the border with Guinea-Bissau. In December, Wade, a large contingent of foreign ambassadors and other dignitaries descended on Ziguinchor, 450 kilometers south of Dakar.

The peace deal to end the fighting was signed by Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom and a founder of the separatist Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), a 77-year-old white-robed priest named Augustin Diamacoune Senghor.

In a statement from its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the AU pledged to support the process and hoped it would "usher in an era of reconciliation and reconstruction in the southern region of Senegal."

The peace accord will enable 62 billion CFA francs (around $129 million) in funds from 19 donor countries to be pumped into reconstruction schemes, according to the United Nations. Additional money should be forthcoming from the government in Dakar, which had been holding off on the launch of economic reconstruction in Casamance pending the signing of a peace accord with the MFDC, which "solemnly decides once and for all to give up armed struggle and the use of violence."

Senegal has legislative elections scheduled for 2006, and presidential elections in 2007. Asked if he plans to run for a second term, Wade said it depends on the people's will.

"My duty is to do what I've got to do," he said without elaborating, "and when the time comes, the people and the party will do what they've got to do."

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