Civil society becomes the catalyst for change
Civil society is at the heart of Senegal’s new regime change after tumultuous periods and high levels of uncertainty over its future.
Abdoulaye Wade came to power in 2 000 with the strong, majority support of civil society. They were determined to free Senegalese citizens from 40 years of the Socialist Party’s regime. In the first two years of the newly elected government, civil society struggled to ascertain its role in the face of a government that promised political change.
Many found it inappropriate to criticise Wade and his team for any mistakes made in their early years of governing. Rather, they were often considered allies to be supported and pardoned.
Thus, a prolonged period of grace was granted to Wade. During those initial years, civil society assumed a less assertive watchdog role. It was also during that period that the foundations of undemocratic practices were firmly cemented by Wade’s model of governance.
Therefore, in hindsight, it is not surprising that Wade and his allies reacted aggressively when civil society began taking a more critical stand against his form of governance and voiced concerns about the blatant and rampant corruption, nepotism and privatisation of the state.
From that time, Wade’s reign was marked by tumultuous relations between the state and civil society. Wade himself said on many occasions that civil society, and particularly the private ‘independent’ media, was his true opposition. For example, this strained and hostile relationship led to physical attacks on civil society leaders, the blocking of draft laws to improve the legal and economic environment of Senegal’s media landscape, and attempts to suffocate civil society and non-governmental organisations economically.
During the 2007 elections, civil society was relatively weak and the chasm between the regime and the political majority, aligned with independent forces, became even wider.
Still, civil society did not take a decisive stand.
The tensions continued to mount and reached the point when Wade tried to amend the Constitution in June last year, which gave birth of the July 23 movement (M23). His bid for a third term was highly contentious and spurred an alignment of civil society and opposition party members to oppose his candidacy in the February 26 this year. They subsequently rallied behind Macky Sall during the second round of the elections on March 25.
The elections were a golden opportunity for civil society to re-appropriate its primary mission—to support citizens and help to guide them through the democratic process.
Historically, civil society in Senegal has never been heavily involved in politics. But this time round, besides the M23, which was well covered by the media, other civil society organisations were formed. They began social mobilisation campaigns to educate the public about voting and to get voters enrolled. Civil society was also visible in campaigns to raise awareness about electoral violence, hate speeches and political corruption. They took a politically neutral stance and advocated citizen participation and inclusive of democratic values. More than ever before, civil society had replaced the state, carrying out crucial electoral work, vital to societies such as Senegal.
Perhaps the contribution of civil society that had the most impact in the elections is the setting up of an election situation room. This process is designed to help correct possible dysfunctions in the electoral process, to find peaceful and consensual means of solving potential flaws during the election and to address any issue that might jeopardize the process. It also, very crucially, placed civil society in a new leadership position. In the weeks leading up to the election, civil society worked to build solid ground that would allow for a more proactive approach to election observation and monitoring. Instead of adopting a confrontational approach, Senegalese civil society choose to constructively engage election management bodies and state institutions. They hypothesized the issues that might undermine the political actors’ and citizens’ trust. First, all relevant authorities were informed of the situation room and then invited to take part. Those concerned were institutions striving to prove their trustworthiness and struggling to remake their public image—a vital and strategic necessity for civil society organizations at this time. The authorities appreciated the initiative, how it legitimatized their work and helped lend them credibility. It was a chance to reinstate their civic role and prove their earlier ‘critics’ wrong.
The situation room was a powerful tool that carried heavy weight during the electoral process. It helped provide a platform to process data from up to 5 000 local election observers and monitors of violence and political corruption throughout the country who then sent information live from the ground on election day (using modern ICTs’ tools).
Civil society leaders took the strategic decision not to adopt a denunciative attitude by, for example, delivering media reports on dysfunctions. Rather, they encouraged the relevant authorities to act on any such reports. Instead of finger pointing, they chose to act. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Whenever requested, the authorities acted swiftly on any cases brought forward, even if they were not used to such a positive engagement from civil society. Members of the Electoral Commission, CENA, including the vice-president himself, prefects, and governors all took the initiative to correct any problems. In some cases, this meant adopting a hands-on approach, going onsite to solve the problem.
Along the way, civil society has gained new credibility and assumed a more authoritative voice. It has proved a certain level of maturity and evolution in addressing issues and relating with public officials. In past years, Senegalese civil society has not always enjoyed such a strategic positioning. Only few organizations could individually build authority in their specific areas of interventions and, in some cases, have chosen to partner with state institutions to foster change. For the first time, civil society has spoken with one voice, and it has resonated. The experience of the situation room has thus, in itself, marked an important and unprecedented evolution in the mission, role and engagement of civil society in Senegal.
Hawa Ba is the Senegal Program Officer at Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)