Could Africa’s New ‘Go-To’ Guy, Senegal’s Sall, Herald The Return Of The Golden Age Of The Star African Leader?
Diplomats also talk of a man who listens, and not averse to being a team player, traits that come as a premium when one sizes up an AU gathering.
AMIDST all the hand wringing over what role Africa will play to prevent its citizens from in the first place getting onto flimsy vessels sailing for Europe, it was left to Senegalese president Macky Sall to voice an inconvenient truth.
“As long as Africa doesn’t receive the fair prices for its resources, there will be migrant flows,” he said on November 12, in the thick of an Africa-European Union summit on the migrant crisis. “Transformation in our lands would give wealth and jobs in our countries.”
The meeting had seemingly been overtaken by events—when it was first called the majority of asylum seekers to Europe were making their way off the North African coast, those numbers have since been dwarfed by numbers from Iraq and Syria.
“There is a fundamental, philosophical question: you cannot insist on Africans being readmitted to their countries of origin when you are welcoming Syrians and others,” he said at the end of the summit. The numbers of Africans migrating towards Europe are not as great as people say.”
His call for a fair shake for Africa was a hark back to his position at the Financing for Development Summit held in July in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where he said the continent would not need any aid if multinationals paid what was due to African countries.
“Illicit money flows and tax evasion are costing Africa between $30billion-$60 billion a year. This is more than total development aid,” he said at the summit that had sought to seek new ways of financing the Sustainable Development Goals, which in September succeeded the MDGs.
It is his increasing embrace of such solid positions in defence of a better deal for Africa that could see Sall, who at first glance comes across as rather dour, emerge a significant statesman for the country, the “go-to” guy on a continent which is currently experiencing a dearth of thoughtful, larger-than-life leaders to push its agenda on the world stage.
In cycles In the last few decades such transcontinental leaders have tended to come in cycles; the early years of the eras of Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere still tends to excite some, coming before the continent completely lost its way in the relentless Cold War years. But it is the rise of the Thabo Mbeki-Olusegun Obasanjo axis in the dust of Nelson Mandela’s term that is generally regarded as Africa’s golden age, and which gave rise to a retooled “African Renaissance” push, a sort of power politics brand tailor made for the strengths—and limitations—-of the region.
Later-year leaders such as Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi were in ways a continuation of this vibrant phrase, but since his death the continent has struggled to prop up a leader with both the reflective authority and smarts who would be taken seriously both externally and on the continent.
Rwanda’s Paul Kagame looked like he could have slipped into this role, but the third-term push in his country has taken some wind out of his appeal, while a raft of second-tier leaders have struggled to assert themselves, including Botswana’s Festus Mogae, Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano and Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete.
Of the continent’s incumbents, Jacob Zuma has actually managed to shrink South Africa’s stature on the continent, while a potential candidate, Nigeria’s Muhammad Buhari is too busy sweeping his house to project the country’s clout internationally. A raft of Kenyan leaders have struggled to project cantilevers beyond their immediate eastern Africa hinterland, while Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the incumbent AU chair, in his sunset years and worn out by a battle with the West that he was never really going to win in a globalised world, is the totem head of a clutch of leaders who were never at the races, from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to Angola’s Eduardo Dos Santos.
There have even been unlikely bidders such as the Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, who in April pointedly told Nigeria, Africa’s largest, and proudest, economy, that it would have to get used to the sight of foreign armies on its soil in order to protect its territorial integrity.
Sall’s emergence if it crystallises would thus be even more remarkable as he comes from Francophone Africa, which accounts for just over a tenth of the continent’s 1.1-billion strong population, the majority of its landlocked countries, and just about a fifth of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP. His approach has little of the table-banging variety of African nationalism, and despite the whiff of introversion, is one of the more approachable regional leaders, granting interviews quite liberally.
Diplomats also talk of a man who listens, and not averse to being a team player, traits that come as a premium when one sizes up a gathering of the African Union.
The historical stature of Senegal has not done him any harm either. American leaders tend to fall over themselves to visit the overwhelmingly pro-US country, which has never experienced a coup—the last three have all made a beeline for humid Dakar.
But Sall’s “David and Goliath” exchange with Barack Obama, who has lots of continental currency as the first African-American US president, over gay rights captured the attention of conservative Africa, with the Senegalese president deliberately telling his visitor that while the West African country was not “homophobic”, it was not ready to “decriminalise homosexuality”, before going on to allude to the death penalty in the United States, to widespread acclaim by the country’s diverse and vibrant press—and much further afield.
Geopolitically, Muslim-majority Senegal is viewed by world powers as a vital anchor to regional stability, and has provided much-welcome respite from the growing terrorism threat in its immediate neighbourhood.
Third term ‘belt’ Sall has also taken positions that set him apart on the continent. Much has been made of the ‘third-term Central Africa belt” where a raft of countries—Rwanda, the Republic of Congo, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo have sought to roll back term limits for their leaders.
But Sall is instead looking to shorten his term in office from seven to five years, pending a vote next year. “I was elected for seven years (but) next year, I will propose the organisation of a referendum for the reduction of my mandate,” he told a news conference with foreign media in Dakar in March.
“Have you ever seen presidents reduce their mandate? Well, I am going to do it,” he said. If Sall goes through with it as is expected, he would make good on a pledge that formed part of his election campaign in 2012. He would later successfully appeal to the DRC government to release pro-democracy Senegalese activists who had been arrested in Kinshasa in the the blowback of deadly Congolese protests against a perceived attempt by president Joseph Kabila for a third term in elections expected next year.
The group, “Y’en a marre” (“Fed Up”), has interestingly been one of his more vocal critics domestically, accusing him of failing to deliver on the promises that fuelled “Mackymania” in 2012, when he with the backing of other opposition parties defeated then-incumbent Abdoulaye Wade’s stab at an unpopular third term.
Sall also gave the green light for the prosecution of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, dubbed “Africa’s Pinochet”, by the Extraordinary African Chamber set up by Senegal and the African Union to deal with the case in which rights groups allege some 40,000 people were killed under his regime.
Wade had stalled on the case for his entire stint in power, Habré having lived in Senegal since 1990 following his ouster. Sall refused to extradite the Chadian to Belgium as sought by foreign powers, clearing the path for Habré to become the first African leader tried for major crimes on “home”(African) soil. Explaining his position this year, Sall said there was no point in African leaders protesting the alleged targeting on the continent by international justice but failing to do anything about it.
The unprecedented prosecution of Wade’s son Karim has also taken place under his watch, with the man dubbed as “minister for heaven and earth” jailed in March for amassing an ill-gotten fortune initially estimated at one billion euros but which was later whittled down to about a fifth of this amount.
Karim has been seen as being groomed by his father for the presidency in an ill-advised move by the elder Wade and the conviction was a blow to his presidential ambitions, with his father still heading the former ruling Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS). Together with Sall and ex-premier and former blue-eyed boy Idrissa Seck, the trio had been seen as the successors of the elder Wade, who in Machiavellian fashion pitted their ambitions against each other.
Cut Burkina deal
Sall’s brokering of a deal in Burkina Faso following the September coup was also well received, having pitched camp there in his capacity as the current chair of the 15-member West African regional bloc ECOWAS, where following a hesitant start he was instrumental in shoving out the putschists into the cold, offering little by way of a soft landing.
He has also managed to further douse the low-level secessionist movement in the southern Casamance region. In addition to pursuing a political solution, Sall last year unveiled a development programme aimed at tackling the root-and-branch- poverty that analysts see as anchoring the rebellion.
In August 2014, and much to neighbour Guinea’s annoyance, he shut down their border following the Ebola epidemic. It proved a masterstroke—Senegal’s only case of the virus was from a young man who had travelled to the capital Dakar by road from Guinea, and Dakar’s quick reaction helped protect the country from potentially devastating economic damage.
The country’s economic growth has further added to his tailwind: the IMF was purring in September following a visit to look at the country’s books, with growth seen at 5% this year, and 6% next year, from 4.5% in 2014. In August the CFA Franc zone member country booked inflation of just 0.6%, by contrast Malawi is nearing 25%, while Sudan is staring at 40%.
But managing the stratospheric expectations stoked by the geologist’s election could prove the difference over whether he manages to secure a second term, survive a series of stunning reversals to Africa’s much-touted wave of technocrat presidents, and cement his legacy.
Sall has pledged to double growth by 2020, and is working on his most ambitious infrastructure project yet under his “Emerging Senegal” plan—a new city that will take the pressure off Senegal. (See article)
Many Senegalese feel their personal conditions have not improved much even as the country last year for the first time instituted a social safety net, and they will only grow more impatient for major infrastructure plans to start bearing fruit. Last year voters fired a warning shot, with the presidential party taking a beating at municipal polls.
The main beneficiary was a coalition headed by Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall, who is widely expected to present a considerable election challenge to the incumbent, despite being part of the ruling coalition.
There has also been some grumbling over how many Sall family members are visible politically, including seemingly-omnipresent First Lady Marieme Faye.
But away from the political intrigues characteristic of Senegal, Sall’s regional star has been rising exponentially, and if well managed could feasibly be a sweet balm on Africa’s jaded year so far.
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