REPORTING FROM LAGOS, NIGERIA -- Incumbent Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade's move to swiftly concede defeat after Sunday's presidential runoff election is being viewed as a major positive step for democracy in a region better known for military coups and violence-tinged election campaigns.
Wade, 85, who faced a massive public backlash after defying a constitutional provision limiting presidential terms to two, was defeated by a former ally, Macky Sall, 50.
Wade had been in power for 12 years, and was seeking a third term despite his age and the fact that he developed the two-term limit. His bid to remain in office sparked massive street protests in which seven people died. The protests were joined by Senegal's most famous musician, Youssou N'Dour, and Senegalese rappers who formed the movement Y'en ai Marre, or “I'm fed up.”
Rising prices and high unemployment contributed to Wade’s defeat, as did the perception he was more interested in monumental projects than in helping ordinary people, symbolized by a $27-million, 160-foot bronze statue called “African Renaissance” he commissioned on a hill outside the capital. The statue was built by North Koreans.
Amid fears he might try to cling to power, Wade called his opponent just hours after the vote Sunday to concede he had lost, a rare and surprising move in many African nations.
Senegal has had a long history of democracy, but Sunday's result comes only days after a military coup in neighboring Mali, which had also been seen as a democratic model. Mali's coup came just a month before it was due to hold presidential elections, in which its president, Amadou Toumani Toure, had pledged not to run after two terms.
Many African leaders measure their time in office in decades, with the heads of Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and Angola all in power for more than 30 years.
While Wade's defeat could signal that the era of the “Big Man” in African politics may be gradually coming to an end, democracy still has a tenuous foothold in many parts of Africa. In many countries, ruling parties, often related to a dominant political clan, use state resources to manipulate elections, and monopolize media coverage. Opposition political parties are often harassed, jailed, or otherwise undermined -- while fragmented opposition parties tend to be their own worst enemy, failing to unite to pose credible alternatives to incumbent rulers.
Most of the 17 elections in Africa last year wound up being disputed. Nigeria's election saw rioting and sectarian killings, although international observers called it relatively free and fair. Ivory Coast's 2010 presidential election led to civil warfare before incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo was hauled out of an underground bunker, arrested and sent to the International Criminal Court, where he faces trial for crimes against humanity.
Wade's concession of defeat was hailed by regional and international leaders.
The EU called it a “great victory for democracy” in Senegal and Africa. African Union commission chief Jean Ping said the election showed that “Africa, despite its challenges, continues to register significant progress towards democracy and transparent elections.” The U.N. praised the vote as free and fair.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan praised Wade for exhibiting statesmanship and political maturity.
“If there was ever any doubt, this election has proved that the foundation of Senegalese democracy is rock solid. This is good for the Senegalese people and also for our sub-region, especially at a time one of our brother countries is facing grave challenges to constitutional order,” Jonathan said, referring to the Malian coup, which has been condemned by African and Western leaders.
Nicolas Sarkozy, from France, Senegal's colonial ruler, said the election was good news for Africa and Senegal.
Sall, a former protege of Wade who served as his prime minister from 2004 to 2007, has promised to bring down the price of basic foodstuffs, cut presidential terms to five years from the current seven and to enforce a two-term limit.
Sall said Senegal had entered a new era.
“We have shown to the world that our democracy is mature,” he told reporters. “I will be the president of all the Senegalese.”
Photo: A street vendor in Dakar, Senegal, sells newspapers commenting on the presidential victory of Macky Sall. Credit: Issouf Sanogo / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.