Africa's Turn

A Conversation With Macky Sall

Posters of U.S. President Barack Obama and Senegal's President Macky Sall before Obama's visit in Dakar.
Posters of U.S. President Barack Obama and Senegal's President Macky Sall before Obama's visit in Dakar. (Joe Penney / Courtesy Reuters)

Since it gained independence from France in 1960, the West African country of Senegal has been a bastion of stability and democracy on a continent that has seen relatively little of either. During the presidency of Abdoulaye Wade (2000–2012), however, the Senegalese exception seemed under threat. The elderly Wade grew increasingly authoritarian and corrupt, and he managed to run for a third term even though the constitution prohibited him from doing so. But in March 2012, Senegalese voters dealt Wade a decisive defeat, electing the reformist candidate Macky Sall instead. Trained in France as a geological engineer, Sall had served in a number of government posts under Wade, including prime minister, before publicly breaking with him in 2007. In opposition, Sall created a new political party; served a second term as mayor of his hometown, Fatick; and organized an anti-Wade coalition. Sall spoke with Foreign Affairs senior editor Stuart Reid in Dakar in June, days before U.S. President Barack Obama’s arrival in Senegal for a state visit.

Since independence, most African countries have suffered from coups and civil wars. But Senegal has enjoyed over five decades of stability and multiparty competition. What’s your secret?
It stems from a long historical process. Senegal’s first revolution came at the same time as America’s. In 1776, there was a revolution in the north of Senegal -- what we call the Torodbe revolution -- that set out new guidelines for governance. There was colonization afterward. But even during the colonial era, beginning in 1848, people could vote for the colonial authorities. In 1914, we elected the first black member of the French National Assembly, Mr. Blaise Diagne, a Senegalese. So before independence, there was already electoral competition.

Another secret can be found in the Senegalese constitution. We have a semi-presidential regime, which means that the government is responsible not only to the president but also to the parliament. There is one chief executive, in contrast with some countries that have two -- something that creates tensions that can end in coups. Senegal’s flexible and robust constitution has protected us from coups for 53 years since independence.

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