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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.
We also have stable institutions. Only seven days elapsed between the election of March 25, 2012, and my swearing-in. In the meantime, the legal system issued a ruling, and democratic institutions prepared the transfer. The army and the police complied with the results of the election. A country that does not have stable institutions and a clear constitution cannot be successful.
Senegal is also something of a regional exception in that 90 percent of the population is Muslim, yet the state is secular.
Actually, 95 percent are Muslim. In Senegal, the state has the duty to protect people of all religions -- Muslim, Christian, animist. People have the freedom to believe in what they want. That is a fundamental element of our constitution. This does not mean that the majority or the minority cannot express themselves; rather, the state is there to respect the freedom of each citizen to believe in what he or she wants to believe in.
Why did voters choose you instead of Wade? What did your victory represent?
My victory certainly meant that the Senegalese people chose change. The country was divided. The partisans of the former regime were committed to a path where the term of office was no longer limited, even though the constitution of 2001 was clear that no one could have more than two five-year terms. Then, the people came together to stand up against a proposed bill that would have allowed a president to be elected with 25 percent of the vote.
A great deal of hope is what put me in power. I’m quite aware of that. So my role is to strengthen this democratic choice. That’s what I’m trying to do through the institutional reform commission that I set up, which must work to strengthen democracy and not to bring about a new regime.
You promised to crack down on corruption. What have you done, and what do you have left to do?
It’s important that everyone, including those in government now, realize that the era of impunity is over. And we have done a lot in one year. I revived the anticorruption court, which was created by President Abdou Diouf in 1981 but eventually stopped functioning; it was there, but you couldn’t nominate the attorneys and magistrates. I nominated magistrates who agreed to work according to the procedure of the court, which hasn’t been changed. I have submitted a bill on budget transparency. From now on, the government has to make its accounts public on a quarterly basis. The law will also require budgetary officials to declare their assets publicly before they take office.
I also created OFNAC, which is an office to combat fraud. When there are allegations of corruption against current officials, that office has the power to conduct an investigation and refer the case directly to the justice system. These are new measures to increase transparency and good governance, which are important for guaranteeing investment.
Isn’t it true that all politicians, including you, benefited from corruption under Wade?
As far as I am concerned, we benefited from privileges related to our position -- prime minister or president of the national assembly -- which is completely normal. It has nothing to do with embezzlement or corruption. When you can prove that your assets are in line with your income, there’s no problem. That’s not what is being challenged. What is being challenged is the accumulation of resources that has nothing to do with legal and justifiable sources of income, including mine when I was with President Wade.
Senegal’s neighbor Mali has had a difficult year, with a coup d’état, the Tuareg rebellion, the Islamist takeover of the north, and French intervention. What can Senegal do to improve the prospects for Malian democracy?
First of all, we would like to recognize the role played by the international community, without which Mali would have lost its territorial integrity and independence. This is why we have commended the efforts made by the United Nations, which voted for a resolution that permitted France, along with African forces from ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] and Chad, to stop the jihadist terrorists and reclaim Malian territory.
Today, we are in the final stages of consolidating the peace. The agreement that was just signed in Ouagadougou [Burkina Faso] will help organize elections for July 28 across the country -- including in Kidal, a Tuareg stronghold. I believe that Senegal’s role is to continue to side with Mali, to support it in its reconciliation policy as well as in its development policy. We share a long border, more than 400 kilometers [about 250 miles], which must be watched closely. Our fates are linked. What is happening in Mali could happen in any of our countries.
What role should countries such as Senegal play in regional security compared with outside actors such as the United States and France?
We cooperate with France, which is an ally and a friend. It is of course a former colonial power. But France understands the stakes in and the sociology of our countries. The United States also has a security policy in the region, and it is our partner through AFRICOM [the U.S. Africa Command] and everything that it does in terms of military cooperation with various countries.
It is clear that terrorism is a plague in our countries. It compounds our development problems. We have to ensure the security of our populations, the inviolability of our borders, and the stability of our states so that we can focus on such issues as development and poverty.
Senegal, like most members of ECOWAS, can be considered a pivotal country, because it has a military that can intervene at home just as it can abroad. Senegal has more than 2,000 soldiers in operations across Africa. We are present in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries. There could be better-thought-out cooperation that would enable Africa, in case of a challenge like the one we experienced recently in Mali, to have special forces capable of reacting first to stop the danger and neutralize the threat and, afterward, to cooperate economically and strategically.
So can Africa take care of its own problems now?
No. Africa cannot handle its own problems, because we are not yet at the point where we have the logistical capabilities to deploy troops in case of emergency. It’s simply a matter of means, not a matter of men. Remember, when our troops intervened in Mali, they deployed over land. Today, Senegalese troops are in Gao, which is 2,400 kilometers [almost 1,500 miles] away. They had to travel there in convoys of trucks and four-by-four vehicles. That’s a problem. So as long as the logistics are not sorted out, we will always be lagging behind. But we are handling matters with our community organizations, with our respective countries, and particularly with our partners, such as the United States, France, and the European Union, among others.
After much delay under the previous administration, the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, will now be tried for crimes against humanity by a Senegalese court, not by a court in Europe. Does this represent a new model for African justice?
Yes. The world has changed, and in 2013, it’s not acceptable for us to still be expelling African leaders to European countries. Africa should have the means to try people who have been accused of crimes. In the case of Mr. Habré, an African Union resolution demanded that Senegal, where he has lived in asylum for the past 20-plus years, organize his trial. Under my predecessor, the Senegalese government accepted this mandate. This mandate must be enforced, and that’s what we’re in the process of doing.
If Habré is convicted, will you go after his assets?
It is not our duty as a state to make a decision. It’s the duty of the justice system to do what it has to do. We cannot interfere with his personal affairs or his assets. The justice system will shed some light on it and decide what must be done.
If Senegal is committed to justice for Habré, then why is your current prime minister Habré’s former banker?
I did not appoint my prime minister because of the Habré case. Now, if it comes out that he is truly linked to the Habré case, or if he is charged with anything, then I will make a decision. But for the moment, there’s no reason to doubt him or take measures against him so long as a ruling has not been made.
What did the election of Obama mean to Africans?
Africans took a lot of pride in the election of Obama, because it proved wrong those who believed in racist assumptions, that a black man could not live up to a white man. Of course, President Obama is the president of the United States, not the president of Africa, so he stands up for the interests of America. But his election broke down barriers.
Some say that Obama has done less than President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton in terms of promoting trade with Africa or assisting with public health efforts there.
You cannot ask President Obama to do something that he can’t do. He came to power in a time of historic difficulties in the United States. The economy was on the brink, there was a war in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq, there was the subprime mortgage crisis. All these crises led him to take care of his country first, to put an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I think he can be judged at the end of his tenure. None of his predecessors could do anything real during their first terms. It’s in the second term that they enjoyed more freedom and could take the initiative. I do hope that he’s going to do something that will be important. There’s no doubt about it. That’s the feeling I have.
Much of the budget of the Senegalese government, 20 percent, still comes from foreign aid. What can African countries do to wean themselves off international assistance?
Aid indeed represents 20 percent of our budget. But there was a time when it was 60 percent. We need that aid for development, but more than aid, we need investment. We are working today to establish public-private partnerships and attract private investment. That development will trigger productivity that will enable us to have a balanced budget and eventually no longer need aid, which is not easy to raise. African countries also have high levels of debt compared to elsewhere, and we cannot develop infrastructure without getting out of debt. Africa needs help.
Senegal’s rate of economic growth is lower than those of its neighbors. Why does it remain so low?
Well, what accounts for Senegal’s slow growth -- in 2013, it will be 4.3 percent -- is that we are handicapped by the energy sector, which is making the economy less competitive. We have initiated bold measures to provide for a sustainable response to the energy crisis. We also have another handicap: our agricultural sector, which should be the engine of growth, remains traditional, with low yields and the inefficient use of land. So we have decided to modernize the agricultural system, while protecting the family nature of some holdings, with seed capital to increase yields and productivity through mechanization.
What about reducing the role of the state in the economy?
I’m a liberal, so I believe the economy is not something that the state creates. It is business, it is competitiveness, it is productivity that does that. But the state has a fundamental role: to secure an environment conducive to business. Thus, it is necessary to have the rule of law and make sure that private investment is protected. Above all, we have to fight against factors that limit investment -- in particular, corruption and red tape. I have launched major initiatives to fight corruption and illegal enrichment, as well as to remove administrative constraints. Very soon, you will see our reforms aimed at speeding up the time it takes to start a business. Our single-window system gathers together in the same place -- in APIX, which is the agency to promote investment -- all the services that foreign or national investors need, to save time, in terms of procedures.
What about human capital? In Senegal, over 60 percent of women over the age of 15 are illiterate. Many people suffer from malaria or malnutrition. Sixty percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. What are you doing about these problems?
Most of Senegal’s population is young, as is characteristic of Africa. We have a high population growth rate, around 2.5 percent, so if the economic growth rate is not three times that, it is very difficult to create wealth. As a result of this very fast-growing population, we have youth unemployment. We need to educate young people, ensure their health, and make sure that they are required to attend school at least until they turn 16. There are more than 300,000 youths who enroll in primary school each year, so we need enough classrooms and teachers. Senegal made major progress in education before I even came to power, and we are continuing it, because we are deeply convinced that it is human capital that will make the difference. And then there are our major efforts in higher education, which we are continuing to pursue despite some difficulties. But we have no choice. We have to invest in vocational training in order to ensure the full development of our people through employment. And even if they do not get a job here, they can emigrate with their skills. Many countries need doctors, engineers, and technicians; Senegal can provide them.
Women’s rights are correlated with economic growth; what are you doing regarding girls in school?
We have a law on gender parity for elected positions. It’s really an extraordinary leap forward made by Senegal. We also have basic incentives so that young girls stay in school as long as possible. We are pleased to see the quality of training for girls in school; more and more, in secondary school and at university, they earn better grades than boys. Increasingly, women are getting trained in all areas. Initially, they studied literature and the law; now, they are in all fields -- scientific, medical, everything. But we must persevere. In cities, there isn’t a problem. But we want to see the same improvement in a rural areas, where there are still battles to be fought. But given our high rate of universal access to education, this is a fight we have almost won here in Senegal.
China has ramped up its investment in Africa. Some fear this is not good for the prospects of African democracy. Are they right?
Well, I can’t see why the development of Chinese investment would constitute a danger for democracy. The cooperation with China is much more direct and faster than the cooperation we have with Western countries -- the United States, European countries, and other bilateral donors. There are a lot of criteria on governance, on this and that, and a lot of procedures. That’s one of the obstacles to effective cooperation: too many procedures. Each partner has its own list of these procedures, and so countries spend a lot of time dealing with procedures. I’m not saying that what China is doing is better, but at least it’s faster. And we need speed.
Are you optimistic about the fate of Africa?
I am very optimistic, because I am aware that Africa today has every chance to catch up. Africa has a young population, natural resources, and, now, democracy. Africa is stable, democratic, and secure, and its natural resources are better managed thanks to transparency in the extractive industries. For investors, Africa provides a faster and more exciting return on investment, because everything remains to be done -- infrastructure, energy, and development. Development has gone around the world, to Europe, to America, to Asia. It’s Africa’s turn now.
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