Saturday, Senegal celebrated its 49th anniversary of independence with a civil and military parade presided over by President Abdoulaye Wade. Several African countries and France sent contingents to the parade in tribute to nearly half a century of democratic governance. In 1960 Senegal gained its independence from decades of French colonial rule. Since indepedence, Senegal has remained a developing democracy in a region plagued by coup d'etat, civil war, and resource driven conflict.
Thousands of Senegalese students studying in the United States celebrated the 49th anniversary from their college campuses. "Being away and thinking about Independence Day for any Senegalese gives us a sense of nostalgia," said Soukeyna Sylla a junior International Studies major at Macalester College from Dakar, Senegal.
Although she is miles away from home, Independence Day is a day when she and her friends conceptualize the countries future and reflect on the current situation.
"Within the historical context when you see discouraging events happening nextdoor in Guinea Bissau and Mauritania, it gives us pride about our democratic experience,"Sylla said. Soukenya is pleased that it appears Senegalese politicians are not necessarily thinking about their own personal interest but are in the process to sustain the nations democracy. "Although the ruling party lost the recent elections, they proved that democracy is not impossible and is an achievable ideal."
Recently, Senegal showed again why many consider it among the most politically conscious democracies in Africa. On March 22, Senegal had its local elections, which selected 20,000 people to serve in rural, municipal and regional positions. Official results showed that Senegal's opposition had won several major cities, including the capital Dakar. The recent showing was a yet another peaceful transition of power and was accepted by the ruling party and incumbent President Wade.
"The president congratulates ... in particular the opposition parties and coalitions whom the voters mandated to lead many local authorities including some important towns," said a government statement.
Senegal is a predominantly Muslim nation whose model of religious and ethnic tolerance is the envy of many countries around the world. The West African country presents an inclusive face of Islam that western media often overlooks in its coverage of the Muslim world.
The first president of Senegal at independence in 1960 was Leopold Sedar Senghor. Senghor was a leading intellectual figure in the Negritude movement as well as being a charismatic politician. After a stint with one-party governance under Senghor's party, le Parti Socialist (PS), Senegal transitioned into the rich multi-party democracy present today.
The Republic is widely known for its vibrant free press. Several newspapers are published which play an important role in holding office holders accountable to the public. Senegal's youth are also very much engaged in local and national politics. The acclaimed documentary, "Democracy in Dakar" highlights the impact hip hop artists have had on the democratic process, and the role young people played in the 2007 presidential election.
But recent crackdowns on the opposition in the media and on the streets have tarnished Senegal's international image and critics of President Abdoulaye Wade say officials are enriching themselves while most Senegalese struggle with poverty and unemployment.Today, Senegal faces several human development challenges in spite its flourishing democracy including persistent illiteracy, youth unemployment and declining purchasing power among broad majorities of the country. In 2008, the capital city, Dakar, was rocked by food riots as the price of rice skyrocketed. Every year, thousands of Senegalese risk their lives in dangerous sea voyages in search of economic opportunity in Europe.
Last Friday, the United States government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) signed a grant agreement with the Senegalese government to provide up to $13.39 million to support development that seeks to reduce poverty through economic growth. The MCC awarded the grant to further promote Senegal's "good governance, economic freedom and investments in people".
"Why should our democratic achievements be defined by a US grant? I don't think we should subject our understanding of democracy to the will of any other country," said Soukeyna Sylla. She says corruption still exists inside the Senegalese government and foreign dollars rarely reach the Senegalese people directly. "Whenever I discuss these intiatives coming from outside I never believe in them. I don't believe in the idea you can inject any sum of money into the country and things magically change," Sylla said.
So far social and economic set backs haven't discouraged Senegalese citizens willingness to support the democratic process. The next presidential elections in Senegal are scheduled for 2012.