Amidst a firestorm of protests leading up to a tense presidential election, candidates Amsatou Sow Sidibé and Diouma Diakhaté Dieng symbolize Senegal’s progress despite its controversy.
Senegal, long acknowledged as one of the continent’s more peaceful and democratic nations, transformed into an embattled state the summer of 2011 after its 85-year-old president, Abdoulaye Wade, unsuccessfully moved to change the presidential term limits so that he might seek a third election bid. Mass demonstrations, clashes with the police and rolling blackouts swept through Dakar and reverberated throughout the country, the disruption of peace and political stability revealing decades of corruption and the frustrations of the poor.
For Senegal, 2012 began with the highest court approving President Wade’s candidacy and the smell of tear gas permeating the air. Despite his failure to reverse the constitutional mandate, the court ruled Wade eligible to run because the amendment was ratified after he assumed office. Thousands took to the streets following the decision, rocks in hand, calling for Wade’s immediate resignation.
The February 26 presidential election, though peaceful, did nothing to polish the west African nation's tarnished democratic image after President Wade and his former protégé Macky Sall emerged as the front-runners. Heading into the March 25 run-off election, Wade leads Sall with 34.81% of the vote and the future of Senegal currently hangs in the balance. Yet despite its domestic social unrest and its international democratic ranking downgraded from “free” to “partly free,” one piece of Senegal’s blemished democracy still shines during its period of political turmoil.
For the first time in history two women, Sidibé and Dieng, ran in a field of fourteen Senegalese presidential candidates. Although women comprise fifty-two percent of Senegal’s predominately Muslim population, they held less than twenty-five percent of political offices in nearly every level of government until quite recently. Parliament’s passage of the gender parity law in 2010 not only guaranteed women half of all national and local electoral candidacies, but a permanent seat at the proverbial table. Progress is an understatement.
Amsatou Sow Sidibé spoke to a sense of responsibility for the future of Senegal when explaining why she chose to run for the country's highest office: “It is time for women to take up their responsibilities. I have worked long enough at the grassroots level; today I assume my responsibility to 'mettre la main à la pâte à un plushaut niveau'—to lend my hand to contributing at a much higher level.”
Although Sidibé spoke these words to announce to her presidential candidacy, they could easily serve as a call to public service for all Senegalese women. A clear inspiration to many, Sidibé’s viable candidacy perhaps even inspired her opposition Dieng, who made history as she threw her hat into the ring just before the registration deadline.
Statistics pertaining to African women – 70 percent living in poverty, earning a mere 10 percent of overall income, comprising just one percent of property owners, yet contributing two-thirds of Africa’s illiterate AND 75% of all HIV-positive women across the globe– demonstrate the continent's grave challenges but simultaneously obscure its gains. Often unseen and rarely acknowledged, several African countries lead the world in historic female milestones – Rwanda’s parliament is the only majority female parliament in world (women holding 45 out of 80 seats), the 95 percent literacy rate amongst women in Lesotho, and the fact that Burundi ranks first in female labor force participation at 92 percent – representing the wave of women’s empowerment, leadership, and peacemaking.
Perhaps the most globally visible example of woman-led change, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stands as Africa's first and only sitting female president. President Sirleaf’s rise office in a nation recovering from one of Africa’s deadliest conflicts is a mere glimpse of how African women have taken center stage in what was once a male-dominated arena. She once hinted that her gender makes her uniquely qualified for her position: "women bring a sensibility, a sensitivity, to those things which bring peace.”
Although the next female African president will not come from Senegal, women will surely play a role in this pivotal moment in Senegalese democracy. Regardless of the run-off elections’ outcome Senegal along the rest of the continent will surely rely on women to lead the charge for peace and its future.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora. You can follow her on Twitter @divalutionary or on the web at www.hueconnect.com.