Senegal’s Election: African Democracy 1, Big Men 0

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Issouf Sanogo / AFP / Getty Images

Senegalese Opposition challenger Macky Sall supporters celebrate their candidate victory at the their campaign headquarter in Dakar March 25, 2012.

Senegal’s ejection of 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade at the polls Sunday is a resounding victory for African democracy.  The loss ended his attempts to cling to power for a third term and establish a dynastic succession.  According to the Senegalese press agency, Wade telephoned his rival, 50-year-old former Prime Minister Macky Sall, Sunday evening to concede defeat. Official results are expected later this week.  “We have shown to the world that our democracy is mature,” a victorious Sall told supporters. “I will be the president of all the Senegalese.” Wade’s campaign seemed to agree the election had reinvigorated Senegalese democracy. “It is the whole country that has just won,” Amadou Sall, a spokesman for Wade, told Reuters. “This is a big moment for democracy and President Abdoulaye Wade has respected the voice of the people.”

Wade sparked violent protests last year in what is normally a beacon of stability and order in West Africa when he tried to change the constitution to enable him to stay in power, and then again this year when he ran for a third term in spite of a law limiting Presidents to two. Outrage at Wade’s actions and his apparent grooming of his son Karim to succeed him spread far beyond the normal bounds of politics, drawing in civil society, academics, students and even pop stars — notably a Senegalese rap duo Keur Gui, who formed a vocal demonstration movement called Y’en ai Marre (which translates as “I’ve had enough”) and Africa’s most famous living musician Youssou N’Dour, who also took to the streets of the capital, Dakar. In the way of autocrats, Wade responded by deploying riot police equipped with tear gas, batons, plastic bullets and even live rounds. A handful of protesters were killed in several pitched street battles.

(PHOTOS: The African Spring: Senegal by Dominic Nahr)

The contest was seen as a test not just of Senegalese democracy and the ability of this small nation of 12 million to establish their authority over their own leaders. Senegal’s reputation as one of the more politically sophisticated and developed countries in Africa ensured the battle was closely watched across the continent and taken as a barometer of its democracy. After decades during which the Big Men have steadily reformed and made concessions to the forces of political and economic freedom, Africa’s path to political and economic freedom is still far from set. Dinosaurs like Robert Mugabe and Teodoro Obiang continue to rule in, respectively, Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea; leaders like Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Congolese President Joseph Kabila, Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki persistently try to subvert elections and undermine the rule of law; across the continent, almost without exception, the ruling elite uses public office to amass private wealth; and Africa still experiences regular coups, the latest happening on March 21 next door to Senegal in Mali.

Before the vote, N’Dour told TIME he entered politics in pursuit of a very different vision for Senegal, and Africa. “A moderate state, not a huge, encumbering state; where children are going to school; where AIDS and malaria programs are effective; where the country is clean and managed in an environmentally friendly way; more democracy, good governance; free, fair and transparent elections, safeguarded by an independent electoral commission; and robust institutions, which I think are the key to democracy.” Wade’s defeat does not for a second guarantee that future for either Africa or Senegal — Sall was a former ally of Wade, after all, and it remains to be seen what kind of leader he will be. But, as the tens of thousands of jubilant Senegalese who celebrated victory in the streets of Dakar on Sunday night understand, it does makes it just that little bit more possible.

MORE: Youssou N’Dour’s Protest Song

PHOTOS: Shocking Clashes in Senegal

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