An Aging African Leader Whose Time Has Ended

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade's outdated model of governance isn't working for his country.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade's outdated model of governance isn't working for his country.

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President Abdoulaye Wade attends an awards event in the capital Dakar / Reuters

Wade wants a third term and he's arranged for Senegal's courts and constitution to comply. He has triumphed -- so far, and in part because Senegal's judges banned Youssou N'Dour, the wildly popular Woloff singer and bandleader, from competing against him. Now Wade seems destined to win another term on February 26. Or at least he promises he will.

Wade is a politician of persistence without purpose. He is neither puppet nor puppet master in Senegalese politics, but rather a triumph of form over content. His only credible achievements are negatives: Senegal has not had a civil war (like Sudan), not had an Islamic uprising (like Nigeria), not hosted a genocide, and not had a military coup.

For the Senegalese -- a people of great culture, dignity, drive, and committment -- not having this or that horrible outcome is no longer enough. They need progress, which their president since 2000 hasn't delivered. Wade must go.

At the age of 85 and after two desultory terms as president, he deserves a dignified glide into retirement, not another term at the head of this storied West African country. Under Wade's watch, Senegal has stagnated both political and economically. The country is one of the worst performers in the region over the course his presidency -- an especially poor performer economically and in rural development, compared to Ghana, which shares Senegal's history of relative ethnic tolerance, lack of crime, and military isolation from politics.

Wade came to the presidency late in life, after loyally serving Senegal's poet-president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, then breaking with Senghor's successor, Abdou Diouf. Wade lost twice to Diouf in presidential elections in the 1980s. When he finally came to power in 2000, he seemed to treat the presidency as a glorified glide into retirement. I met Wade at Davos, in 2000, where he presented his plans for Senegal to an international audience in the Swiss alps. I listened to him talk about the need for a break with Senegal's stagnation of the 1980s and 1990s, and I perked up when he made an appeal to the talented Senegalese living in France and the U.S. -- hundreds of thousands of them -- to consider returning to their own country of origin. "We need the talent, and we will reward it," he declared.

As it happened, I sat at a table in the back of the room where Wade was speaking, and across from me sat Wade's very own daughter, an impeccably dressed Sindjely Wade. After Wade ended his remarks, I asked Sindjely where she lived and she replied crisply, "In Paris." I asked whether she was persuaded by her father, Senegal's president, that she should move back to Dakar. Her response caught me off guard. "Not yet," she said.

I smiled, knowingly, or at least pretending to know. I could not say what I really thought: if Wade's election was not inspiring enough for his own daughter to return -- at once -- than what chance did he have to energize the daughters of so many compatriots?

As it turned out, not much. Wade, having worked as a lawyer in France, is as much as museum-piece of African politics as Zimbabwe's 25-year president, Robert Mugabe. He retains more than a scent of the coy colonial intimacy between the elite of France and of Senegal, its former colony. Wade is not just one generation removed from the Senegal of today. He is two generations removed, or even three. Half of the population was born after Wade's 65th birthday. So the generation of independence -- of even World War II -- is ages away from the youthful urban proliterariat whose rising expectations are transforming the political terrain of Dakar.

Long on abstract proclamations on African unity and the importance of the region's role on the world stage, Wade has much less to say about the specifics of Senegal, a country of extreme inequality of wealth and opportunity, a highly faith-based country where a moderate Islam has been an unusual progressive force. In its dynamic religious Mouride community, rather than the slavish European obsessions of its political elite, a better future for Senegal's masses surely lies. Because of Wade's vanity, that better future likely remains far off.