HomeEditorial CommentManaging change: Lessons from Senegal

Managing change: Lessons from Senegal

Saly is a seaside resort perched on the Atlantic coast south of Dakar, Senegal. It is the foremost tourist destination in West Africa, despite the stifling heat which is immense because of the humidity; it’s like you are in a microwave oven whose timing mechanism has been removed. You have the sense of being cooked slowly, so much so when you eventually escape into the air-conditioned interior, you are like a sizzling under-done steak, juices ooze out of you, you can almost hear the heat hiss as it escapes from deep inside your body.

Report by Nevanji Madanhire

The sea stinks at Saly; as the waves lash out at the shore, the odours of the sea come all pervasive and overpowering. The smell of the sea is in the food as well; it makes your stomach churn and the cramps make you double over as if you have been hit in the abdomen by a hammer blow.

But all is not gloom in Saly. Tourism is thriving and is the backbone of the economy. European visitors can be seen everywhere, their skins burned into a dark hue by the searing heat. They don’t mind for they will quickly enough cool off in the hotel complexes and later in nightclubs, bars and restaurants. There is plenty of water sport too, so tourists are in and out of the green water.

Senegal is a French-speaking country, very few natives speak English. Your nightmare stay in the country begins right at the point of entry because of the language barrier. There are no English language newspapers either and TV programmes are all in French.

It was difficult, therefore, to learn much about the “new” Senegal; new in the sense that it had a new, younger president in the shape of 50-year-old Macky Sall.

Dakar seems to have improved a lot since my last visit in 1994 with new buildings going up. I am afraid though that the new high-rise buildings may not be up to our exacting engineering standards, the concrete columns are way too thin to carry the weight. I think very soon the buildings will begin to collapse as has been happening in Nigeria.

I wanted to know the effect the coming in of a new president has had on the general populace and what the general attitude towards him was? I was also keen to know the lessons that could be learnt from the transition and the things that can’t be taken for granted when change happens?

So many questions, the answers all embargoed in a concrete language barrier!

Then I had a brainwave; there was Trudy Stevenson, our ambassador to Senegal, playful, talkative and otherwise quite disinterested in her discourse! But as journos would know, it’s very difficult to get anything that would shake the world from a diplomat unless one can really read between the lines of diplomatic-speak.

But I was able to glean interesting anecdotes from her and also from the people on the market, who in their attempt to con me out of the little money I had, gave me snippets of what was going on in Senegal.

President Macky Sall’s honeymoon is over! Not fast, it’s only been six months! Yes. Six months is what history gives to those who would wish to change the world. The euphoria of change has dissipated and criticism is coming in thick. Sall’s detractors accuse him of nepotism and sloth, the two vices most responsible for Africa’s woes.

Senegal remains a country of contrasts and contradictions, as do the majority of our countries here in Africa. So Dakar has magnificent high-rise buildings and architectural prize-winners with splendid views over the coast and ocean, but just next door in the same Dakar are the slums of Pikine and Guediawaye, where sheep, goats, rats, flies and fleas graze on the garbage thrown out by entire families living in one room.

Sall embodied change, in this election, and everyone wanted change. But as he has proceeded to appoint relatives and close associates to key positions in both government and parastatals people are beginning to ask the obvious question — is this really change?

Analysts believe he is doing his best to keep his promises, but the circumstances are not favourable — so he has had to face reality and be pragmatic. What has impressed commentators, apart from the election itself and the peaceful transition, is the extent to which the new “opposition” president has retained the previous institutions and eminent citizens in all their various positions in exactly the same positions. This, they argue, ensures institutional memory and hand-down. Is this a lesson Zimbabwe can learn?

What is clear in the people’s body language is that they were extremely reinvigorated by the change in their sense of patriotism and their immense pride in their country for managing that change so well — they frequently cite Senegal as the best democracy in Africa, and the Senegalese as the most democratic and tolerant.

While other predominantly Moslem countries erupted into rebellion recently over the Innocence of Islam video, Senegal didn’t. Senegalese insist that Islam preaches tolerance and peace. This was proof enough of this.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the Senegal transition is that a highly educated, professional and apolitical security sector is vital. Senegal’s generals are highly professional — they don’t dabble in politics and are proud of it. But, it was amazing how many of former President Wade’s closest allies appointed to high posts by Wade himself abandoned him either immediately before or immediately after the second round. Forget about our own generals causing trouble when Robert Mugabe loses; they will be the first to abandon ship and salute Morgan Tsvangirai, such is fickleness of human nature!

Another lesson — it is important that the defeated president has somewhere to go outside the country, at least for the first few months after the change, without appearing to be fleeing.

Civil society played a huge part in managing the change — and they need to be allowed to do that. It was largely thanks to civil society that there was no violence. Another aspect of the Senegal election — many of the politicians are highly qualified professionals with their own resources. They also openly fund-raise in the west — in US, France and Canada in particular — and this is accepted as perfectly normal. Linked to that, the military and the civil servants seem sufficiently well-paid that they are not dependent on hand-outs or kick-backs from government.

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