Senegal's democratic backslide

Last year was a banner one for democracy in Africa. Nigeria, the largest country on the continent, had a democratic election, and even more impressively, had its first-ever peaceful transition of power when sitting President Goodluck Jonathan transferred power to Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan conceded and famously declared, "Nobody's ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian." My last piece for The Hill was titled "Will Guinea's experiment in democracy succeed?" It is with great joy that I can report that it did! Guinea's first democratically elected president, Alpha Condé, won his reelection campaign in an internationally monitored, peaceful election in which the Guinean electorate reaffirmed its commitment to a democracy.

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Despite these victories for democracy in a continent in which I dedicated a great deal of my life's work, I am deeply troubled by developments over the last few weeks. Earlier this week, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni extended his 30-year rule and "won" his fifth consecutive election, which international observers said was marred with intimidation and impropriety. Shortly after the election, Museveni — who scrapped constitutional term limits a decade ago — had his political rival, Kizza Besigye, arrested and detained for protesting the election results. Of course we have come to expect these unfortunate actions in Uganda. What I am most troubled by is what is taking place in Senegal, which was once the pillar of democracy in Africa.

When Abdoulaye Wade was democratically elected as president of Senegal in 2000, it was a huge step forward for democracy in Africa. Wade adopted a new constitution and instituted term limits for the first time in Senegalese history. In 2012, Wade was defeated in a democratic election by his prime minister, Macky Sall. The United States and the larger international community praised Wade for his quick concession and peaceful transition of power. Sall affirmed his commitment to democracy, announcing that he would shorten term limits from seven to five years. President Obama visited Senegal in June 2013 and praised Sall for his commitment to democracy in shortening the presidential mandate and praised the country's rule of law.

Unfortunately, in the past few years much has changed and we are witnessing a backslide in what was once Africa's brightest democratic success story. When the opposition party, the Senegalese Democratic Party, designated former President Abdoulaye Wade's son, former government minister Karim Wade, as their candidate for the next presidential election; Sall had Karim Wade arrested and detained. Sall then reestablished a special court by presidential decree, a court which previously had been abolished by Senegalese law and had not heard a case in 30 years. This newly established special court sentenced Wade to six years in prison. He remains in prison today, sentenced without appeal. In April 2015, the United Nations Working Group of Arbitrary Detention determined that Wade was arbitrarily arrested and that his detention was in violation of international law. Last month, the U.N. Working Group reaffirmed its finding and called on Sall's regime to release Karim Wade and comply with international law. Sall has ignored the U.N. Working Group's request.

Last week, the backslide continued even further as Sall reneged on his commitment to shorten term limits. Instead of holding elections next year, after five years per his commitment, he announced that he would serve until 2019. He claims that this decision was based on the opinion — just an opinion — of the Constitutional Council that he had himself sought.

In light of the trend toward democracy in Africa as exemplified by Nigeria and Guinea, it is very concerning that one of the United States' closest allies and Africa's strongest democracies appears to be retrogressing. The destabilization of democracy in Senegal could have significant consequences in the entire region. The United States must get in front of this negative trend before spreads across Africa and it is too late. The U.S. should call on President Sall to honor the request of the U.N. Working Group and both release Karim Wade and keep his pledge of a five-year presidential mandate. President Obama has said that Africa is more important than ever to security and prosperity in the U.S. We have worked very hard in implementing and prioritizing democracy and democratic succession in Africa. The Obama administration must not let our hard work be compromised in Senegal; we have worked too hard and come too far.

Dellums is a 14-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California who served from 1971 to 1998. He also served as the 48th mayor of Oakland, Calif. from 2007 to 2011. He served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on the District of Columbia. He also served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus.

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