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Senegal, Nigeria and Guinea Bissau: Unlike brothers

By Owei Lakemfa

GROWING up in Lagos, I thought Senegal was one of its suburbs. There was ‘ Bread Senega’  It was harder than other types of loaf but more filling.  There were Senegalese men and women who were difficult to distinguish from other Nigerians. Of course, Senegalese dresses remain part of the traditional dresses dear to Nigerians. It is perhaps impossible today, to take a flight from Nigeria to Dakar without encountering Nigerian tailors and traders streaming to Dakar.

Although we got independence in the same year, Nigeria has a distinctively different post-colonial experience. Where we have had at least five ‘successful’ military coups  and a rash of bloody attempted coups, Senegal never witnessed one; succession has always been through the ballot box. Where Nigeria had suffered 29  years of purposeless, corrupt and criminally-minded military dictatorship, Senegal is the only country in West Africa where the military never ruled for a day. If it were in Nigeria, the type of separatist insurrection in the Casamance region of Senegal that went on for some two decades, would have been enough excuse for military coups.

Unlike in Nigeria, the votes count; the Senegalese voter exercises his or her constitutional authority. The Senegalese, despite years of conservative leadership, taught the rest of us the true values of liberal democracy. This was aptly demonstrated in its presidential elections. First,  its founding president, Leopold Sedar Senghor was  a Catholic; part of the minority Christian population which is less than five per cent in a country with an 87 per cent Muslim population. Yet he won elections leading to independence in 1960, and re-election on three other occasions. This was because to the Senegalese, the issue was good governance not religion or region. Secondly, the then opposition leader, Abdou Wade lost elections several times: To Senghor in 1978, to
President Abdou Diouf in 1983, 1988 and 1993. That did not make him give up or plan a coup. And unlike the average Nigerian politician, he did not cross carpet to the ruling party, he continued to market his programmes until the populace was convinced to buy into them. A third point is the 2000 presidential elections in which Wade squared up against incumbent Presisent Diouf and won 58.5 per cent of the votes. Diouf simply organised a transfer of power. Given the electoral tradition in Nigeria where elections, to quote then President Olusegun Obasanjo, are “a do-or-die” affair, it is impossible to defeat an incumbent president

Given our historic ties and its democratic traditions,  when Senegal on April 4, rolled out the drums to celebrate its 50th independence, I felt some kinship with the celebrants. Admittedly, it is difficult to agree on that country’s precise date of independence. The reason is because it was part of the Mali
Federation which came into being on March 1959 and became independent on June 22, 1960. Former French soldier, German Prisoner of War (POW)  and poet,   Senghor was to be the president of the Federation with  Modibo Keita as Prime Minister. But disagreements led to the break up within two months of independence, with Senegal declaring itself independent on August 20, 1960 and having Senghor as president and Mali having Kaita as its own president.

The Senegalese used the occasion of the anniversary to announce their assumption of sovereignty over the French military bases in their country. This should mean the departure of some 1,200 French military personnel. The 84- year old President Wade also used the occasion, attended by about 30 world leaders, including 19 from Africa, to make a renewed case for the political unity of African states  as a necessary step to push the continent from the margins of world history towards the centre.

Simultaneously as the Senegalese  marked their 50 years of independence, their neighbours in the south, Guinea Bissau was enmeshed in another of its absurd power games where an untamed military is again on the rampage. It began on April 1, when soldiers seized the Prime Minister , Carlos Gomes and then released him. But they held on to armed forces chief, General Jose Zamora Indutia whom the mutineers claim to have deposed.
Guinea Bissau has since independence in 1974, witnessed  many changes, enough to  qualify it for a failed state. Currently, the soldiers plan does not seem to include the ousting of President Malam Bacai Sanha who was elected in July 2009.
Less than five months before the  elections that brought Sanha to power, the army had gone to the residence of then President Joao Bernardo  Vieira and executed him on suspicion that he authorised the bombing of the Army Chief of Staff. Ironically, the late Vieira had been a main part of the tradition and
culture of instability in the country.
Guinea Bissau was one of the brightest hopes of the African people for liberation from neo-colonialism and want. Its liberation struggle under theAmilcar
Cabral – led African Party for Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC)  which began in the early 1960s, was people-based.  Unfortunately, the highly cerebral and ideologically-clear Cabral was assassinated by the secret service of Portugal, the colonial power. He was replaced by his brother, Luis de
Almeida Cabral who led the country to independence on September 10, 1974.

The army of the new nation went on to wipe out all those who collaborated with the colonial regime. After such unnecessary and thoughtless  bloodbath, it
overthrew Cabral in 1980 and Vieira seized power. Cape Verde where Cabral came from correctly read the murderous psyche of the military and separated to establish an independent nation. Guinea Bissau went on to fight a destructive civil war in 1998 and1999 in which General Ansumane Mane ousted Vieira. A new
President Kumba Yala elected in 2000 was overthrown in three years. Vieira returned in 2005 only to be executed.
Senegal had placed its hopes on the people and progressed, Guinea Bissau placed its own in the gun and faces anarchy and extinction; its armed forces need to be disbanded.


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