April 10, 2024

Senegal as paragon of political maturity and beacon of democracy in Africa (2), by Usman Sarki 

Senegal as paragon of political maturity and beacon of democracy in Africa (2), by Usman Sarki 

Dalon yaye, cham ma muraduwo”! (If it’s milk, it does not matter whether it’s from an ox) – Kanuri proverb

THE desired objective of democratic elections is to create legitimacy, order and stability in government. This paramount objective should be predicated on the approved wisdom and recognised capacity of the personalities and institutions charged with the conduct of such solemn enterprises. The neutrality of the principal personalities and the statutory institutions handling elections, make for credible processes and the acknowledgement of their veracity and integrity.

Such ideals are realised by allowing the processes to mature with the passage of time, and to solidify in the consciousness of the nation. Vigilance by the civil population seems to be the surest guarantee of the survival of any democratic dispensation. The democratic space and processes in Senegal have been safeguarded by the vigilance of the people and the preparedness of their relevant institutions. They are held as sacrosanct and are not liable to be manipulated by grandiose schemers and ambitious intriguers.

Senegal’s Commission Electorale National Autonome or CENA, is largely independent as its name suggests, and is able to withstand the shifting tides of both public opinion and the idiosyncrasies of the political class, in maintaining an even hand and an adroit sense of impartiality in its handling of the electoral process in the country. Fortified by the authorities of the country’s Constitutional Court and the Direction Generale des Elections, DGE, the electoral processes in Senegal are time tested and of proven resilience and competence, unmarked by the harmful and insidious intrusions of acrimonious tendencies as in other countries in Africa.

The media and civil society organisations are given due recognition and accorded every opportunity to participate in all aspects of observing and reporting on the elections. Their presence in full force provides the necessary vigil in all the polling stations and voting units across the country. The organisation responsible for fair and balanced reporting, the National Audio-Visual Regulatory Council, CNRA, ensures compliance of the media outfits with laid down reporting procedures during coverage of the campaigns and elections.

The disqualification of candidates is a phenomenon that normally raises complaints and complications in other countries, leading to instability and bitter acrimony and disagreements. In Senegal, however, such instances are taken in the stride of the electorates, knowing full well that the actions would not derail the democratic order or the conduct of the elections. Voting is critical to the integrity of any elections, without which the meaning of democracy becomes empty and insignificant.

In Senegal, the processes of voting, counting and announcing of results are drastically made simple and straightforward, thereby enhancing their organic integrity and acceptability by the citizens and the candidates alike. Polling stations or units in Senegal are mostly located in public schools which are well secured and appropriately fenced. The elections are normally conducted in a generally peaceful atmosphere, with the sense of calm, orderliness and discipline pervading the exercise everywhere. Patience and orderliness reign in all the polling stations, and an atmosphere of congeniality prevailing all over.

The whole atmosphere of voting in Senegal was that of relaxed and easy ambiance that did not convey a sense of desperation or finality about the process that usually characterise elections in other Africa countries. There were no fears about ballot snatching, ballot burning, attacks on polling stations or election officials, or the general chaos and mayhem that usually entail in such exercises in other places. Another striking aspect of the voting in Senegal is the entire absence of under-age persons in all the voting areas. Indeed, the process was so orderly that non-eligible persons were entirely absent from the scenes.

The voting process is simplicity itself, and has remained free, fair and transparent. No technology whatsoever is involved in the process. Voting entailed the following simple procedures: the intending voters arrive at the polling station where they presented their identification cards and joined the queue. When their turn has come, they show their voter’s registration or national identity card, and their names are checked and verified from the electoral register. Afterwards, they are directed to pick five ballot papers each bearing the picture of the candidate as well as the name and emblem of the political party. The voter also picks up a small envelope and then retreats to an enclosed area with a cardboard box where he or she voted by placing their preferred candidate’s ballot paper into the envelope.

The disused or remaining four ballot papers are discarded into the large card box that has been provided for the purpose. After this, the voter returns to the place where the transparent plastic ballot box is conspicuously placed in full view of everyone present. The voter then drops his or her envelope containing the ballot paper into the box and thereafter dips his or her index finger into a red ink pot. At the end of it all, his or her name is checked again in the voting register, and is made to sign against the names, and the signature is stamped for official authentication as indicating the person has concluded the voting exercise.

This provides conclusive evidence that the citizens have exercised their privilege and right to vote for their preferred candidates. Persons with disabilities and the elderly are assisted throughout the process by officials at the polling units. The crucial act of vote counting which is the nemesis of free and fair elections in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, is rendered simple, transparent and straightforward in Senegal. Voting ends at precisely 16:00 hours all over the country, and immediately the counting of ballot papers commences in all the voting units. The process involves first the counting of the envelopes containing the ballot papers to ascertain that they tally with the registered voters in each polling unit.

Afterwards, the ballot papers are brought out of the envelopes and held aloft for everyone present to see. The supervising officer then calls out the name of the candidate and places the ballot paper to one side. Thus, the process continues with the content of each envelope brought out in that way and counted. In that simple and unsophisticated way, the entire ballots cast across the country are counted and tallied on the spot, in the presence of witnesses made up of electoral officials, party agents and security officials. The proceedings are also duly served by the national and international election monitors, observers, civil society and media.

When the entire process is over, the results are revalidated and the registers as well as the final tallies are duly signed, sealed and stamped and then handed over to the returning officers present. Incidents of spoiled ballots are low, owing to the high level of voter education in the country. Out of the 404 ballots cast in one polling unit that I observed in the 2019 elections, only four envelopes’ contents were deemed as null and void, on account of either multiple voting or none voting at all. Three envelopes were surprisingly found empty with no ballot paper inside at all. Another envelope containing two ballot papers of different candidates was instantly declared null and void. Envelopes containing more than one ballot paper of the same candidate are however deemed as valid and accepted by the officials under the extant electoral law.

This report would not be complete without highlighting some salient points that should be taken note of by Nigerians. The first is that all elections regardless of where they are held, are determined by the credibility, transparency and legality of the organisation and processes entailed. In this respect, the credibility and independence of the electoral body of the country concerned is of the utmost importance in the establishing the genuineness of the process.

In Senegal, the electoral authority CENA, seems to enjoy the trust and confidence of the population, to the extent that results announced by it are hardly challenged in the courts by the losing candidates or parties. Unlike what obtains in Nigeria where lengthy and acrimonious litigations surround almost every presidential election, these are hardly witnessed in Senegal because of the implicit trust of both the candidates and the citizens in the integrity of their electoral bodies and processes.

The importance of early and adequate preparations before holding of elections cannot be overemphasised. In Senegal, CENA’s preparations seemed to have been meticulously done and finely synchronised all over the country. There were no delays or mix-ups about delivery of election materials or assignment of electoral officers. The accreditation of all domestic and foreign observers went on very smoothly. The interaction with the press and the media also went on professionally. The security forces conducted themselves with tact and discretion, moving about and watching things carefully but unobtrusively. The absence of under-age voters all around the voting areas was a remarkable phenomenon that all observers noted with praises and commendations.

A striking feature of the elections in Senegal was the ease and simplicity of the entire process. There were no complications entailed in any of the process. Likewise, no technological apparatuses or gadgets were employed at any stage in the entire exercise. That made the it both simple and friendly for the voters and the electoral officers alike. The vexatious introduction of gadgets like electronic card readers, facial identification machines, remote monitoring of the polling areas, and all other innovations and improvisations have been removed and deemed unnecessary in the conduct of elections in the country.

As a result, the election costs are kept down significantly while the margin of error and room for complaints are drastically narrowed down. It is also imperative that the roles of the local media in Senegal is highlighted here. The absence of inflammatory reporting that is liable to derail the elections or cause unrest seemed remarkable. The use of social media and other platforms was also responsibly maintained with no attempts made to sow the seeds of discord in the country to divide the electorates and cause disaffection. The local newspapers and television reporting were usually balanced and well proportioned against the need to maintain peace and tranquillity.