His Excellency Abdoulaye Wade, president of the Republic of Senegal, visited Harvard last week (Sept. 27). Looking younger than his 81 years, he walked onto the stage at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum to the sound of a tama, a West African “talking drum” used to telegraph complex messages.
In a 30-minute lecture, Wade (pronounced WAD-eh) had a complex message of his own: that Africa is slowly moving beyond epic tragedies and colonial exploitation, and emerging as an important world marketplace. “We are now in a time of African renaissance,” he said.
Africa is also an increasingly reliable home for peaceful transitions to full democracy, said Wade, a French-educated lawyer and economist. Apart from Darfur, he wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed piece that appeared the day of his speech, “famine and tyranny are on the wane throughout the continent.”
In a rapid-fire mix of French and English, and with many gesticulations and humorous asides, Wade happily offered his own nation as a good example of Africa’s ascent to democracy. The way was eased, in part, because of Senegal’s robust economic growth, he said: a 6.3 percent a year rise in GDP, with some slippage in 2006 because of gasoline prices.
Senegal also has one of the best road systems in Africa, said Wade, and it spends 40 percent of its budget on education — “an economic challenge,” he admitted, but also an investment in the consumers, citizens, and civil servants of Africa’s future.
It helps, too, that Senegal had a cultural familiarity with “the mechanics of democracy,” said Wade. Before 1960, while still a colony of France, the West African nation had representatives in the French parliament.
And Senegal, despite a 95 percent Muslim population, was never a place where religion held sway over politics, said Wade.
But the path to democracy was not entirely smooth. For the first 40 years of independence, Senegal was ruled by an autocratic single-party system. During that time, Wade’s own story is a parable about the fragility of electoral politics in Africa, where most of the continent’s 54 nations shed colonial rule only decades ago.
In 1974, he “created a party for the internal opposition,” said Wade — which four years later won a respectable 18 out of 100 seats in Parliament. But between then and his election to president in 2000 (after five tries), Wade was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned by operatives of the dominant Parti Socialiste — and protested one arrest with a hunger strike. “I understood it was not possible to work out [democracy] without risk,” said Wade.
His eventual election to the presidency was hailed across Africa for being peaceful and smooth. Elections there have often been interrupted by coups, tribal violence, and electoral fraud. “I don’t want war, or bodies, to get to the palace,” said Wade, who prefers, as he said, “pacific” demonstrations of power.
Unemployment is high in today’s Senegal, and poverty is still commonplace — deficiencies that were the subjects of sharp questioning of Wade after his speech. He was also asked about the apparent failure of Africa’s liberal leaders to allay catastrophic economic and political failure in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Wade sidestepped the issue of that failure, but agreed that Zimbabwe’s economy was “totally destroyed” and that taking farms by force there was unacceptable.
As for poverty: Wade disagreed with international definitions, but called it “a long fight” in Senegal that will be won, in part, by his plan to build 3,000 affordable urban housing units a year — up to, eventually, 700,000.
Wade is a champion of free markets, and pointed to development projects Senegal has with China, India, Dubai, and Iran. He’s a sometimes critic of the World Bank (“Too much bureaucracy,” he said) and of the G8 (“Your programs are too long,” and money promised to Africa is slow in arriving, said Wade).
Wade is also in favor of two bold schemes for African economic development. One is a market alliance with Europe, merging old powers with their one-time colonies to compete with the booming economic behemoths of China and India. “Europe needs us,” he said of Africa.
The other is a United States of Africa — an idea agreed on “by almost all heads of state” on the continent, said Wade. During the summit of the African Union this July, he urged the rapid adoption of the idea.
“We’re going to start with a small nation,” said Wade, and in that way emulate the United States, which took a century to grow from a collection of 13 colonies to a world power. Eventually, he said of reluctant African states, “the others will join too.”
Wade’s visit was sponsored by the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, the University Committee on Human Rights Studies, and by the African Hiphop Research Project, part of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard.
In Africa, hip-hop is an engine for social change — and in Senegal its practitioners helped mobilize youth support for Wade’s landmark 2000 presidential run, said project director Lidet Tilahun. She called Wade — a technocrat who’s trying to get 200 million computers into the continent — “a strong supporter of Senegalese hip-hop,” who recognizes the music as a way of motivating youth to political and social action.
Wade looks forward, not back, said Tilahun. She remembers him saying, “We have to make sure African youth are not confused about the century they live in.”