Dakar, Senegal – Tense and edgy merely weeks ago, the mood has since changed in Senegal, as the country stands on the precipice of another democratic achievement.
The capital, Dakar, taut from the pre-election violence that resulted in at least six deaths in clashes between opposition supporters and security forces, now breathes a little easier in anticipation of a peaceful and successful runoff on Sunday.
But by no means is the result of the presidential runoff here a cakewalk; pockets of tension continue in districts of Dakar, as a society gears itself for the possibility of a seismic power shift in the country’s body politic.
The metamorphosis, however, from “critical” to “stable” has so far disproved the animated conjecture of overzealous journalists who speculated that the violence would intensify and spill into other restive countries in the regional neighbourhood.
Senegal had the makings of a success story in a region often characterised by volatility, disappointment and paranoia. The talk in Senegal this week has been cautiously optimistic; peace is considered the default, the earlier violence a mere aberration from the norm.
And then came Mali.
On Tuesday, half a million Malians living in Senegal woke up to news that, some 1,400km away, their country’s army had overthrown Amadou Toumani Toure, the Malian president, seized the radio and television networks and were engaged in an old-school coup in the capital, Bamako; guns, fatigues and hand written notes read out to a nation.
Malians in Dakar, tens of thousands of them, many who have lived in this city for the past fifty years, and known for selling boiled meat and textiles in markets, and mocked by Senegalese for “wearing dirty trousers”, are distraught at the latest events in their home country.
They say that the coup has the potential to set the country’s democratic ambitions back by two decades.
But they also say the story is far more complex than media junkies are making out.
Seydou Baba Traore said the coup was ‘putting the country back’ [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]
“We are very affected about what has happened at home,” said Seydou Baba Traore, a 45-year-old Malian textile vendor.
“I am really worried and totally disagree with the military coup. This is putting the country back … but I must admit that the army is right in so far as their claim that the Taureg [rebellion] has not been managed properly.
“This is a very awkward situation, and in some ways, it is good that there will be new hands dealing with this situation,” Traore told Al Jazeera.
Traore, who travels frequently home to bring his wares into Senegal, says he has been personally affected by the Taureg rebellion. His elder brother was one of soldiers killed in a massacre of an estimated 82 Malian soldiers on January 24 in Aguelhok in northern Mali, said to be the work of the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) and al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch. The incident, documented in photographs and disseminated across the internet, set off the alarm bells in Mali over the under-resourced and vulnerable army.
The conflicting feelings over the events of the past few days and weeks is shared across the board.
“The events have abruptly stopped the democratic process that started in Mali back in 1991 … it is shocking.“
– Musa Camara, student
“The events have abruptly stopped the democratic process that started in Mali back in 1991 … it is shocking.” Musa Camara, a 32-year-old Malian student in Dakar, told Al Jazeera.
“The Taureg issue has been around for decades and it is not just President Toure’s problem, but to be fair, the rebellion has never affected the population as it has done recently … and I can concede that I can understand the army’s position and interpretation of the situation,” Camara added.
Likewise, Kaibou Samake, the president of the Malian students’ league of Senegal, agrees the community is “ashamed, sad and frustrated” and has a great deal of “mixed feelings” over the latest developments in his home country.
“We are angry that this has happened, yet there is some relief that the situation in the north is being taken seriously at last,” Samake said candidly.
Others, however, are not shy to support the coup.
Lassine Camara, a trader living in Dakar for the past six years, says that the president and the ministry of defence were totally to blame for the situation in Mali – and something drastic had to happen.
Lassine Camara said Mali’s president and ministry of defence were to blame for the coup [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]
“We were losing our soldiers, and they [the government] did not want to give the army weapons to fight, or give them the resources to buy the weapons. The coup is justified,” said 31-year-old Camara.
While the army has promised to resolve the situation by organising elections, the coup has elicited a damning response from the AU, regional bloc ECOWAS – as well as from the US, France, South Africa and Nigeria.
Camara says international condemnation need not to be taken too seriously.
“There is a lot of trouble in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in other places, and the international community only responds to crises around the world based on their own interests.
“We, as Malians, know what is going on. Our president does not seem to be taken the issue seriously and the army needs to be helped. How [else] can it fight against the rebellion?”
“I admit that this is a coup, but there hasn’t been any serious violence; no one has been killed and there hasn’t been a total breakdown in law and order. This [coup] only happened because the army is asking the government for more means to tackle a serious problem in the north,” Lassine Camara said.
‘Mali is not Senegal’
But not all Malians in Senegal are convinced that that a military coup, despite the complexities of the story, was the right course of action. Mali’s democratic culture may not be as well developed as their neighbours in Senegal, and “the spontaneous nature” of the coup revealed, “how different the mentalities are between the two countries”.
“This [coup] only happened because the army is asking the government for more means to tackle a serious problem in the north.“
– Lassine Camara, trader
“Our democracy was developing … no one thought the [Malian] army would cross the red line,” said Dakar University student Musa Camara.
Even then, comparing the developments in Mali with Senegal is not helpful, despite the various historical connections, he added.
Mali, formerly French Sudan, and Senegal were briefly one country in 1958 under the guise of the Mali Federation – but disbanded to make way for Senegal and Mali to become independent states in 1960. Except for sharing similarities in physical geography, language and ethnicity, Senegal and Mali’s post-independence histories have little in common.
Senegal has long been considered stable, and has the distinction for being the only country in West Africa not to have experienced a coup. In comparison, the coup on Tuesday was Mali’s third in fifty years.
There is a fundamental difference between how the society is structured and how ordinary people are respected, student league president Samake said.
“For Mali to be like Senegal, it won’t be easy. It is a question of mentality. Senegalese are better behaved as compared to Malians … even in terms of how the administration treats its people.
“Despite the problems in Senegal, people need to be able to negotiate and to resolve a situation … look at Senegal, despite the trouble, the Senegalese have been successful in organising everything in such a way that all the predicted trouble didn’t take place.”
“For Mali to be like Senegal, it won’t be easy. It is a question of mentality. Senegalese are better behaved as compared to Malians.“
– Kaibou Samake, Malian student leader in Senegal
Despite the differences of opinion on whether there was any justification for the coup, there is no disagreement that the situation had to be resolved, as a matter of urgency. Malians here in Dakar say that the army needs to find a solution to the Tuareg issue and build a civilian structure that builds towards general elections.
That the army could be trusted with relinquishing power and paving the way for free elections is now the big question, though in Mali, it has been done before.
President Toure took over the country in a military coup in 1991 and set up multiparty elections within a year, culminating in Alpha Oumar Konaré’s election into office. Toure himself retired from the military and became president in 2002, and 2007 and was due to step down this year, after elections scheduled for April 29.
The past two decades has largely been seen as a consolidation of democratic values in Mali, the fragility of which the current impasse appears to have only proven.
Student Musa Camara concluded that the ballot box should have been the instrument of change. “The coup is untimely,” he said. “Even if there are some problems in the north, allowing the democratic process to play itself out would have been the best way forward.”
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa