Senegal: Votes for Sale

A woman in Dakar, Senegal makes the opposition symbol days before Presidential elections in the West African country. The ‘X’ symbolizes the bound hands of the Senegalese people. Image by Ricci Shryock. Senegal, 2012.

Just before Senegal’s presidential polls, I got the chance to travel with the European Union's observer mission to the country’s religious capital of Touba.

The EU mission was visiting Touba for several reasons, but mostly because there were reports that nearly 50 percent of the voter registration cards--something needed by any citizen wishing to cast a ballot--still hadn’t been distributed a few days before the election.

As part of the day trip, the delegation and several foreign and local journalists paid a visit to one of the most powerful men in Senegal--the Khalifah, Cheikh Sidi Al Moukhtar Mbacke. The Khalifa is head of Senegal’s Mourides, a Muslim sect that carries a lot of weight in this country where 94 percent of the population is Muslim.

While waiting for the Khalifa to see us, a young Senegalese man in a brown jumpsuit ran up to the head of the EU mission. His said his name was Abdou Lahad Sadaga Seck and he was carrying a black plastic sack. He started frantically telling us in Wolof (the most widely spoken language in Senegal) that he had proof of voter card fraud.

He opened up the sack to show us dozens of voter cards. According to Seck, supporters of current President Abdoulaye Wade, who is running for a controversial third term, were visiting houses in the region and asking people who they were voting for. If a person said he did not plan to vote for Wade, he would be offered between $4 and $6 in exchange for his card--the idea being that these people would then not be able to vote against Wade. Seck said he recovered the cards after "surprising" a member of FAL 2012, a Wade coalition, who dropped the bag when running away from Seck.

There are a few caveats to this story. One--Seck works for Wade’s main rival in the race, Macky Sall. Seck was even wearing a hat and jumpsuit with “Macky Sall” printed on it. The other problem as a journalist reporting this story is that this is a serious allegation, and one man’s testimony--especially a man who works for Wade’s rival--is not enough to prove the story is true. The head of EU observer mission said his team will investigate. And I will follow up with the team.

In the meantime, this is just one illustration of how the practice of “democracy” has different connotations and consequences in Senegal, compared to what democracy might mean to an American. Many of the people I’ve talked to here hold different views of how voting and democracy work or don’t work, and this heavily influences how they participate in the political process and what they expect from their government.