Senegal`s Sall: the dark horse who beat "The Hare"

A full 35 years younger than the outgoing president, Sall embodies the generational change in Senegalese politics.

Dakar: Senegal`s Macky Sall has leapt back from the political wilderness with a crushing presidential run-off victory over incumbent Abdoulaye Wade that cements the West African country`s reputation as a stable democracy in a restive region.

Sall is a one-time Prime Minister who served under Wade but in 2008 lost favor with the outgoing octogenarian president known as "The Hare", a local symbol of cunning. At one point, Sall seemed condemned to political obscurity.

But the 50-year-old geologist - whose campaign symbol was a horse`s head - immediately hit the road to amass support for a presidential bid which paid off when his ex-boss conceded defeat in Sunday`s election.

"When I was crossing the country, I saw the enormity of the challenges ahead," Sall told Reuters in a campaign interview at his home in the Atlantic Ocean resort of Saly.

"While those in power built monuments and motorways, ordinary Senegalese were struggling to get access to drinking water, healthcare and education," Sall said in a dig at Wade`s 2010 "African Renaissance" monument, an edifice bigger than New York`s Statue of Liberty that towers over Dakar.

As poll returns overnight showed him ahead of his rival, Sall accepted fellow liberal Wade`s admission of defeat and pledged to be "president of all the Senegalese" in a gesture to the left-leaning voters who backed him in the run-off.

A full 35 years younger than the outgoing president, Sall embodies the generational change in Senegalese politics which several foreign governments from Paris to Washington had urged Wade to allow by not standing for a third term.

Despite some early violence by those opposing Wade`s third-term bid, the election and its result appeared to consolidate Senegal as an oasis of stability in a region plagued by flawed elections and conflict, such as last week`s military coup in Mali.

A clean break?

Sall has promised his first steps will include moves to cut the prices of basic foods, end a long-running teachers` strike and draft a constitutional reform reinforcing a two-term limit for both him and successors.

But a decade of past membership of Wade`s ruling PDS party, and personal wealth that includes the Saly villa and other property, means Senegalese will watch Sall`s performance keenly for a true break with 12 years of Wade rule that failed to tackle poverty or corruption.

While the flamboyant Wade was the master of the grand flourish and diplomatic sallies such as his visit last year to the Libyan stronghold of rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi, Sall is more methodical and modest both in style and substance.

A bespectacled and softly-spoken figure, Sall rose from working class origins in the obscure inland town of Fatick thanks to a mix of the academic study so prized in Senegal and a reputation as a safe pair of hands.

Dubbed by schoolmates "Monsieur le ministre" (Mr Minister) because of his fastidious grooming and appearance, Sall`s scientific expertise earned him the post of Wade`s energy adviser in 2000 and months later won him the stewardship of the state oil company.

The 2002 capsizing of a ferry off the coast of Senegal cost 1,800 lives and triggered a cabinet reshuffle that saw Sall rise through the ranks from the energy portfolio to interior minister and finally prime minister in 2004.

"He has this way of just listening, long silences. He almost comes over as a bit slow but when he answers, you realize he has thought of everything," longtime political ally Ibrahima Ndoye, now an official at Senegal`s Economic and Social Council, said of Sall`s quiet approach to decision-making.

However, even supporters like Ndoye suspect Sall`s taciturn character contributed to a spectacular falling-out with Wade in 2008, when Sall - by now the speaker of parliament - included the president`s financier son Karim among a group of entrepreneurs to be investigated by the assembly over their business dealings.

"One thing you can perhaps reproach him for is that he did not warn the president in advance," said Ndoye. "In a matter of days, he became a pariah - he was hounded out of the party."

High Expectations

Versions differ over the incident, which Sall declines to discuss in detail today. But as speculation grew in 2009 that Wade was grooming Karim to take over the presidency, Sall`s break with Wade ultimately became valuable political capital.

While other rivals in the first round focused their joint message on the alleged illegality of Wade`s bid for a third term, Sall struck out alone to campaign on a manifesto pitched squarely at the needs of the people.

A high-profile pledge to cut customs duties on the imported "broken rice" that is a staple of the Senegalese diet targeted the growing frustration over rising global commodities prices that hit hard ordinary Senegalese earning an average $3 a day.

Underlining a foreign policy stance likely to be more down-to-earth than Wade`s, Sall has said his first trip abroad will be to neighboring Gambia - likely to be key partner in ending the low-level rebellion in Senegal`s southern Casamance region.

While he will be forced initially to keep the diesel-run power plants that have made Senegal`s electricity grid among the most costly and unreliable in the world, his dream is to harness the ample sun, wind and waves for longer term renewable energy.

"We will insist on good governance of the state power company which in turn will release funds for such investment," Sall said of the dysfunctional Senelec company, nicknamed "Darkness Inc" by locals frustrated by chronic power cuts.

An ethnic Tukolor married to a Serer woman, Sall says he personifies the easy relations between Senegal`s tribal groups while recognizing the supremacy of the Wolof language which takes its name from the country`s largest community.

"For me, you will see that country takes precedence over party. Whether you come from the liberal political family or not, it doesn`t matter - it is competence that counts," Sall told Reuters, promising to form a broad government.

Such is the pent-up mood of expectation in Senegal that Sall`s first challenge will simply be not to disappoint.

While he has said he will not conduct a witch-hunt against a Wade administration tainted by allegations of corruption, he faces the occupational hazard of any new African leader in that he may inherit public coffers that are less full than imagined. A public finance audit will be among his first moves.

The tax-free rice plan is a high-profile show of his resolve to help the poor, but the waiver of customs duties will itself only shave 12-15 percent off the price of a 50-kg sack of rice.

All agree that tackling the mass unemployment that is one root cause of Senegal`s poverty will take years.

"I voted Socialist in the first round but I am glad Sall won," said Mamadou Barry, a 32-year-old shoe salesman who was among the thousands of mostly young Senegalese celebrating through the night in Dakar.

"Now we have to watch him to make sure he sticks to his promises."

Bureau Report