The moment that crystallized this nation’s reputation as one of Africa’s established democracies was in the morning after the presidential election 12 years ago. In the neoclassical presidential palace, Senegalese President Abdou Diouf stayed awake all night, counting and recounting the results that showed in no uncertain terms that he had lost. Mr. Diouf could have rigged the election from the start, as his neighbor to the north in Mauritania had the habit of doing. He could have stacked the court in charge of validating the election with supporters, the strategy his neighbor to the south in Ivory Coast would put to good use one day. He could have deployed the army to keep his grasp on power like in nearby Guinea, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau – all of which share a border with Senegal, a nation of 12.4 million on Africa’s western edge. Instead, the 64-year-old president emerged from his office, told his aides to draft a statement conceding defeat and picked up the phone to congratulate the man who had beaten him, Abdoulaye Wade.
At 9:27 p.m. Sunday, Mr. Wade followed his predecessor’s lead, picked up the phone and, for the second time in the history of this coastal nation, a president called to congratulate his rival. To the world, these events 12 years apart reinforce Senegal’s standing as one of the few mature democracies in a troubled corner of the world. The coup last week in neighboring Mali, which overturned more than 20 years of democratic rule, underscores how fragile Africa’s democratic roots are and how easily they are upended.