Sall 'connects deeply with Senegalese'

2012-04-03 08:06

Dakar - Senegal's former leader took office in 2000 before thousands gathered at a sports stadium. New President Macky Sall, by comparison, held his short inauguration ceremony on Monday in a tent on a hotel lawn.

As Senegal faces rising unemployment and frustration with government spending, Sall said he wanted to hold his event "in the simplicity that is called for by the situation in the country."

Sall has promised that his administration will mark a "new era" in Senegal, and Monday's festivities indicated a clear break with ex-president Abdoulaye Wade, who once spent an estimated $27m on a heavily criticised 50m-high bronze statue.

And while Wade was fond of speeches that lasted hours, Sall kept the ceremony short and then led a procession through the streets of the capital, drawing large crowds of supporters.

Sall's supporters say his modest upbringing as the son of a roadside peanut seller uniquely positions him to understand the plight of those struggling to make a living in this nation of more than 12 million.

"Macky connects deeply with the Senegalese people and particularly on the issue of poverty," his cousin, Amadou Thimbo, 42, said at his home in Sall's hometown of Fatick on the eve of the inauguration.

Sall becomes Senegal's fourth president, and he is the country's first leader to be born since independence from France in 1960. At 50, he is 35 years younger than the outgoing president and campaigned on those youthful credentials.

Self-made man

While Wade is fond of tracing his lineage back hundreds of years to Senegal's Waalo kingdom, Sall's parents worked in modest jobs to raise their five children, the mother selling peanuts on the side of a road and the father a low-level government functionary. Despite their own lack of education, they showed an interest in his.

Sall's father often came by to check on his son's progress in school, even though he himself could not read, recalled Sall's former primary school teacher Mamadou Ndiaye.

"He's a self-made man, and he really invested himself in his studies to succeed because he came from a very modest family," Ndiaye said.

Sall went on to university, became a geologist and entered public service as Senegal's minister of mines and energy. He later served as prime minister under Wade and even ran his re-election campaign in 2007. The two parted ways after Sall publicly questioned how Wade's son was spending public money.

This year, Sall emerged from a field of more than a dozen opposition candidates to face the increasingly unpopular incumbent and won the runoff vote in a landslide, receiving 65.80% of ballots cast, compared to just 34.20% for Wade. He campaigned on a "path to progress," promising to boost economic development and tackle corruption.

Violent protests leading up to the election this year rattled normally peaceful Senegal, and many feared further unrest if Wade did not accept defeat. He surprised his nation and the world by gracefully conceding his loss, and calling Sall hours after polls closed to congratulate his opponent.

In his hometown of Fatick, Sall's face is emblazoned everywhere: on campaign posters that remain tidy even a week after the vote, on T-shirts and even emblazoned on traditional African fabric made into women's dresses. Messages of support for him are also spray-painted on nearly every building in town, though even here he faces high expectations.

Like Sall's mother, Khadidiatou Diallo has sold peanuts on the street for 15 years to make a living. Now in her 60s, she has a daughter at university, but one of her sons is searching for work and the other would like a better paying job than operating a motorcycle taxi.

Widespread optimism

"I have hope that with Macky, there will be solutions found to these problems," she said, as she waited for customers to purchase her neat piles of ripe mangos on display at the town's Sunday market.

Those who have worked with Sall say his strength in the face of adversity will serve him well in his new position. His standoff with the Wades over public spending ultimately cost him his leadership position as president of the National Assembly.

"At the National Assembly, Macky was subjected to persecution and humiliation but he was very confident," said Diene Farba Faye, a special adviser to Sall.

Sall has served as mayor the last several years in Fatick, and residents here credit him with improving the roads shared by SUVs, horse-drawn carriages and goats.

On Sunday, there was widespread optimism among those waiting to bargain over livestock at the market. Gorgui Diouf, 68, tugged two sheep on a rope that he planned to sell ahead of his son's wedding in two weeks.

Like many, he pointed to the unseasonal rains that fell not long after Sall's victory as an auspicious start of a new beginning, but acknowledges expectations for change may be too high.

"Macky can't give money to everyone - that's impossible," he says. "But he can create a political and economic system that provides possibilities for people.