Thousands of people celebrated in the streets of Dakar after Senegalese opposition candidate Macky Sall defeated President Abdoulaye Wade in his controversial bid for a third term in office.
“The real winner remains the Senegalese people,” former prime minister Sall said after his victory became clear following Sunday’s run-off presidential vote in the country hailed as a beacon of democracy in west Africa.
“I will be the president of all Senegalese,” vowed 50-year-old Sall.
Wade called Sall to offer his congratulations and concede defeat, scotching fears that the 85-year-old would try to cling on to power after 12 years as president.
Even before Wade threw in the towel, thousands of people spilled into the streets, chanting, dancing and sounding car horns.
“Macky president” “This time we have it” “We have won”, the revellers shouted.
Similar scenes played out in Dakar’s Independence Square, where scores of youths on motorbikes yelled and hooted, performing daredevil stunts in the square and outside the presidential palace.
In the run-up to the first-round February 26 vote, the square was the scene of near daily clashes with protesters and riot police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets in a bid to break up the protests.
The unrest claimed six lives in Senegal, hailed as one of west Africa’s success stories and the only country in the region never to have suffered a military coup.
As the octogenarian president defiantly pushed for a third term in office in the face of fierce internal and international criticism, many expected the worst after the second-round vote.
Wade had remained defiant in the run-up to the election, dismissing as “absurd” the idea that he might lose, which only raised fears that the poll’s outcome would be disputed.
Initial results published by state media showed Sall beating Wade by a ratio of at least 2:1 in the overwhelming majority of polling stations.
The outgoing president was even roundly beaten in his home constituency.
It was a humiliating blow to a leader who was hugely popular when first elected in 2000 after 25 years as opposition leader.
“My dear compatriots, at the end of the second round of the vote… the current results indicate that Macky Sall has won victory,” Wade said in a statement.
In an interview this month, Sall said that if elected, “several emergencies” loomed.
They included a “dramatic public finance situation” as well as a food crisis in the north where some 800,000 Senegalese are going hungry due to a drought gripping the Sahel region.
Sall said he also wanted to halve the size of the government — slashing the cabinet by some 20 ministers — and reduce Senegal’s diplomatic representation abroad.
He would use the savings to lower the prices of basic goods, he said.
But cutting the size of his cabinet will make it harder for him to appease the opposition leaders who joined forces behind him to help him defeat Wade.
One of the main obstacles that many feared he might face however, already appeared to have been cleared.
Wade’s defeat — and his promptness in acknowledging it — came as a relief to those who feared the election would derail one of Africa’s pioneer democracies.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the outcome was “very good news for Africa in general and for Senegal in particular,” describing the former French colony as a “model of democracy”.
Sall was once tipped to succeed the veteran leader as his protoge following a meteoric rise which at one point had him serving as Wade’s prime minister.
But he fell from grace and left the ruling party to strike out on his own.
In what was his first bid at the presidency, his strong first-round showing persuaded the rest of the opposition to united around him to unseat Wade.
Wade had served the permitted two terms president, a limit that he himself had introduced. But he had argued that since that reform was not retroactive, he could serve two more mandates.
The country’s top court, the constitutional council, agreed, a decision that sparked the angry street protests.