28 September 2012

Senegal: President Describes 'Significant' Reform Agenda, Says Mali Must Be Reunited

Photo: Tami Hultman/allAfrica
President Macky Sall of Senegal.

interview

When Macky Sall took office as president of Senegal in April, he promised a 'rupture' with many of the policies of his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, under whom he served as prime minister from April 2004 to June 2007. This week, while in New York to take part in the United Nations General Assembly, he talked with AllAfrica about his ambitious domestic agenda and reflected on the worsening crisis in Mali, Senegal's large neighbor to the east. Excerpts from his responses which were delivered in French and translated by AllAfrica:

What have been your top priorities since becoming president?

One of my priorities was to improve democratic governance. For that, it was necessary first to settle the crisis between us and the previous president. He wanted to run for a third term but - in a modern democracy, access to power as well as the exit from it should be regulated. It should be compatible to standard democratic rules.

To eliminate any future possibility that a president might stay in power an extended period, I decided to submit a constitutional bill, whether through parliament or a referendum, that reduces the term from seven to five years that would apply to myself as well. I was elected for seven years, but decided I would only stay for five before submitting myself to the voting public once again. That was one major decision. Moreover, the president can only serve two terms. Therefore, no one can serve more than two five year terms.

The second measure relates to the budget. In (many ) African states, the bulk of resources are used to maintain the super structure of the State, that is to say, to propagate the government's lifestyle. To counter that, I put in place a limited government – a Cabinet with only twenty-five members, compared to thirty-eight (rumored to be as many as forty-five) in the previous administration. At my instruction, we also reduced the number of agencies and embassies around the world so our resources could go directly to the citizens.

To respond to the population's social needs would mean, in the health sector for example, offering universal health coverage. Because we have very few paid workers, the vast majority of the population doesn't have health coverage, and there is no medical insurance system.   So one of my priorities was to make universal health care a reality by the end of 2013.

It's a major reform that I'm in the process of implementing, along with the education sector which needs to be modernized. It's not only a question of expanding breadth but ensuring the quality of teaching as well.

Agriculture, Infrastructure and Youth Employment

Equally important is the agricultural domain, because for Senegal to develop, agriculture must remain the most important sector. But we have to reform our agricultural practices, to make them more modern and more productive so that farmers and rural areas in general, earn more revenue.

One of the other main points I'm focusing on is youth employment through vocational training. It's true that higher education is important, but professional training should be available to everyone; professional training that provides young people with a vocation, but also which can be helpful to businesses. I believe that it won't take long for each region to have its own professional training center that can educate 2000, even 2500 apprentices .

Relating to agriculture, another priority is the country's infrastructure, the highways and roads. Good roads will help modernize the agricultural sector. It's necessary for us also to think about energy, one of the main factors preventing development in Senegal.

None of this would be possible if we didn't have foreign investment. But to facilitate foreign investment, we must uphold the rule of law in which justice functions normally. We have to combat corruption and, to this end, we have instituted serious reforms. We must promote good governance.

Indeed, for all these goals, we have introduced significant reforms. Strong reforms to combat impunity. Today, people realize that legal cases are a judicial matter, to be decided without coercion or interference.

There you have a number of the projects we're working on. As you can see, there are many.

After visiting Senegal, Melinda Gates said Senegal needs to take serious action to reduce the number of women and babies who die during pregnancy. Do you plan to take measures to prevent early marriages, provide contraceptive methods to families, and help ensure babies receive proper nutrition?

Absolutely. I believe that Melinda Gates saw the efforts Senegal is taking in the field of maternal and infant health. Mother and infant form an inseparable pair. We must take care of the baby even before it's born. In other words, pregnant women must have medical attention, prenatal care, have regular check-ups to create pre-conditions for a healthy delivery. To do so, we have decided to eliminate the expenses related to the child's delivery, for both normal and caesarian births. Because in both rural and urban areas, it's still a problem and the national community has to help women in this area.

In July, we started a campaign to combat certain illnesses that affect women, including chronic illnesses like renal failure. There is dialysis, but unfortunately we don't have enough dialysis machines in our hospitals, and private sector treatments are prohibitively expensive. Since July we have made an effort to provide free treatment for those with renal failure in public hospitals. Thanks to NGOs and certain partners, we have received several dialysis machines to expand the program.

For women as well as children, we have implemented a policy to improve health by fighting malnutrition, increasing the living conditions to prevent infant mortality rates, and also vaccination programs. I set up what I called the Family Security Fund that will give poor women the opportunity to have their children vaccinated and enroll them in school. We will improve the living standards of the most impoverished populations.

Concerning teenage pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, we must establish education programs, something we're in the process of doing now. It's not easy, but there are always ways to empower women living in rural areas.

We need to launch awareness programs on family planning. This will help improve the health of both mother and child. But it is a long term process in which both Government and Civil Society must play a role.

Some people have criticized your move to eliminate the Senate, while you have said this would free resources to combat the floods that are causing suffering in many areas in your country. Why do you think it's a good idea to eliminate the Senate and what are you doing about the floods?

First of all, we must make it clear that only 35% of the members of the Senate were elected. The other ones were chosen by the President, so this Senate was not really legitimate. It wasn't representative of the Senegalese people. In a democratic country there are institutions which have each a particular mission or power attributed by the Constitution. Legislative power in a bicameral system like the U.S. or French one is made of two branches, with members elected directly by universal suffrage. They make laws and control the Government actions. Our Senate was based on a model which is not universal. Many questions were raised about the Senate, about its legitimacy.

I thought that one chamber, the National Assembly, was enough in Senegal. It could create laws, decide whether or not they should be passed and have a veto on government actions as well. Moreover, the 7 billion CFA annual budget allocated to the Senate is a large sum. You could raise 70 billion CFA - which equals 140 million US dollars - if you add up that amount for ten years.

And my plan to fight against floods is supposed to last ten years. We have to build new houses, help people move out of flooded areas and create drainage systems. My vision is to re-allocate all the Senate tasks to the National Assembly so that the money which was supposed to buy cars for the Senators could be used for people living in dire straits in flooded areas and reach my goals with the help of our partners.

I'm open to a national dialog too, for that purpose a national think tank has been created to help run the institutions.

The State must set the example. Show people that they are trying to save money by reducing the government size, the Senegalese diplomatic map, which implies reducing the number of ambassadors and by eliminating the Senate whether it is useful or not.

In the future, if our economical conditions get better, we may consider bringing the Senate back - but this time, its members would be elected. It would be a real legislative chamber. For now, we have other priorities like giving houses to the homeless, creating a welfare system for it  and providing jobs to young people. For all these reasons, it was necessary to get rid of the Senate. I really appreciate that both the Senate and the National Assembly supported my bill and passed it.

What should be done about Mali. What regional response do you favor by Ecowas (by the Economic Community of West African States) and what kind of international action are you hoping to see?

The situation in Mali is worrisome not just to other countries in west Africa in the Ecowas zone but to the whole world, because - for the first time - an international jihadist movement has made a country bend to its will and can shore significant support.

It's a lawless region where drugs, arms trafficking, and other illegal activities thrive. Therefore if the world does nothing to reclaim Mali as a single united territory, the international terrorist movement could develop there, and that's something we cannot accept, something we cannot let happen.

Since this conflict began, Ecowas had made enormous efforts to provide solutions. But now, it's clear that the problem is too complex for Ecowas to manage alone, in part because of the regional implications for non-Ecowas members, like Mauritania, Algeria, and Chad.

A larger forum was needed to discuss these issues, and we have always considered including the African Union. The African Union aids Ecowas and oversees the creation of African Forces as authorized by the UN Security Council. I believe that during this session we will receive a clear and precise resolution from the Security Council permitting the use of armed forces, under chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, to combat terrorism and work toward a resolution in the region.

The interview in French.

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