DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The moment that crystallized this nation's reputation as one of Africa's established democracies came the morning after the presidential election 12 years ago. In the neoclassical presidential palace, Senegal's leader stayed awake all night, counting and re-counting the results that showed in no uncertain terms that he had lost.
President Abdou 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 one day put to good use.
Or 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. this Sunday, Wade followed his predecessor's lead, picked up the phone and for the second time in the history of this coastal nation, he called to congratulate his rival.
To the world, these events 12 years apart are mirror images of each other, reinforcing Senegal's standing as one of the few mature democracies in a troubled neighborhood of the world.
The coup last week in neighboring Mali which overturned over 20 years of democratic rule, underscores how fragile Africa's democratic roots are and how easily they are upended.
Only the Senegalese, however, know how close their own country came to veering off course. Before that phone call, the 85-year-old Wade had attempted to gerrymander the constitution to make it possible to put his son in office. He stubbornly insisted on running for a third term, despite his age and the fact that he had himself revised the constitution to impose a two-term limit. And weeks of protesters clashing with police had residents calling a downtown roundabout their Tahrir Square. The sea air that normally wafts across this capital perched on the Atlantic Ocean became acrid with tear gas.
"In these last few years, these last few months and these last few days, Wade inflicted great harm on the people of Senegal. You can't erase that with one democratic gesture," said historian Ibrahima Thioub, the chair of the history department at Cheikh Ante Diop University in Dakar. "His phone call can't be considered to be the same as the phone call Diouf made. His back was to the wall. He had no means whatsoever to hang on to power."
The early results that came in after runoff polls closed Sunday showed that Wade had been trounced. Even in his home polling station in the Point E neighborhood of the capital, preliminary results gave Wade only 454 votes to rival Macky Sall's 1,589.
While Wade's quick concession was welcomed by the opposition, and praised by the White House, the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations, some say it as an effort by the veteran politician to regain his standing after a violent election season which marred his reputation as well as that of his country.
"It shows that he still had an eensy teensy bit of lucidity. But this lucidity was only awakened by the immensity of his defeat," said Thioub, considered the country's leading historian.
An official privy to how the events unfolded said that the head of the national TV station made three trips to the presidential palace late Sunday to bring Wade the results as they came in. On the third visit to the palace, Babacar Diagne, the director of the Radio Television Senegal station, delivered the news: All was lost. Wade was not just losing by a three- or four- or five-point margin. Macky Sall was beating him 60 to 40 and maybe even 70 to 30. The provisional results issued Tuesday showed that Wade had lost, with just 34.2 percent.
The official, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said that when Wade was informed, he didn't try to fight it. The news of his defeat ran on a ticker on state TV.
Presidential spokesman Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye issued a one-paragraph statement: "On this day, the 25th of March 2012, at 9:27 p.m., President Abdoulaye Wade, a candidate in the presidential election, called President Macky Sall to congratulate him for having won the election and to wish him good luck in his mission at the head of Senegal in the hopes that he will render the Senegalese happy. In this way, Senegal, through a transparent election, has once again proven that she remains a great democracy — a great country."
The series of events is a study in similarities and contrasts to how the election unfolded over a decade ago. The night of the March 19, 2000 runoff, Diouf asked to be left alone inside his private office in the palace. His aides were sitting in an anteroom just outside, remembers his special communications adviser Cheikh Tidiane Dieye. Diouf lost with a much tighter margin and unlike Wade, he had no precedent to look back on — only the examples of neighboring strongmen.
"When the results were communicated to us, the mood was like at a funeral. Morose. It was an extremely traumatizing experience. You could hear the flies flying around. No one said anything. Every single radio station was repeating the same results. Until 3 in the morning, the president kept on studying and studying and studying the results," remembers Dieye. "When he came out, he said, 'I think this is how democracy works.' ... He asked me to draft the statement congratulating Wade."
The gesture of phoning to concede defeat was so unexpected, that Wade didn't even take the call when Diouf first tried to reach him, said Dieye. The outgoing president reached Wade's head of protocol, who informed him that the candidate was sleeping. He had to call a second time to be able to relay the message.
Diouf boxed up his belongings and left the presidential palace within days of his defeat. And in a further act that solidified his reputation as a rare statesman on a continent of autocrats, he exiled himself to France, a move his former aide says was intended to create space for the new regime.
Two years later, the gesture was copied by Soumaila Cisse after he lost the 2002 Malian election. He publicly congratulated the polls' winner, Amadou Toumani Toure, who was president of Mali until last week.
On Wednesday, a group of renegade soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Mali and declared a coup, overturning one of the only other established democracies in the region. It underscores just how ephemeral constitutional rule is in a part of the world where armies have made a habit of seizing power with the gun.
"The concession speech and the congratulation still remains a pretty rare phenomenon in Africa," said Jennifer Cooke, Africa program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's always a surprise, and a welcome surprise because it's so rare."
Callimachi is the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. She has covered seven African elections, including the 2007 vote in Senegal.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects dropped word, grammatical error. For global distribution.)