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We expect a peaceful exchange of power. Once a presidential term is complete, he/she steps down and someone else steps up to take their place – no guns, no violence, no military take-over. It seems typical, completely natural. But it is really amazing that every four years we have the opportunity to overhaul our government.
During my Peace Corps service in Senegal, I was fortunate to witness a presidential election. The stark difference between the two elections is beyond words. The weeks and months leading up to the Senegalese election were filled with violence. Teachers went on strike because they had not been paid in months. Students would blockade roads to draw attention to the crumbling schools. Protesters would risk their lives to demand change in what they considered a corrupt government.
The incumbent president, Abdoulaye Wade, was determed to stay in power. The challengers refused to accept any loss and vowed to take up residence in the presidential palace.
The voting in my tiny village was at the two-room schoolhouse. Each person filled out a paper ballot and placed it in a locked box while supervised by election workers. After they voted, their fingers were marked with red ink to ensure no one voted twice. Everyone was proud of their vote and red fingers were a badge of honor. Anyone without the mark was chastised and told to get over to the school immediately to make their voice heard.
It was a picture that Norman Rockwell would have been proud of, except for one thing – guns.
The Senegalese military, on the incumbent’s payroll, had two officers with M-16s at the door of the school. The message was clear, no protestors welcome.
It was also made very clear who was important in the village and who would be ignored. Everyone lined up to vote according to their rank in the village – village chief first, then elderly men, younger men, elderly women and younger women at the very end of the line.
As I line up to vote for our next president, there was not a gun to be found. We are free to vote however we choose. We are free to peacefully protest. We are free to make our voices heard.
We are free.