You don't see Senegal in the news very much.
Frankly, not much is going on in this West African country of 13 million people. It is smaller than the U.S. state of Texas, and oddly shaped -- the nation of Gambia snakes out a chunk of its southern territory along the Gambia River. The official language is French, and the predominant religion is Islam.
But the most interesting thing about Senegal has nothing to do with shape, size or demographics. This country is unique for its stability. All around it have raged wars and revolutions, coups and clashes. But Senegal has seen decades and decades of peace and democracy.
Maybe Senegal should be in the news more often -- it seems to have achieved the impossible.
A West African Beacon
Senegal's capital city of Dakar sits on an oddly-shaped peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. There, grand mosques and majestic cathedrals are situated just blocks away from one another. Luxury hotels and convention centers attract tourists and business travelers. Avenues along the water are lined with palm trees, and you might spot the odd baobab on a dusty street corner.
In rural areas outside of the city, the semi-arid plains of the north and the verdant southern regions are dotted with small agricultural plots of millet, rice and sorghum.
But despite some signs of wealth and productivity, Senegal is a food-importing country that relies heavily on international aid. About half of the population lives in poverty. Literacy rates are low, and fertility rates are high.
But there is peace here. Crime is low, elections are fair and the political system is just.
Looking down along the coast of West Africa, it becomes very clear that Senegal is an outlier -- a haven for stability in a region that has been plagued by strife for decades.
Across the southern border in Guinea Bissau, thousands of civilians died in a civil war during the 1990s; drug trafficking activities and recurrent coups have kept country unstable since then.
Next to that is Guinea, which had its first free elections just two years ago after decades of dictatorial violence and misrule.
Further south is Sierra Leone, where 50,000 people lost their lives during a decade of civil war that ended in 2002, and where survivors still live side-by-side with former members of a guerrilla group that once massacred civilians.
Down in Liberia, where more than 200,000 people died and one-third of the population was displaced by a civil war that ended in 2003, residents still face dire poverty and rampant unemployment.
Then comes the Ivory Coast, a once prosperous and democratic nation that has been plagued by religious and ethnic divisions and constant clashes ever since civil war erupted in 2002.
The contrast raises some very important questions: What exactly is the difference between Senegal and its neighbors? And can other West African countries emulate this example of success?
Presidents and Precedents
Part of Senegal's stability owes to historical circumstance. After achieving independence, many West African countries fell under the control of dictatorial leaders. In Guinea Bissau, the first post-independence administration presided over brutal violence against political opponents. In Liberia, President Charles Taylor carried out war crimes against his own people, as well as the people of neighboring Sierra Leone.
And only recently in Ivory Coast, thousands were killed in conflicts that erupted after an incumbent president refused to step down following an electoral loss.
Senegalese leaders, on the other hand, have followed a pattern of relatively just governance. Things began auspiciously at independence from France in 1960 under the presidency of Léopold Sédar Senghor, a French-educated poet and scholar who had long-term goals for Senegalese development.
Next came Abdou Diouf, who became president in 1981 and worked to institute a free and fair electoral system.
Diouf lost a 2000 election against his political rival Abdoulaye Wade, who went on to win another election in 2006.
Under these leaders, the Senegalese people developed a strong sense of political efficacy and self-determination. This became evident recently, when public opinion turned strongly against Wade. The president had been making efforts to consolidate power -- he attempted to change Senegal's electoral laws so that the next vote would play out in his favor, and he appointed his own son to positions of power in an apparent bid to eventually name him as a successor.
But the Senegalese public has become fiercely protective of the country's democratic system, and major protests against Wade began to erupt in 2011.
Things reached a fever pitch when Wade tried to run for a third term in 2012, despite a two-term limit that had been imposed while he was in office.
Violent riots erupted in Dakar ahead of that election. But when Wade's opponent Macky Sall emerged victorious in March and the incumbent stepped down without a fight, the country breathed a sigh of relief.
Poor but Peaceful
Another reason for Senegal's stability over the decades has been the lack of a major natural resource. It sounds counter-intuitive, but valuable assets are often a source of strife rather than salvation in sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition to inducing conflict, they can also result in vulnerably undiversified economies.
Zimbabwe's abundant diamonds, for example, help to keep the corrupt government of Robert Mugabe well-financed. Diamonds led to bloodshed in Sierra Leone and Liberia, funding the activities of militants who committed atrocities against civilians under the aegis of Charles Taylor.
In Mali, a wealth of weapons -- some came from Libya, and others were given to the Malian army by the U.S. government -- ultimately helped insurgents to take over northern areas.
In Sudan and South Sudan, lucrative oil fields resulted in conflicts that have devastated both countries' economies.
This phenomenon is referred to as the "resource curse." Without the right regulatory infrastructure, valuable assets can end up fueling discord rather than development.
Senegal's extant resources haven't led to conflict -- but unfortunately, neither have they been enough to lift the nation out of poverty. The economy depends on international assistance and remittances from migrant workers; it also earns some revenue from various sectors including agriculture, fishing, services and phosphorus mining.
At least, that was the case until a few years ago. Senegal has recently been investigating gold deposits in its eastern regions, and this could have a positive impact on the national economy -- as long as the enterprise is not compromised by corruption, conflict or poor regulation.
The Gold Standard?
Much of Senegal's gold mining takes place informally. The practice is most common in the eastern region of Kedougou, and the BBC reported last year that one spot in particular -- the formerly small village of Diabougou -- has exploded in population, with thousands of hopeful miners moving in to set up camp.
The government has little to do with these activities; the miners themselves, along with the original villagers, have set up a system of profit distribution and shared responsibilities. Anyone with the right tools can attempt to dig a mine shaft.
But with this lack of oversight comes a lack of precaution. These shafts can be as deep as 30 meters; down in the holes, it is dark and unbearably hot. The walls sometimes collapse on top of unlucky diggers.
And mercury has become a serious problem of late, in Diabougou and similar boom towns. This toxic substance is used to help amalgamate gold particles into saleable pebbles, but it ends up contaminating local water sources and infiltrating the lungs of miners. The government has so far been unable to intervene effectively in order to prevent worsening damage to the environment and public health.
The mining is also bringing in people from neighboring countries, including Mali, Guinea and Gambia, according to UPI. Some of these migrants are sex workers, which is already causing an uptick in sexually transmitted diseases. Others are amateur miniers who hope that Senegal's gold will help them to enrich their own communities back home.
The gold is also drawing foreign investment. Corporations including the Canadian firm Teranga and Australian company Bassari have recently established roots in Senegal, where they contribute to the local infrastructure and hire local workers -- good news for rural areas where roads are scant and unemployment is high.
But as with any endeavor involving the interests of outsiders -- be they international corporations or migrants from neighboring countries -- there is always the risk of exploitation or increased conflict.
A Virtuous Cycle
In the end, the operative value of Senegal's gold -- or any other resource -- will be determined by the Senegalese citizenry. Pending better regulation, it is quite possible that this precious metal can play a major role in Senegal's fight against poverty. That's up to the government -- and the government, ultimately, is up to the people.
And this is Senegal's greatest asset. The Senegalese have proven to be staunch defenders of their own liberty and democracy, with a record of high voter turnout rates, a strong history of civil participation and a clear willingness to protest when things are going poorly -- these are the kinds of habits that reinforce themselves with time.
With more than a half century of peaceful independence behind it, West Africa's beacon of democracy rests on a very strong foundation.