World leaders and international observers on Monday lauded Senegal's presidential runoff election, saying that the country's peaceful vote and its quick resolution provided hope in a region long beset by coups and strongman rule.
In a surprise move just hours after polls closed, President Abdoulaye Wade called his opponent Macky Sall to congratulate his one-time protege on the victory. Sall's elated supporters already had begun celebrating in the streets after early results showed him with a commanding lead.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said the peaceful Senegalese vote was a hopeful sign, days after Mali's longtime president was ousted in a coup launched by mutinous soldiers.
"If there was ever any doubt, this election has proved that the foundation of Senegalese democracy is rock solid," he said. "This is good for the Senegalese people and also for our sub-region, especially at a time one of our brother countries is facing grave challenges to constitutional order."
Jonathan also praised Wade "for graciously accepting defeat, showing great maturity and statesmanship."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy also commended the vote, which came after a violent election season that left at least six people dead.
"It's very good news for Africa, in general, and Senegal, in particular," Sarkozy said on France Info radio. "When you see what's happening in Mali, it's a reason for hope for all of Africa."
Wade's reputation took a nosedive when he announced last year that he planned to run for a third term even though he had revised the constitution to impose a two-term maximum. Some feared he would not step aside if opposition candidate Sall won Sunday's vote.
However, state television reported only several hours after the polls closed that Wade had congratulated Sall.
"The results coming in indicated that Mr. Macky Sall had won. As I had always promised, I called him Sunday night to congratulate him," Wade said in a statement that was released to reporters early Monday.
No date has been formally set for Sall's inauguration as official results from the country's electoral commission are not expected until later in the week.
Sociologist Hadiya Tandian said that Wade's concession washes away the wounds of a violent election season, which tarnished the country's reputation.
"This is a great victory for Senegal _ it shows the maturity of our democracy," Tandian said. "It shows that the Senegalese believe in their voter IDs, that a voter card can change something, can make a difference. It shows that our long democratic heritage continues to live in us day by day."
At a midnight press conference at a Dakar hotel, Sall offered few details on the conversation he had with Wade earlier in the evening. Instead, he praised the voters and said he would be the president for all Senegalese.
"Tonight, a new era begins for Senegal," Sall told the hundreds of journalists and euphoric supporters who crammed into the venue to hear him speak.
Most voters simply spoke of hardships or the need for change rather than Sall's credentials when explaining whom they supported at the polls on Sunday.
Marieme Ousmane Wele, 55, said she had voted for Sall because the rising prices of basic goods have made her life increasingly difficult.
"I sell cereal made from corn but the price of corn has really gone up. Now, I don't have many customers and it's becoming difficult to feed my own family," she said, as men sat nearby on plastic lawn chairs in the sand listening to news about the election on portable radios.
Sall, 50, a former prime minister who ran Wade's last campaign in 2007, is a geologist by training who worked for years under Wade. The two, though, had a subsequent falling out and during the campaign Wade referred to Sall as an apprentice who had not yet taken in "the lessons of his mentor."
Wade himself first took office in 2000 after his predecessor graciously conceded in a historic moment for Senegal. He easily won re-election in 2007, but has seen his popularity suffer amid soaring costs of living and unemployment. When he cast his ballot last month in the first round of balloting, some voters even booed him at the poll shouting: "Old man, get lost."
Whereas most African countries began holding elections post-independence in the 1960s, the Senegalese first cast their ballots 164 years ago starting in 1848 when France gave its territory the right to elect a deputy to the French parliament.
Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi and Tomas Faye contributed to this report.
Krista Larson can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/klarsonafrica.