A president refusing to give up power despite advancing age and legal limits. Young men in the streets throwing rocks at the police while choking on tear gas. That situation was not supposed to happen in Senegal, a rare part of West Africa where free voting has occurred since the late 19th century.
An Atypical Unrest Troubles Senegal’s Election Season
Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press
President Abdoulaye Wade traveled between campaign stops in suburban Dakar on Wednesday. He seeks what his opponents consider an illegal term.
DAKAR, Senegal — A president refusing to give up power despite advancing age and legal limits. An opposition crying foul. Young men in the streets throwing rocks at the police while choking on tear gas.
That situation, repeated all too frequently at election time in Africa’s western bulge, was not supposed to happen in Senegal, a rare part of the continent where free voting has occurred since the late 19th century.
Yet for the past month, some of the normally placid downtown streets in this windswept seaside capital have turned chaotic. Airwaves and front pages have filled with thunderous denunciations of a “constitutional coup d’état.” And some worry that an election scheduled for Sunday may lead to something worse than the usual inauguration at the whitewashed presidential palace downtown.
On Thursday, as more protests were planned, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president and the head of an African Union observation mission, met with opposition leaders to discuss Senegal’s election difficulties.
At the center of the storm is President Abdoulaye Wade, who is officially 85 but probably older, as proper birth records were not kept by the French colonial authorities. Mr. Wade, a French-trained lawyer with degrees in economics and mathematics, is among the world’s oldest leaders, and he is determined not to retire anytime soon.
Seeking what his opponents consider an illegal third term, Mr. Wade mocks the critics as lacking the vigor he displays, while regularly haranguing diplomats and other visitors for hours about the finer points of the country’s laws, principles of economics and his aesthetic theories.
Opponents sputter in rage against what they regard as the elderly president’s upending of the long respect for law displayed in this impoverished but proud country of 12.5 million, which is dependent on foreign aid, fishing, peanuts and phosphate. Senegal was the first to send an African to the French National Assembly in 1914 and one of the rare African countries never to have had a military coup.
Those who have worked for Mr. Wade suggest that the electoral conflict is rooted in his penchant for frequently shuffling his cabinet (he has had nearly 200 ministers, said one of his six former prime ministers, Macky Sall), tinkering with his country’s Constitution and revising his grandiose, often unrealized development plans.
Shortly after Mr. Wade’s election to a seven-year term in 2000, Senegal’s Constitution was changed, limiting presidents to two terms of five years. Then in 2008, after his 2007 re-election, it was changed again, to two terms of seven years. Mr. Wade claims that this entitles him to run again, for another two terms. “The Constitution, it was me that wrote it, all alone,” Mr. Wade told interviewers last month. A month ago, the constitutional court appointed by Mr. Wade approved his interpretation, setting off days of protests.
The court’s decision does not sit well with the president’s critics. “The Constitution has been violated!” one of Mr. Wade’s former prime ministers, Idrissa Seck, who is more than three decades his junior, thundered recently in an oceanfront hotel room packed with the president’s critics. “We must prevent the coup d’état that is unfolding,” said Mr. Seck, one of three ousted prime ministers running against their former boss.
On the campaign trail, former protégés like Mr. Seck get short shrift from Mr. Wade, one of the last political practitioners from the generation that brought African nations their independence a half-century ago.
“You’ve got to have the courage to confront the heat and the dust! The real candidate must go out in the field!” Mr. Wade shouted Wednesday at a rally in the Dakar suburb of Pikine, where streets are sandy and buildings low and battered. In sonorous, old-fashioned French, Mr. Wade exhorted the crowd to “Work! Work some more! Work a lot.” Unemployment in such areas approaches 50 percent.
As Mr. Wade spoke of the gross domestic product, a young man in the audience mockingly repeated his phrases. Several in the crowd streaming from a makeshift stadium wearing Wade T-shirts said they had been paid to attend.
“They paid me 3,000 CFA to come,” or about $6, said Modu Diop, 19, big money in a country where more than half the people live below the poverty line. Infant mortalityrates and life expectancy have improved during Mr. Wade’s 12 years, but the country’s low rank on the United Nations Human Development Index has hardly budged.
“All these people here, they’ve all been corrupted,” said Moussa Ndiaye, a 23-year-old student, looking out at the crowd. “They’ve been paid to come here.” He was hoping to get to Europe to find work.
At one of the frequent anti-Wade rallies in downtown Dakar, nobody talks of being paid to attend. “It’s been 12 years now,” said Adama Touré, a tailor, 22. “He’s got to step down. There’s no work. It’s tough. That’s why we’re out here. We don’t agree with his candidacy. He’s worked for Senegal, but he’s too old.”
Two other young men clambered up a high pole supporting a Wade billboard and began to bash it, and the dense crowd below cheered. Moments later, as several opposition candidates tried to push through a police blockade in front of the city’s main square, rocks started to fly. A rattling blast from police tear-gas guns followed.
With stinging gas filling the side streets, the crowd scattered. “The forces of order have become the forces of disorder,” a young man shouted. Though the same scene has played out repeatedly, observers have noted the relative restraint of the police and the small size of the demonstrations. There have been about six fatalities reported throughout the country.