Senegal was swept by a night of protest and violence after the Constitutional Court confirmed that President Abdoulaye Wade could run for a third term in the upcoming elections. The constitution of Senegal limits the presidency to 2 five year terms but Wade had asserted his right to run for a office again on the grounds that the law limiting presidential office could not be upheld retrospectively. He came to office in the year 2000 before the constitution was amended in 2001. The court also ruled that the candidacy of singer, Youssou NDour was not valid due to a shortfall in the number of signatures.
Protests in the capital, Dakar, centred on the Place de l’Obelisque which the opposition movement M23, in a reference to the Egyptian uprising, threatened to turn into “another Tahrir Square”. Despite a heavily armed police presence, youths burnt tyres, overturned cars and threw concrete blocks. One policeman was killed when he was hit on the head by a brick. President Wade accused protestors of being ‘petulant’ saying “it will lead to nothing.” Reports say the protests erupted in other towns and cities, including Thies, Kaolack and Mbour. National radio reported that the local quarters of Wade’s party PDS had burnt down. Images of other ransacked buildings were circulating on Twitter. The election is drawing strong Senegalese interest on social media with the hashtags Kebetu – the Wolof verb to tweet; and Sunu2012 with the Wolof word “Sunu” translated as: “our own” – “our own 2012.”
On Saturday the opposition coalition M23 issued a statement saying that the court had betrayed the people:
“A black page has been written in the history of our country by the decision to validate the candidacy of Abdoulaye Wade,” the statement said. “We are inviting the population to organize and mobilize themselves to face Wade. The combat has started.”
Opposition candidate Macky Sall, who was once Wade’s prime minister and is now running against him, said the group had given “the order” for people to take to the streets. He denied that future protests could turn violent.
After the violence security forces swept Dakar and arrested 10 members of the opposition movement hunting for human rights activist, Alioune Tine, the leader of M23 the principal coalition of trade unions, independent candidates and political parties. Alioune Tine gave himself up and has been in custody ever since. The singer Youssou NDour, whose candidacy was rejected by the court, attempted to visit Tine to show solidarity and was ‘roughed-up’ by police. He later gave a press conference and stated he was not accepting the ruling and “would not rest on his hands.” On Sunday evening a long cortege of cars snaked through Daka and encircled the police headquarters in protest at the continuing detention of Alioune Tine. Meanwhile, the Association of Online Professional Press (APPEL), issued a statement claiming many Senegalese websites are now impeded making their work impossible.
Senegal has seen increasing unrest in what was until recently, a peaceful country. However, major unemployment, spiraling prices and endless corruption scandals have made the population angry. They point to his son as the likely successor to his father’s nepotistic rule to which Wade himself has hinted; leading a Senegalese news web site, nettalli.net to suggest that under President Wade’s leadership, Senegal is evolving “from Republic to enlightened despotism.” Projects such as the 160 foot “African Renaissance” brass statue on top one of the twin hills known as Collines des Mamelles, outside of Dakar, have added to their criticisms. Costing US$ 27 million, opposition leaders have suggested the style of the project is “Stalinist” and Imams in the predominantly Muslim country have called it idolatrous. Wade inflamed the controversy further by claiming “intellectual property rights” entitled him to 35% of any tourist income. He has also been accused of arrogance after allegedly telling a religious meeting, “Let God strike those with blindness who cannot see my accomplishments.”
Alongside these tensions, ongoing insurgency has made the Casamance region on the Gambia borders a constant thorn in Wade’s side. Heavy fighting erupts sporadically and in December, 2011, Senegal media reported that 13 soldiers and rebels were killed following a separatist rebel attack on an army base near the town of Bignona.
Meanwhile, the credibility of the court has been questioned, as each of its judges have been hand-picked by the president and most of the electorate believe it was guaranteed to rule in Wade’s favour. Lamin Souare, a Gambian analyst, points out the court was trapped between a rock and a hard place as Wade would also not accept a contrary vote. He comments:
“And this problem could have been avoided long before the election if the council published the list earlier … but now the release of the list of eligible presidential candidate is very close to the election, so any protest or chaos could undermine the whole election process.”
Wade may be able to count on rural support, but he is unlikely to win the endorsement of most of the influential Sufi brotherhoods according to analysts, and in a country such as Senegal, that cannot be underestimated. Meanwhile, many Senegalese are irritated by the West’s focus on NDour, and claim that although he’s popular with youth voters, he’s not a major player. While he could have a role if the opposition form a stronger alliance to contest Abdoulaye Wade, his candidacy has been criticised. Mariéme Jamme, a public speaker and social entrepeneur, says Youssou NDour is more valuable to Senegal as an activist. She observes that he not only lacks experience, which voters would not like, but that he would be caught in the net of Senegal’s class-riddled society, needing the backing of the very people that many in the opposition seek to overthrow.
In a daily press briefing, US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, commented that Wade’s decision: “to try to run for a third term as president does have the potential to jeopardize a lot of the achievements that he himself has made, including ushering in a new constitution with a two-term limit for presidents.” She said Washington wanted to see Wade, ” be a leader in paving the way for a new generation of African leaders and solidifying his own stature as a democrat in this way.”
Certainly there is a vibrant democracy in Senegal and a youthful population with 68% being under the age of 25. It has been the youth that has helped chart the future moves of Senegal’s opposition politicians with political rappers being but one form of expression amongst many. This is very much in keeping with a culture that is famed for its music and arts and draws tourists from around the world for this reason. Now that youth has found their political voice, and with an eye on events in other parts of the world, they are unlikely to be silenced. Hence the rallying calls to the Place de l’Obélisque.
They are critical of their self-serving elders and they represent the many ways that the political challenges are generational. This then intensifies the calls for the elderly Wade to step down.
The Sufi brotherhoods pull a lot of the strings in Senegal and their support is vital, but as commenters have noted that same support may be a seen as part of the problem in a society largely governed by patronage. The Murad brotherhood, the biggest and most important in Senegal, called for dialogue and calm: “The Marabout calls on all parties to do what is necessary to preserve peace in the country,” said Serigne Bass Abdou Khadr citing Serigne Cheikh Sidy Mbacké Mouride, known as the Grand Marabout. “the Marabout requests the Government and the opposition to engage in a dialogue with the aim of ensuring that we address transparent elections.”
There is no doubt that the Marabouts are an important source of authority in Senegal and in an atmosphere of increasing press restriction and the strong presence of security forces, it now also seems vital that a fractured opposition finds some way to unite. The elections on February 26th still have almost four weeks to run and it is likely that Senegal will face further unrest. On Sunday the EU Observer Mission called on the court to clarify why it accepted some candidates and not others. On Sunday 3 candidates filed court appeals but later that day the candidacies of Abdourahmane Sarr, Youssou Ndour and Keba Keinde, were declared invalid. The French government, meanwhile, has stated that they will be observing the election process and the reports of the EU election observers, closely. Once again, with France’s tendency to bolster Francafrique, many will hope there is no repeat of Cote D’Ivoire.