Global Politics

Tension and Anticipation Ahead of Senegal's Presidential Elections

In Senegal's capital, Dakar, there is a heady mix of tension and anticipation.

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Two months of unprecedented political drama in this historically stable West African democracy will come to a head on Sunday with a presidential election. There are more than a dozen candidates on the ballot, including the 85-year-old incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade.

Some say if the 85-year-old incumbent Abdoulaye Wade is re-elected, there could be unprecedented violence there.
Wade is running for a third term. The constitution doesn't allow it, but he successfully petitioned Senegal's constitutional court to let him run again.

Since that decision was announced less than a month ago, there have been almost daily protests in the center of Dakar.
The politically engaged community of rap musicians in Dakar wants Wade out. On Tuesday, they gathered with other opponents near Independence Square to voice their anger at the president; that protest ended in tear gas and panic.

The mantra-like chant of the rappers, and the name of their group, "Y'en a marre" — or, we're fed up — says it all. As they see it, there are constant blackouts, a high cost of living, and no jobs – all the while a small group of elites grows wealthy.

"We have the power to elect whoever we want, and we have the power to take you off," said Xuman, a Senegalese rapper, who is one of the leaders of Y'en a marre. "This is a message for the next president. Even if you are elected now, make sure that tomorrow if you're not doing things the right way, we can we have the power to like change you out of the country."

The chants from the rappers who oppose Wade are loud and angry. But if you just go by decibels, the cheering in a dusty suburb when the 85-year-old Wade shows up to campaign indicates strong support for the incumbent.

On Wednesday, in the vast neighborhood of Pikine, a soccer stadium was packed with enthralled Wade supporters who treated the octogenarian president like a rock star.

Most at the campaign rally were under the age of 30.

The Wade camp actually appreciates the rappers, according to Wade's official spokesman, Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye – they're non-violent, he said, and they clean up after their protests.

But Ndiaye told me on Thursday that the Y'en a marre people forget what Wade has done for the country since he first took office in 2000. Wade created a new affordable community for people washed out in the floods of 2009, he said.

"Look at the roads Wade has built, the hospital, the new schools, two renovated stadiums, and so on."

The rappers can say they've been let down by Wade, Ndiaye continued, but the majority of Senegalese — the youth —do not.

But this isn't just about Wade versus some angry young musicians.

There's also the umbrella opposition group M23, named for the 23rd of June last year when Wade tried to push through two amendments to the constitution: one, permitting a victory in a first round with just 25 percent of the vote, the other, allowing for a vice-president.

Those changes didn't happen. But it put many in Senegal on alert that Wade had plans to hand off power to his son Karim, who's held several ministerial posts, and is estimated to control 40 percent of the national budget.

One of the coordinators of M23, Alioune Tine, was detained and questioned for several days in January around his role in organizing anti-Wade protests. I had to meet him in a secret location where he was hiding for his safety. He said members of Wade's own party have told him privately why the 85 year-old is running again.

"They said if he is doing so, it is for his son," Tine said.

Then there is the Youssou N'dour factor.

The superstar musician threw his hat in the ring for the presidency late last year. But then, in January, Senegal's electoral commission told him that his candidacy petition didn't have enough signatures.

N'dour cut back all his musical activities and has become an opposition activist, appearing regularly at rallies. In fact, he was at the rally on Tuesday that ended in a fog of tear gas. One of the canisters struck him in the foot, and he's been limping all week. But Thursday, at a small press conference, he shrugged it off.

N'dour had met with former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo, who is trying to bring some senior statesman calm to Senegal in the run up to Sunday's vote.

I pointed out to N'dour that it was the government of Obasanjo in 1979 that prevented radical Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti from running for president of Nigeria.

"I respect Fela a lot, he remains a great reference for me," N'Dour said. "But I believe that all heads of state who won't allow their own countrymen to run for office, beware of them."

Senegalese go to the polls on Sunday.

Many here believe Abdoulaye Wade will win, and that is expected to lead to widespread anger and possible violence.
Presidential spokesman Ndiaye said the army, police and gendarmerie will be out in force, and that Senegal will not be torn apart.

If an African version of the Arab spring takes root in Senegal, I asked Ndiaye, would that be the fault of the opposition or President Wade?

Ndiaye said first that he doesn't believe there will be an African Spring, but if there is, it can't be the fault of Abdoulaye Wade because he respects the established order in Senegal.

He added that they believe whatever crisis this vote might bring, they'll be able to handle it.