Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Senegal elections heat up

By Brendon Butler

Copy edited and produced by Hilary Johnson

A controversial decision by Senegal’s highest court has inspired a burgeoning sense of cooperation among some opposing candidates in the country’s presidential elections set to occur on Feb. 26. 

After the Constitutional Council on Jan. 27 blocked the candidacy of Africa’s possibly most famous African pop music star, Youssou N’Dour, protests organized in Dakar have added momentum to the opposition movement.
Famous Senegalese pop musician Youssou
N'Dour was barred from running in Senegal's
presedential elections this year. 

Now, normally fragmented opposition party candidates have proposed an uncharacteristically unified strategy against President Abdoulaye Wade. Eight of the 13 men standing against Wade have encouraged their partisans to support whichever candidate makes it through the election’s first round against Wade.
Movements to challenge are apparent
N’Dour has formally challenged the Council’s decision, and continues to speak out at opposition rallies organized by populist movements M23 and Y’en A Marre (We’re Fed Up).
Experts say that President Wade will not give up power easily, and that it is unlikely N'Dour's challenge will prevail. George Ajjan, who has advised Republican campaigns in the United States, was in Dakar offering his services to Wade’s opposition candidates as the protests occurred at the end of January.
President Abdoulaye Wade pictured in December, 2011.
“Protests can only accomplish so much,” Ajjan said in an interview with the BBC Network Africa radio program. “It is unlikely that Mr. Wade will step down just because he sees some people out in the streets.”

Harrison Akoh, a Nigerian who lives and works as a journalist in Dakar, said he believes N’Dour’s candidacy shook the confidence of Wade’s regime. 

“How popular is he? He is very popular here,” Akoh said. “People are angry, and N’Dour expresses that anger for them.”

Akoh cited N’Dour’s wealth and his ownership of a television and radio network as powerful political tools he could have exploited in the presidential race had he not been disqualified. Now N’Dour is using his celebrity as a platform to help organize the opposition. 

Young men wearing T-shirts of the Y'en A Marre
political movement shout during a protest in Dakar
on January 31, 2012 (photo courtesy of
Associated Press)
Akoh said he attended a protest in downtown Dakar after the court announced its decision. At first, the gathering of about 10,000 was largely peaceful, he said. Performers including local rapper group Y'en A Marre (We're Fed Up) and N’Dour himself encouraged the crowd to march from the Place d’Obelisque to the presidential palace, but rows of police in riot gear stood in their way. 

“The plan was to march to the Presidential Palace,” said Akoh. “But they couldn’t because the riot police were there with their batons.” 

Some of the youths became agitated and began throwing stones, and the police responded with tear gas grenades and water cannons, Akoh said. Gruesome photos circulated on the Internet after the protest that showed the body of a 32-year-old master’s student at Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University, Mamadou Diop. Diop died when a police water-cannon truck ran him over. A 60-year-old grandmother and a teenage boy were shot and killed by police later in the week during protests in Senegal’s northern city of Podor, the BBC reported.

"People are just starting to heat up,” said Lizzie Starr, who teaches at a private school in Dakar. “Over ten thousand people were at the protests (on Jan.31).... People are furious, and things are going from bad to worse…. (W)e have not had a full week of school in five weeks because we continuously have to cancel class for security reasons.”

Senegal's tradition vs. future
As for the state of Senegal's democratic tradition, it remains to be seen whether the February elections will result in a peaceful transfer of power. Senegal has been a relative democratic success story until now, with three peaceful transfers of power since gaining its independence from France in 1960. 

In 2011, that peaceful democratic tradition began to show strains. On June 23, people rioted in the streets when Wade proposed dropping the proportion of votes needed to win a presidential election in the first round from 50 percent to 25 percent. Wade also nominated his unpopular son Karim for a new position as Senegal’s first vice president, and he was widely criticized for trying to set up a political dynasty. 

After the riots, Wade dropped the plans, but the opposition movement M23 was born out of the experience. Now M23 constitutes a serious mobilizing force against Wade, said Akoh. 

Y'en A Marre is another popular group stoking momentum for the opposition movement. Comprised of musicians, artists and rappers, the group mobilizes large crowds. The 10,000 people who showed up to 
protests on Jan. 31 at the Place d’Obelisque in Dakar were in part alerted to the gathering in part by Y’en A Marre’s sound system, said Akoh. 

The group’s members have taken colorful names styled on American hip hop, such as “Fou Malade” (Crazy Sicko), and the group has also put out a YouTube video of their popular song, “Faux Pas Forcé!” 
(Don’t Force It). Though they have focused popular sentiment, the group has said it will not endorse any candidate, and competing opposition candidates speak at their rallies. 

For his part, Wade brushes off the protest movement. In a comment which headlined in several Dakar newspapers after the first week of protests, Wade sad, “A breeze is a light wind which rustles the leaves of a tree, but never becomes a hurricane.”

However, the popular unrest could translate into political action, since between 60 and 70 percent of Senegalese are active voters, and registration continues up to the eve of elections. The real question about the strength of the opposition parties will emerge during the second round of elections, said Akoh. 

“People believe there will definitely be a second round. Elections have always been decided like that. 

“In Wolof they call (Wade) “Jaambuur,” Akoh said. The word means literally “to betray,” but refers colloquially to a canny political operator, or somebody who believes he is more intelligent than his opponent. 

“He is a very good negotiator,” said Akoh.
“He is a very good negotiator,” said Akoh.

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