A chain of constitutional breach and dishonesty are threatening a rare democracy in Africa
Yordanos Gouhse, Accra, Ghana
In an unfortunate turn of events, the 85-year-old Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade broke his own promise, made in 2000, to leave office after the first two terms of his presidential tenure were over, which would have been this year. Now he is forced to count the costs of his decision to dishonor his own promise: a stiff opposition from thousands of Senegalese who took to the streets of the capital Dakar in the wake of the national election held on February 26th, 2012.
The good old days
Abdoulaye Wade made history in 2000 when he succeeded to amend Senegal’s constitution limiting presidential tenures to two terms only. He questioned the logic behind African leaders staying in power as long as they wanted. He won the hearts and minds of Senegalese who praised him for his decision and affectionately nicknamed him the “Gorgui” – the old man – in Wolof.
After President Wade won the second term in 2007, rumors about the possibilities of him running for a third term surfaced. His answer was one that tried to set the records straight, “I cannot run again because the constitution forbids it.” Already the 2007 election was marred by allegations of vote rigging and massive irregularities that led the opposition to boycott the June parliamentary election. That was a historic mistake because it gave Wade absolute control over the legislature.
On January 27, 2012 a constitutional court ruling confirmed earlier rumors when it upheld President Wade’s request to run for a third term. If anything, the verdict has blemished Africa’s rare democracy from mass celebrations it was to mass protests that followed.
In 2001 a new constitution was introduced by the government of Wade aimed at “fulfilling promises for reform” made during his presidential campaign a year earlier. Since the beginning of 2007 President Wade and his coalition have amended the constitution 11 times. Many of the amendments eroded the impartiality of the country’s parliament and gave the president an absolute power over the judiciary. Some of the reforms made the constitution vulnerable to political interferences: the one that stipulates some articles in the constitution can be amended by a three-fifth majority of the parliament is a case in point.
In an inflammatory act, President Wade also attempted to amend the constitution by lowering the votes required to win the presidential election from 50 to 25 percent. Luckily he backed down after thousands of Senegalese took to the street of Dakar in protest.
Macky Sall, Senegal’s former prime minster and manager of Wade’s 2000 election campaign appeared to lead the only formidable opposition against President Wade. He described Wade’s third term bid as a joke and in a statement he said 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 reads, “We are inviting the population to organize and mobilize themselves to face [President] Wade. The combat has started.”
Senegal on the way down
On Tuesday January 31st, amidst fears of unrest in the usually calm and robust West African nation, thousands of Senegalese gathered for a mass rally in Dakar to protest against President Wade’s bid for a third term.
Dozens of riot police watched from a distance as hundreds of protesters descended on the de l’Obelisque square, the working class suburb of Colobane, for a rally the government only authorized at the last minute.
A policeman was killed during running battles with youths who torched cars and shops, erected barricades and burned tires. And a 17-year-old protester and a 60-year-old female bystander were shot dead in Podor by paramilitary police who opened fire on a crowd demonstrating against the council’s decision, according to Amnesty International.
A non-partisan youth movement has kicked off a weekend-long protest in Dakar, a crowd of about 3,000 answered the call from Y’en A Marre, a youth movement whose name means “Enough is Enough,” to come to Dakar’s Obelisk Square to protest the candidacy of President Wade.
On the other hand, Senegalese music icon Youssou N’Dour griped the music world by a surprise when he announced earlier in January that he was quitting singing for politics. Senegal’s Constitution council quickly dropped his request on the grounds that he failed to harvest the required 10,000 signatures of support. But on Tuesday February 21st, Youssou N’Dour was injured in the leg by a bullet at the scene of a banned rally in Dakar.
Series of allegations
Recognized at first as a decisive leader who dramatically transformed Senegal into a calm politics and a stable economy, Wade’s presidency was gradually marred by a series of allegations of fraud, nepotism, oppression against freedom of the press and monarchic ambitions.
In 2009, President Wade gave $200,000 to an international monetary fund representative as “a traditional departing gift.” After reports revealed the slip President Wade admitted giving the money, but said the amount was an error made by his top aide. In 2010, President Wade unveiled a 50-meter bronze African Renaissance statue that has a price tag of $20mn. The art work was a no laughing matter by the rank and file of Senegalese facing severe financial trouble.
President Wade is also accused of grooming his 44-year old son Karim Wade to take over power. Since he was appointed as an adviser to his father in 2001, Karim soon went on to a junior ministerial position in the government but quickly ended up heading the Ministry of State for International Cooperation, Urban and Regional Planning, Air Transport and Infrastructure.
Born and raised in Paris from a French mother and married to a French woman, most Senegalese consider Karim anything but a Senegalese.
Economically too Wade’s shortcomings have done Senegal’s economy more harm recently than good. The 1.16 percent annual growth of the agriculture sector (which employs 60 percent of the country’s population) was falling short of providing a population growing at 2.5 per cent annually. The country imports three quarters of the rice it consumes.
By the time this magazine went to the printing press on Monday February 27th, unofficial vote counts indicate a possible run-off between the incumbent President Wade and his main rival Macky Sall.
President Wade spoke to the media and said: “the trend from votes counted in 282 out of 551 districts or half the vote gives me the lead with 32.17 percent to 25.24 percent for my nearest opponent,” President Wade said, adding “everything is still possible – victory, or a runoff.”
In what many Senegalese believe was a premeditated statement to influence the outcome of the election results, President Wade earlier said he expected to win a new term in the first-round of the elections.
His political rivals, including music star Youssou N’Dour, are struggling to forge a unified front against him. The possibility of a run-off means the odds are against President Wade – may be. But without a united opposition, all the frontrunners may stand to lose.
The African Union has dispatched a delegation led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. The EU has also deployed monitoring teams on the ground. Both AUC’s and EU’s delegates confirmed the election went without major security incidents; whether that holds some water or not can only be determined by the Senegalese people.