Senegalese protest to prevent a dynasty

Protest against Abdoulaye Wade in Paris, September, 2011. Photo by Gwenael Piaser, via Flickr.

On February 26, the voters of Senegal will elect their next president. The country has long been the stalwart of democracy and stability in West Africa. But this changed dramatically several years ago when incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade—85 years old and in power since 2000—decided to stand for another term to pave the way for a family dynasty by installing his son, Karim Wade, as his successor.

Many members of the opposition had hoped that Wade would leave office voluntarily. After all, he himself oversaw the introduction of presidential term limits, which were added to the constitution in 2008, and pledged to stay out of this year’s race.

These expectations turned into anger when Wade backtracked on his promise with the words “Ma waxoon waxeet” (“I said it, I can take it back” in Wolof) in 2009. The Senegalese supreme court—whose members are appointed by the president—supported Wade’s interpretation that the amendment could not be enacted retroactively and that he should hence be entitled to stand for two more seven-year terms in office. On January 27 the court officially greenlighted Wade’s candidacy, while blocking several other candidates—among them the internationally famous singer Youssou N’Dour—from running. Obviously in anticipation of this ruling, protests were banned in the days around the court hearing.

For many in the opposition, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A coalition of mainly young, urban and fed-up Senegalese activists, the Mouvement du 23 Juin (M23) and Y’en a Marre (It’s Enough), already succeeded last year in striking down constitutional amendments that would have increased Wades chance of winning. As many of these voters do not feel represented by established political parties, the tool of choice were large-scale, peaceful protests which heightened international awareness and created enough internal pressure that Wade had to give up on the controversial legislation.

This coalition has again called for large protests, despite the ban. While many of the protests went without incident, in some places tensions escalated and at least two protesters and one policeman died.

But since then, the protests have remained peaceful—and out of the international news. The big question that remains now is whether the opposition can unite itself to the extent necessary to beat Wade, or at least force him into a runoff against a single opposition candidate. There is certainly some hope for such a development; several candidates from among the traditionally fractured opposition in Senegal have declared their willingness to cooperate, and various Western governments have made it clear that they would prefer if Wade stayed out of the race.

But the opposition still faces some serious obstacles if it wants to challenge the rule of President Wade. He remains popular with large parts of the population, especially with those in the rural parts of the country, who have traditionally preferred the incumbent over the unknown quantity that opposition leaders present.

Another potential problem for the opposition is presented by the Marabouts, religious leaders who still wield tremendous influence in Senegalese public opinion and politics. Wade has been careful to court these figures, and it remains unclear wether the opposition can use the little remaining time before the election to find the necessary support in these quarters.

Finally, the possibility remains that, in his hunger for power, Wade would choose to jeopardize the stability of his country—either by employing the security forces against the protesters or by rigging the election itself. In these cases, much would depend on the reaction of the opposition movements.

There are certainly some elements in the opposition that will welcome such a provocation as a pretext to use violent means to vent their anger—already addresses of prominent businesses and individuals supporting Wade are circulating via SMS, and many people are afraid of riots in the urban centers. But this could prove dangerous—both for the protesters themselves and for the political culture of Senegal in general. There is little doubt that the Senegalese security forces would be able to quell any violent unrest in the urban areas with ease and it would leave Wade with the perfect pretext to crush any political opposition and cement his rule.

Likely more promising would be to extend the current strategy of peaceful protest instead, both against the “constitutional coup” that Wade has already staged and against any tricks he might still have up his sleeve. Last year’s protests showed convincingly that peaceful protest can deliver results in Senegal. Sustained protest would both undermine the legitimacy of Wade in the eyes of all voters in Senegal and provide an opportunity for the opposition to rally around a common cause, enhance their cooperation and galvanize additional support from abroad as well as from groups inside Senegal. The eventual hope would of course be that a show of strength by the opposition would convince some of the religious authorities to distance themselves from Wade or even openly support the protesters.

The difference between the current protests in the context of the upcoming elections and last year’s fight against the democracy-threatening amendments is clear, though: the stakes are far higher this time around for everybody involved. After all, President Wade is looking not only to gain seven more years in power, but also to ensure that his son will take power after him.

The Senegalese are proud of their role as a beacon of democracy in a region beset with troubles. If in doubt, they will support the side which seems to have greater chance of protecting this position. The opposition therefore stands to benefit from avoiding a violent showdown, bridging its internal divisions and appealing to other parts of the society to support their struggle.

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