Tense times

On 26 February, Senegal’s voters were called to elect the president who will govern their country for the next seven years. According to the constitution, the head of state may serve two terms. The nation’s incumbent president was running for a third.

By Mohamed Gueye

Senegal had democratic elections even long before the country became independent in 1960. Nonetheless, the current campaign was unprecedented. In its very first week, eight of 14 candidates joined forces to agitate against another. The reason was that incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade announced he would run again, after having served two terms. His decision caused more than mere confusion. Several people died in riots.

Senegal’s new constitution, which was signed by Wade himself, limits the head of state’s terms to two. As demanded by Wade at the time, Article 27 explicitly states that this rule applies to him too. During his first international press conference after his re-election five years ago, he said, in his customary mellifluous rhetoric, that the constitution barred him from running once more.

Nonetheless, he was obviously unable to let go of power. In 2009, he began to indicate that he had changed his mind. On several occasions, he admitted that he wanted a third term. His statements triggered permanent domestic debate on whether he was allowed to run or not.

Not only political players joined in this debate, so did constitutional lawyers. Even some legal experts who participated in drafting the constitution critised the bizarre way in which Wade interpreted it. Foreign governments – led by France and the USA – demanded that he quit. And yet, Senegal’s Tribunal Constitutionnel, the constitutional court, ruled in late January that he could run again. At the same time, it barred Youssou N’Dour, a popular musician, from being a candidate. It alleged that he had not presented as many signatures in his support as required.

The ruling was like a bombshell. Only shortly before, it had become known that the president had doubled the salaries of the five constitutional judges and granted them some favours on top. People ­immediately began referring to Côte d’Ivoire, where the top judges had allowed election loser Laurent Gbagbo to stay in office in 2010. Gbagbo subsequently was only toppled after weeks of bloodshed. In the end, the French military intervened. Gbagbo is now awating trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

In Senegal, angry people took to the streets after the court had ruled. They thought that the legal “sages” had deprived them of their future, and they felt victimised by an old man who does not have much of future to look forward too.

Indeed, Wade’s age is one of his opponents’ strong arguments. According to the official record, he was born in 1926. Should he get a third term, he’d be 91 by its end – so god will. Wade’s response to such criciticsm was that both of his parents lived to almost 100 years, and that he does not intend to die any earlier. Such reckoning is unscientific, of course, and rooted only in his emotions.

Wade’s opponents suspect that he is preparing to install his son Karim as president sooner or later, regardless of the constitution. Karim has indeed been raising his political profile lately. Wade’s opponents have indicated the determination to oppose him by all means.

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