Senegal, long cited as one of Africa’s most democratic nations, is in danger of taking an authoritarian turn. The Constitutional Court recently ruled that President Wade, who has become increasingly unpopular after wasting millions of dollars on a ‘monstrous’ monument to the African Renaissance and a failed attempt to lower the 25% threshold required of successful presidential candidates, should be allowed to stand for a third term. At the same time, the Court ruled that single Youssou N’Dour and two other opposition leaders could not run. The decision triggered a wave of protests, which escalated into clashes between the polish and opposition supporters. Here Arame Tall makes an impassioned plea for domestic and international actors to wake up to what is happening in Senegal before it is too late.
Arame Tall, February 1st 2012, Senegal
To all reading this, Senegal is in need of prayers today. Prayers to avoid us going down that very ugly familiar lane where Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Kenya and a host of other African states preceded us… Down the ugly lane of pre-electoral violence.
The recent events ongoing in Senegal are defying the most basic assumptions held about Senegal’s democracy.
Senegalese police officers firing on Senegalese citizens with live ammunition, and killing a young University Masters student, wounding at least ten others.
Police officers bitterly fighting with protesters across all the neighborhoods of the capital until the wee hours of the night (in Khar Yalla, Baobab, Niary Talli, Ouakam, Colobane, the list goes on…)
All the neighborhoods of Dakar ablaze… Overwhelmed police forces struggling to put out the multiple simultaneous hearths across the city, but barely succeeding..
At the heart of all this violence, a peaceful protest convened by the M23, and joined by hundreds of men, women, old and young, students and ordinary citizens of all faiths and political affiliations at The Place de l’Obélisque, which has become the symbol and seat of anti-Wade popular resistance, responded to by police tear gas…
In the middle of the protest, a police hot water hose tank runs into the crowd, crushing a young woman dead.
An ambulance IN OPERATION, carrying a victim severely wounded, fired with teargas by police forces.
Red Cross volunteers everywhere carrying wounded protesters and providing first aid.
All these images seem surreal even to the most seasoned analysts of Senegal’s political evolution. One does not believe this is really taking place in Senegal.
Pre-electoral violence in Senegal, brewing since the announcement of Wade’s bid for a third term, exploded when Wade received green light from Senegal’s Constitutional Court on Friday January 27, confirming him on the list of valid candidates to the next election to be held on February 26 2012.
Brewing popular discontent
A multi-party competitive democracy since 1974, when many other African states were still reeling under the iron fist of dictators and bloody military coups, Senegal hoisted itself up to the level of a firm beacon of democracy in the region in 2000, when former president Abdou Diouf, head of presidential regime in power for 40 years, peacefully handed power over to Abdoulaye Wade, close winner of the 2000 presidential election, and to his opposition coalition.
Much water has gone under the bridge since 2000, and Wade today is the most contested figure in the Nation.
Following the June 23 2011 popular uprising, which saw the historic unleashing of a sea of protesters in front the National Assembly to contest a constitutional makeover that would have instituted a vice-presidency (thought to have been created for Wade’s son, Karim Wade) and secured an easy victory for Wade at the 2012 presidential election (see the article Green Thursday in the Life of the Nation by same author), contestation has not died down.
Firm popular demands for the invalidation of Wade’s candidacy to the next election were stepped up in the run-up to 2012 presidential electoral campaign. On the grounds that the new Constitution adopted in 2001 – drafted by President Wade himself one year following his rise to power – limited the number of terms of any president to a maximum of two, protesters took the streets multiple times to denounce what they saw as a constitutional coup d’état.
The calls for President Wade’s departure were in part fuelled by his age and doubts about his ability to assume the country’s leadership of the country. Officially 85 years old, Wade is thought to be at least 90 years old by most people in Senegal. After another third term, he would thus be at least 97 years of age, a record even for an African village chief. Many also fear that Wade’s secret’s ploy is to seize power in 2012, but not finish his term –midway creating a vice-presidency position and appointing his son, Karim Wade, to the position, thus succeeding to impose his plan of a monarchic devolution of power that the Senegalese electorate rejected during the 2009 legislative elections and again on June 23, 2011.
Led by the “Y’en A Marre” group and the M23, a popular citizen movement composed of all opposition parties, civil society groups and ordinary citizens, created to keep alive the spirit of the 23 June uprising, the protesters took the streets every 23rd day of the month between June and December 2011.
Wade showed no signed of retreat from his resolution to run for a third presidential bid however. Changing the administrative partitioning of the country to downsize the districts where his party, the PDS, did not have a lead (for more click here), ransacking public coffers to fund his campaign, publicly announcing his retraction of his previous public statement where he announced that he would not run again in 2012, Wade appeared determined as ever to extend his stay in power for a third term. A series of political intimidations perpetrated against opposition political figureheads by heavy muscled youth also set the country in a tense mode of violence, escalating into the death of a PDS envoy and imprisonment of Wade’s fiercest youth opponent, Barthelemy Diaz, head of the Socialist Party’s Youth League (see link).
As a bitter constitutional debate took hold over the country, with the majority of Senegalese constitutionalists who took part in the writing of the 2001 Constitution stating that Wade’s third bid was unconstitutional, while a minority, affiliated with Wade’s camp, maintained that Wade was exempt from the immediate application of the 2001 Constitution’s provisions, having been elected one year prior to its adoption, the final word on the constitutional validity or not of Wade’s third presidential bid was left to Senegal’s Constitutional Court. Composed of the “five Wise”, judges appointed by the president and copiously treated in the days preceding their decision with gifts of a limousine each and 5million CFA bonuses from the President, serious doubts were cast regarding the impartiality of the Court’s decision.
Decision of Constitutional Court allows Wade to run for a third term
On January 27 2012, 29 days prior to Election day, the Senegalese Constitutional Court’s “Five Wise” published the final list of validated candidates for the 2012 presidential election. This list included Abdoulaye Wade, and excluded the notorious popular singer Youssou N’Dour who had announced his bid for the presidential seat at the 11th hour in a contested context.
The Constitutional Court’s court decision to approve Wade’s candidacy was immediately met by disappointment, then popular anger. Youth and M23 leaders assembled at the Place de l’Obélisque to await what they hoped would be the Constitutional’s Court historic turnover of Wade’s constitutional coup d’état, took in the news, then lashed out their anger in protest of the Court’s decision.
Many witnesses claim that as soon as the news were announced, commissioned envoys from the presidential camp who had infiltrated the M23 protest assaulted the main opposition leaders in attendance, forcing them to flee and lose face vis-à-vis the youth in need of leadership at that critical moment.
At the end of the Friday riots, many public edifices were destroyed in Dakar in protest, leaving one young police office, Fodé Ndiaye, dead. The riots spread over the weekend through to other parts of the country, Fatick, Kaolack, Matam, Tambacounda, Diourbel, Thies and Saint-Louis, where throngs took the streets to denounce the constitutional coup d’état by the elderly president Wade. In Podor notably, Northern Senegal, a violent protest on Saturday left two dead, a young highschooler in 8th grade and an 60-year old grandmother.
The January 31 protest
Faced with the tenacity of Wade’s decision to take part in the upcoming elections, the M23 in a final act called on all the forces of the nation to embark on a Resistance against what they labeled as Senegal’s constitutional coup d’état, and called a peaceful protest on Tuesday January 31 at 3pm, at the now infamous Place de l’Obélisque, Senegal’s Tahrir Square.
The Ministry of the Interior forbade the protest, boding of potential tensions and renewed clashes between national security forces and the mobilized youth.
From 3 to 6pm, the protest ensued peacefully. At 6pm however, tanks began to march on the tight crowd assembled at the Place de l’Obélisque, marching on to the crowd, as police officers targetted political opponents such as Moustapha Niasse, Youssou Ndour and others.
What ensued is now history.
All the neighborhoods of Dakar ablaze… Determined youth running all sides…
Police officers fighting with protesters in multiple homes of contestation..
Senegalese police officers firing on Senegalese citizens with live ammunition…
An ambulance IN OPERATION fired with teargas by police forces
Today Senegalese citizens are in shock at the scenes unfolding in the streets of Dakar, and across the main cities across the country.
A University Masters student, Mamadou Diop, 30, killed
Recent reports of the casualties from the January 31st riots establish its human toll at 10 wounded, 5 among which severely, and 2 dead according to Walfadjri. This is only a provisional count however. Tomorrow as the Red Cross releases its final count the death toll is bound to rise.
One of the two killed on January 31st was a Masters student at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD), Mamadou Diop, 30. He was allegedly run over by the police tank and smashed to death as the tank ran into the crowd assembled at the Place de l’Obélisque.
The bleak voice of Mamadou’s father can be heard through the wavelengths of Dakar’s mainstream radio station Walfadjri: “In the name of peace, I am begging Abdoulaye Wade to relinquish power. I am not wishing any other parent, any other human being, to go through what I am going through right now”, his voice squeeks.
In the distance, the shrieks of Mamadou’s mother, who just arrived from Mbour at the hospital, shrieks with hurt. “I believe in God.. But just let me see my son. I beg of you just let me see my son”. Who would have told this mother this morning that by day’s end, she would be called in to see her promising son’s corpse, she would perhaps not have believed it. The scene is surreal, and sad beyond words.
Mamadou Diop was an ordinary citizen who wanted to defend his Constitution, informs one of his classmates at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop Department of Classics. A group of Mamadou Diop’s classmates is assembled at SUMA-Assistance, sharing in the grief. Retribution from UCAD students, the historically fieriest social force to reckon with, is to be expected in the days ahead.
Where next from here?
The last straw of hope, the country’s religious leaders, hitherto respected moral figures in this devoutly religious nation composed of a 95% muslim majority, dashed all hopes when their spokesperson released a public statement asking the people of Senegal to respect the Constitutional Court’s decision. One notable exception came from the leader of the Niassene Leona muslim brotherhood, whom we just heard calling upon the President to simply relinquish power, in the name of peace and stability. “Power is not worth this. It is not worth the death of even one of our sons. You have given us 11 good years. You cannot do anything short of what Senghor or Abdou Diouf have achieved. For the sake of peace, Wade we beg you to retract yourself” (Walfadjri, Jan 31 2012).
Meanwhile, President Wade, object of all the tensions but still guardian in exercise of the Nation, sits in his home. While many are calling on his leadership in these critical times, he is yet to be heard. He just flew back a few days ago from the Davos Economic Forum, which he never misses, a proud liberal… Even as his country is going down the ugly lane of pre-electoral violence.
Many call on his wisdom and leadership at this grave hour. In the name of all that we have given him (two elections in the best of conditions, an uncontested rule for 11 years, all the privileges of presidency), Wade is today asked to give back to his people the reigns of the nation which were handed on to him 12 years ago.
Others call on the wisdom of the Senegalese people, who’ve proven time and again the power of the ballot rather than of the mob.
No-one knows where today’s events will lead us to, and who will be thinking to avenge the dead today. Mbour, home of the killed University student, is in shock. Podor is still burying its two dead from the weekend’s riots. The security forces buried the young officer Fodé Ndiaye on Saturday. All Senegalese lives lost in the run-up to power… Violence only begets violence.
Whether approaching 100-year old president Wade comes to his senses and quells the ongoing violence with a declaration that he will withdraw his candidacy to the upcoming election, or whether the blazing electorate decides to peacefully return to their homes, and rather goes to vote en masse on February 26 to oust Wade through the ballot rather than the streets, proving the vitality of Senegalese democracy, Senegal’s hard conquered peace and stability of the past 50 years sits on a thin threat today.
The hour is grave.
The Nation of Senegal is in need of prayers today.
For the full text with images, click here.