Testing times as Senegal headed for cliffhanger presidential poll

Thursday March 22 2012

SEYLLOU| AFP
Senegal’s music icon Youssou Ndour

SEYLLOU| AFP Senegal’s music icon Youssou Ndour (centre) gestures as he arrives for a meeting as part of his campaign called “wer ndombo” (“to tackle” in Wallof, to make Wade “falls”) on March 17, 2012 in Ziguinchor, the troubled Casamance region, to rally voters behind Macky Sall, the challenger to incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade in a run-off vote on March 25. Senegal’s music icon Youssou Ndour threw his weight. 

By FRAN BLANDY

DAKAR, Thursday

Senegal votes on Sunday in a cliffhanger poll to determine whether 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade secures a contentious third term in a bid that has rattled the stability of the west African state.

Having failed to deliver a crushing first-round victory a month ago, Mr Wade faces a stiff challenge from his former prime minister Macky Sall, who has gathered the full weight of the opposition behind his presidential bid.

While laden with suspense, this latest pre-election period was calm compared to the first round, which had been preceded by a month of riots over Mr Wade’s candidacy that left six dead and over 150 injured.

The octogenarian’s efforts to seek re-election by circumventing a two-term constitutional limit earned him stiff rebukes from abroad, and raised fears for the stability of one of Africa’s oldest democracies.

Mr Wade polled 34.8 per cent in the first round and said he failed to win outright because “the West was campaigning against me”.

The odds are in Mr Sall’s favour heading into the election, with all the runners-up spread throughout the country to campaign for him, including superstar-turned-politician Youssou Ndour.

The opposition obtained a total 65 per cent of the vote in the first round, but turnout was low and it is not clear whether voters will follow their respective leaders in backing Sall against the incumbent.

While Mr Sall won the backing of the opposition, Mr Wade scored the official support of a leading member of the country’s most powerful Islamic brotherhood, the Mourides, seen as key in the majority Muslim nation.

Mr Wade, an intelligent and crafty political survivor who was in opposition for 25 years before his Senegalese Democratic Party unseated the Socialist Party in 2000 elections, has remained defiant in the storm of criticism.

“There is only one hypothesis. I win. The possibility of my defeat is absurd,” he told local television station Africa7 yesterday.

“It is as if I say the sky is going to fall on our heads in one minute. It is absurd because the sky is not going to fall on our heads.”

A Wade victory will stoke fears of violence after his mere presence in the race prompted opposition supporters to take to the streets.

Despite having served two terms in office, a limit he himself introduced, Mr Wade says later changes to the constitution allow him to serve two more successive mandates.

Officially the second oldest African leader after Zimbabwe’s 88-year-old Robert Mugabe, some claim Mr Wade is in fact pushing 90 due to discrepancies in the way birth certificates were filed at the time he was born in a nation where the median age is now 18.

In 2007, he won elections in the first round with 55 per cent, but his popularity has plunged in recent years amid rising food prices and power cuts which crippled economic activity last year but disappeared in time for the election campaign.

While Mr Wade receives kudos for an aggressive infrastructure drive, critics say he has focused on fanciful legacy projects — which he calls the “Seven Wonders” — to the detriment of good governance initiatives.

His piece de resistance is the African Renaissance Monument, a North Korean-built bronze behemoth that cost 15 million euros (Ksh1.6bn), offending those living in its shadow, battling poverty and power cuts.

Aside from a new airport and a tolled highway, both still incomplete, Mr Wade has a long list of projects to finish.

He envisions art and architecture schools and has planned an entire new capital city as well as new administrative district to be built on the site of the old airport.(AFP)