Senegal counts on 'African spring'

2012-02-02 16:43
Dakar - Senegal's opposition is hoping that the cocktail of social discontent, a clinging leader and the threat of hereditary power that has sparked deadly riots can also kindle a successful "African Spring".

Having exhausted all legal avenues, opposition groups are now counting on street pressure to force President Abdoulaye Wade, 85, to drop his candidacy for a third term which they have branded a "constitutional coup d'etat".

It is a cold winter in the west African nation, relatively speaking, but a fiery political climate has seen observers draw parallels with people vs power uprisings which toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and later Libya and Yemen.

Since these uprisings took hold, many have looked to sub-Saharan Africa for signs of an "African Spring" in a region which is home to some of the world's most iron-fisted and long-serving leaders.

Wade, in power for 12 years, is not usually counted among these.

However, a decision by the constitutional court - five judges appointed by the president - that he can legally seek a third term, has triggered a backlash against his regime.

Since Friday, the anti-Wade June 23 Movement (M23) has protested angrily and violently at Obelisk Square in Dakar, calling it their "Tahrir Square" - iconic of Egypt's revolution. Protesters talk about "Senegal's Spring."

Some of the seaside capital's usually peaceful streets, still bathed in the red, yellow and green glow of Christmas lights, became the scene of riots and destruction as youths battled police, set tyres, cars and shops ablaze.

Democratic revolutions

In five days, a policeman, a teenager, a 60-year-old woman and a university student have died in the violence.

Declaring themselves willing to sacrifice all, Wade's opponents vow he will not take part in February 26 elections.

"Senegal has definitely stood out as one of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa that shows traits of the genesis of the Arab Spring," said David Kode, a Johannesburg-based analyst and West Africa expert.

During the uprisings in North Africa, Senegal experienced protests against crippling power cuts and rising food and fuel prices.

"The spark was there at the time but did not transform into a full blown flame."

On Sunday, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at an African Union summit in Ethiopia, warned that last year's revolutions were "a reminder that leaders must listen to their people."

In Dakar, prominent sociologist Dr Hadiya Tandian, says drawing parallels between Arab countries and Africa is "not a clean analogy" as democracy is firmly rooted in Senegal.

From independence movements to unseating post-independence autocrats, many African countries have "had their democratic revolutions".

When Wade came into power in 2000 after 25 years in opposition, he advanced democracy by setting presidential term limits at two mandates. He mediated other conflicts and was vocal about democracy and African development.

Temper tantrums

But now Wade says he can serve another two seven-year terms from 2012 because a constitutional cap was only introduced in 2008, after his latest reelection.

"The image of an elderly president seeking to hang on to power - even if he was democratically elected in the first place - is one that could strike parallels with events in Egypt, in the eyes of many Senegalese," said Paul Melly, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House.

Wade has grown increasingly unpopular as the opposition believes he wants another term to groom his son Karim for succession.

Increasingly intransigent about his own importance to the country, Wade is as dismissive of crippling power cuts as the opposition protests which he calls "temper tantrums".

This hubris, much like that of former leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya who "grossly under-estimated the power of citizen action," could be Wade's greatest undoing, says Kode.

Government says protests of about 10 000 people prove the opposition has failed to mobilise among voters, and it remains to be seen whether the will and momentum exists to increase pressure on Wade.

"We may just be entering a phase on the continent where those who decide to hang on to power by manipulating the constitution are forced out through citizen power and not necessarily through elections and the barrel of the gun," said Kode.

Read more on:    un  |  abdoulaye wade  |  ban ki-moon  |  senegal  |  west africa  |  senegal protests

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