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Will 2012 be the Year of the African Despot, again?

Senegal's Wade plans to run for president, despite a constitutional ban. Zimbabwe's Mugabe is banning NGOs ahead of presidential polls in 2013. 

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / February 17, 2012

Riot police stand guard next to a campaign poster for incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade during antigovernment protests in Senegal's capital Dakar, Wednesday.

Joe Penney/Reuters

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Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade is running for a third term, even though his country’s constitution specifically bans it. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has also indicated he will extend his 32 years in power, even as his parliament is attempting to ban the move. Congo’s President Joseph Kabila is trying to patch together a coalition to stay in power, even though his party lost more than 40 percent of its seats in parliament in last December’s elections.

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Could 2012 prove to be the Year of the African Despot, again?

The signs are ominous. While democracy appears to thrive in a few African countries – such as Liberia, South Africa, Ghana – irregularities, vote-rigging, and intimidation appear to be the rule in much of the continent. Zimbabwe’s long-ruling President Mugabe is hardly a surprise, of course, but in countries such as Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where peaceful opposition groups rose to power under a banner of reform, any sign of backsliding is a cause for concern.

Senegal's hope

Consider Senegal. Just 12 years ago, President Wade – a longtime opposition leader – rode to power after defeating long-ruling Abdou Diouf and promised to reform the Senegalese political system. He saw through a constitution in 2002 that banned presidents from holding office for more than two terms.

And then in late 2011, after serving two terms, he announced he would run again this year. Opposition lawyers argue that the country’s 2002 Constitution specifically bans presidents from running for more than two terms, but the court ruled that Wade has only served in one seven-year term since that constitution came into effect.

On Wednesday, riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters in the nation’s capital of Dakar, and three opposition supporters were killed in a separate clash between ruling party and opposition supporters in the southern Senegalese village of Berkel.

Music star Youssou N’Dour, who was disallowed from running for president for insufficient signatures on a petition, told opposition activists at a rally that “Senegal needs to free itself, to rediscover its democracy ... We are allowing a dictatorship to set in here." 

Congo crash

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, expected talks between the ruling party of President Kabila and opposition groups may have been put on hold following the death this weekend of Mr. Kabila’s main negotiator, Augustin Katumba Mwenge, in a Feb. 12 plane crash.

Congo’s independent election commission announced Kabila as the winner of last November’s elections, even though widespread irregularities and poor organization caused many international observer groups to declare the results inconclusive. More than 24 people were killed in protests in the election aftermath, and one opposition candidate, Etienne Tshisekedi, declared himself president even before the vote count was finalized. (Correction, he declared himself president before the votes were cast.)

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