Senegal's president chips away at country's democratic record

President Abdoulaye Wade's attempt to alter the Constitution highlights Senegal's decline as a model of democracy in West Africa.

Gianluigi Guercia/AFP Photo/Newscom
This file photo, taken on June 9, shows Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade during a joint press conference with Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council, following a meeting in the eastern city of Benghazi.

About 1,000 demonstrators on Thursday braved tear gas and rubber bullets, burned cars and buildings, and egged on riot police outside the National Assembly as Senegal's ruling party attempted to amend the Constitution to all but guarantee the incumbent president's reelection.

The intensity of the opposition to the amendment forced the party to give up its efforts. But today, amid efforts to restore a sense of calm in Dakar, West Africa's oldest and most stable democracy appears to be faltering.

President Wade attempted to lower the threshold for winning first-round voting (from 50 percent to 25 percent) in a "provocative step," according to Eurasia Group Africa Department Director Philippe de Pontet, "to ensure a unilateral win in national elections."

Senegal is the only nation on this half of the continent that hasn't suffered a coup, which has brought praise and aid from Western donors. The US signed a $540 million Millennium Challenge Account project with the country, and former President George W. Bush met twice with Wade during his presidency.

But four years of constitutional changes and perceived power grabs by its increasingly unpopular president have chipped away at Senegal's reputation.

Wade's tight grip on power

Since 2007, Wade has handed his son four ministries, giving him control of half of Senegal's budget and built a $27 million Statue-of-Liberty-sized monument of a woman being whisked out of a volcano.

His next project, "The Seven Wonders of Dakar," includes a building shaped like a local banjo and an architecture school shaped like a blade of grass. Protestors, diplomats, and bondholders wish he would build a power plant shaped like a power plant; Dakar's outages are increasingly horrendous, sometimes lasting 36 tedious hours.

Wade's bid for a third seven-year term is viewed as irresponsible. "Over the last three or four years, some of Senegal's shine has come off," Mr. de Pontet said. "There's been rising concern already about the tendency towards autocratic rule and the excessive centralization of power in the presidency. It's no longer the donor darling."

US clout still holds

A single sentence of criticism of Wade's now-defunct proposal uttered by the US ambassador to Dakar ran on the front pages of several opposition papers, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's perhaps intentional failure to mention Senegal when she rattled off a list of Africa's democracies during a trip to Ethiopia.

Even Communications Minister Moustapha Guirassy, defending the amendment Wednesday night in a heated question-and-answer session, invoked the United States' 17th amendment, which changed the process of electing US senators. He cited the American amendment process as proof that a country can make changes to its political system.

"The domestic backlash was entirely likely and foreseeable," said de Pontet. "The real wonder is what the Wade administration was thinking in the first place."

Youth influence

Yesterday's demonstrations were largely carried out by Senegal's youth – fitting, considering that 59 percent of the population hasn't reached the age of 20.

Here rappers have played an increasingly critical role organizing opposition to perceived autocratic moves by Wade, signs are that the under-20 set has emerged as system of checks and balances, albeit a rowdy one, in a country where the president's party controls the legislature.

"We're a republic, our elections must be democratic," says Modou Fall, an unemployed man downtown. "Wade is trying to maintain himself in a position of power, and that is what the Senegalese will never accept."

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