Youth discontent drives vote to oust Senegal's president

Despite President Wade's achievements in fixing infrastructure, high unemployment and rising prices spur frustration among Senegal's youthful majority. 

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Voters wait in line to cast their votes outside tents erected to serve as polling stations, in the Guediawaye neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal, Sunday.

Young Senegalese celebrated the decision by President Aboulaye Wade to peacefully concede defeat Sunday night in the country's presidential elections. 

Thousands gathered outside the campaign headquarters of the victorious candidate Macky Sall, dancing to the hip-hop opposition anthem "Gorgui, Na Dem" – which means "old man, step down" in Wolof, the predominant local language. Mr. Wade is 85 to Mr. Sall's 50. The crowd, meanwhile, was mostly young, reflecting a nation where 75 percent of the population is under 35. 

"Today, we are proud to be Senegalese," says 18-year-old Alpha Ba. "We, the young people, want to work and reduce the high cost of living for our mothers and all of Senegal."

Mr. Ba strikes a common chord. Along with Wade's age and his violation of a two-term limit, the steadily-rising cost of living in Senegal was the primary grievance of a youthful opposition movement that says Wade's priorities were out of touch with the population. While the president said he needed three more years to finish his grand infrastructure projects, Sall ran on a populist promise to reduce the cost of basic goods like rice, utilities, and gas. With youth unemployment at around 50 percent, that stuck a chord with the electorate.

Yet Wade's supporters are quick to point out his achievements. 

"He is the father of Senegal. He built everything here," said Mamy Seck, one of the president's many supporters who gathered at the polling place where he voted in Dakar – and where he was booed by his fellow voters during the first round. 

Even his critics will concede that he has improved Senegal's infrastructure. During his 12 years in office, the economy has grown at a rate of about 4 percent per year and nearly every economic indicator has risen. But that wealth has failed to reach the bulk of the population, who instead see state funds diverted to vanity projects like the 164 foot, $27 million African Renaissance Statue in Dakar. Many who supported him in 2000 and 2007 no longer see the populist champion they voted for.

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo remembers that figure, who came to Nigeria in 2007 to talk him out of seeking a prohibited third term. Obasanjo led the African Union electoral observation mission in Senegal and expressed confidence on Sunday that it is the same man.

"I believe that Wade is a democrat," said Obasanjo. "Not only a democrat, but a gentleman."

If all goes smoothly between now and Sall's April 1 inauguration, Senegal will see the third peaceful transition of power to its fourth president. He has promised to respect the term limit and revert term duration from seven years back to five. Many Senegalese voters hope Sall won't succumb to the same trappings of power as his former mentor.

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