In Senegal, president's protegee is now his biggest threat

As Senegal's President Wade awaits a verdict from the constitutional council on whether he can run for a third term, his former protegee is gaining support for his own presidential candidacy.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Senegalese rappers and other members of opposition group "Y en a marre" (Enough is Enough) march during a rally demanding that Senegalese leader Abdoulaye Wade renounce his bid for a third presidential term, at Place de l'Obelisque in Dakar, Senegal, Saturday on July 23.

Idrissa Seck will likely be a major contender in Senegal’s 2012 elections. As the political standing of incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade weakens – due to widespread discontent with economic stagnation, electricity shortages, and Wade’s recent moves to ease the path to his own re-election – the Senegalese press is increasingly discussing Seck as a potential successor.

Seck, 51, was born a few months after Senegal’s independence.* He is younger not only than the octogenarian Wade, but also than other major contenders from the 2007 presidential elections, in which Seck placed a distant second (he scored 15 percent to Wade’s 56 percent). Seck is a former protegee of Wade, and served as prime minister from 2002-04, during Wade’s first term. At this time he was widely seen as a likely successor to Wade. He served a term as mayor of Thies, a large city near Dakar, starting in 2002, but fell out with Wade in 2004 and was imprisoned for seven months in 2005-06. After running in the 2007 elections, he was re-elected as mayor of Thies in 2009, a post he still holds. At several points since 2007, reconciliations have been announced between Wade and Seck, but it is unclear what this means in practice.

Now, as Wade awaits a decision from the Constitutional Council on his eligibility to run for a third term, some are speculating that Seck could be the next president of Senegal. Rumors are circulating that if the Council invalidates Wade’s candidacy, high-ups within the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party (Parti Démocratique Sénégalais, or PDS) would back Seck as their candidate. Seck, for his part, has apparently reached out to an influential Muslim leader** who backed Wade in the last cycle. Every indication says that Seck will run.

I’ve argued before that the Senegalese opposition is weak and divided. That’s what helped Wade score so highly in 2007, and what prevented any of his rivals from breaking 15 percent. A lot has changed in Senegalese politics in the past six months, however. Seck might not be the dream candidate of the youth who protest in the streets for change, but he seems to be enjoying serious attention from the political class and the press right now. Much could happen between now and the elections, scheduled for February 2012, but at the moment Seck looks like he is gaining momentum.

*Some sources, however, give Seck’s year of birth as 1959, not 1960.

**This sheikh, Bethio Thioune, is not as influential as he claims (he says he can sway 4-5 million votes, which is over 40 percent of the Senegalese population), but he is well-known, has a significant following, and is courted by politicians. The fact that Seck has approached him, and that Thioune was somewhat receptive to that approach, may say something about cracks in Wade’s base of support.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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