Why is Senegal -- an African success story -- becoming unstable?

 

People in Dakar, Senegal, demonstrate against President Abdoulaye Wade


This story has been updated. See the note below for details.

 

Senegal has been regarded as a rare success story in West Africa, a stable democracy that has never had a military coup. But it looked a lot less stable on Monday when paramilitaries opened fire on protesters.

What is behind the unrest in Senegal?

The trouble swirls around President Abdoulaye Wade, who has been criticized for increasing presidential power since he was elected. Roughly two-thirds of Senegalese senators are now chosen by the president, and he successfully pushed to extend presidential terms to seven years. He also tried to make it possible to win the presidency outright with just 25% of the vote.

His opponents see him as erratic and wasteful, pointing to pet projects like a hulking Soviet-style bronze statue called the Monument to the African Renaissance, which cost $27 million. Wade once said he had never made a mistake in a decade in power.

Many are fearful that he is grooming his son Karim as a successor. When Wade tried to create the position of vice president, a job that critics believed was a stepping stone for his son, protests erupted and he backed down.

What triggered this round of protests?

The elderly president has been in office since 2000 and has set his sights on a third term in 2012, even though the constitution limits presidents to two terms. Wade argues that he is exempt from the rule because he was elected before the term limits were put into force. Last week, a constitutional court ruled in his favor.

Protests erupted across the country, spearheaded by young people.

“They’re not going to put up with Wade sticking around in office,” said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Whether he wins fair or unfair, there are going to be large protests.… This election will be decided on the streets.”

Senegalese police say an officer was hit in the head by a brick and killed during riots Friday. A Senegalese journalist told the Associated Press that after police ran out of tear gas Monday and couldn’t get protesters to disperse, they turned to bullets. The gunfire reportedly killed a high school student and a woman in her 60s.

What happens now?

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said Monday that Wade's bid for reelection threatened Senegal's political stability. Amnesty International condemned the violence and the detention of a Wade opponent.

The violence could also put international aid at risk. Two and a half years ago, the country was awarded $540 million over five years to reduce poverty from the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. foreign aid agency that requires grantees to “demonstrate a commitment to just and democratic governance.” The MCC was not immediately available for comment Monday afternoon. [Updated 1:21 p.m. Feb. 2: An MCC official stated that the agency is closely monitoring the events in Senegal in coordination with the U.S. embassy in Dakar.]

Downie said the military is another wild card. “Will they come out in defense of the constitution and prevent Wade from remaining in power?” he asked.

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-- Emily Alpert

Photo: People demonstrate in Dakar, Senegal, against President Abdoulaye Wade seeking a third term. Credit: Seyllou/Agence France-Presse

 
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