Senegal Gripped by Pre-Election Violence

Since the Senegalese constitutional council validated President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid to run for a third term – despite statutory term limits – the country has been in political upheaval. Disappointed and angry with Wade’s attempt to undermine Senegal’s long standing democratic tradition, protesters have been taking to the streets for weeks, facing violent repression from the police. According to Reuters, at least six people have already lost their lives. As election day approaches, tensions are rising.

Yesterday, international music star Youssou N’Dour – who attempted to run in the election, only to be barred by the constitutional council – was hurt in a pro-democracy protest in the capital, Dakar. N’Dour has been a vocal critic of the incumbent, and has been calling on Senegalese of all political stripes to unite to stop Wade from gaining a third term. In a previous post on Senegal, we wrote about how the opposition to Wade comes from a popular, grassroots groundswell. The official political opposition is but one of the forces at work here – with no clear candidate to unite this disparate movement, the result of the upcoming vote will depend largely on whether young people will cast a ballot. In spite of his popularity and fame, Mr. N’Dour’s political mobilization represents only one facet of what is happening in Senegal.

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo arrived today in the Senegalese capital, representing a joint African Union/ECOWAS mission to help mediate between the various opposition movements. (Obasanjo was a two term president himself, and, like Wade, sought a third term, though his plans were foiled by the Nigerian parliament who never ratified his proposal to extend constitutional limits.) Typically, these diplomatic missions only have limited effectiveness, particularly as Obasanjo’s mandate is primarily as an election observer. The build up of tensions that has taken place in Senegal over the course of the last year or so – ever since it has become increasingly clear that Wade was planning on seeking a third term – will be difficult to diffuse ahead of the Sunday election.

As Senegalese head to the polls later this week for the first round of the election, observers will keep an eye out for voter intimidation and other tactics to manipulate the vote. While people are fired up and ready to exercise their democratic right to vote, the potential for violence may keep voters away from the ballot box. If Wade wins with more than 50% of the vote on Sunday (unlikely, given what we are witnessing in the streets), the election doesn’t need to go to a second round, though opposition forces will likely want to challenge that result. If there is no majority winner in the first round, we’ll watch closely what happens between the two rounds. One of the key things to watch for is whether the opposition will be able to unite behind a strong candidate able to defeat Wade. For now, however, all eyes are on Sunday, a critical day in the history of Senegalese democracy.