2012-02-27 African Spring continues in Senegal

When Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade was booed by hundreds of voters as he cast his ballot Sunday in an election the controversial incumbent hopes will elect him to serve a third term in office, it capped more than a month of popular protests by opposition candidates and their supporters against what many have called a "constitutional coup" by supporters of the corrupt regime.

The protests, that began in late January, have seen at least 6 people killed in clashes between police and protesters. In Dakar, the capital of this westernmost African country of 12 million, the protests have centered on a green square in the heart of the downtown suburb of Plateau a few blocks away from the presidential palace and known as Independence Square. In recent weeks, many of these protests have turned into street battles on side streets as the protesters have attempted to defy a ban against protesting in the square. The protesters, and even people going about their ordinary business, have been subjected to volleys of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas from riot cops and in at least one case, sonic blasts from a US-made Long Range Acoustic Device. Yes, they are experimenting with the latest in crowd control technology in Africa, naturally. Angry youths have responded by throwing rocks and setting fires to tires and setting up barricades in the roads. These street battles would go on for hours and became widespread not only in Dakar but throughout Senegal.

A week ago, the police fired tear gas into a mosque belonging to the nation's largest Islamic brotherhood, the Tidianes, during Friday pray. This prompted fury among the faithful and a fresh wave of protests last Sunday.

"They violated the mosque by firing teargas into it, and we are here to tell them never again," said Soulaymane Diop, 33, as he watched protesters shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) and hurling chunks of concrete at police in full riot gear.

Senegal is 97% Muslim with a history of secular government and religious tolerance. Most Senegalese follow one of four Sufi brotherhoods. The Sunday protested resulted in another death when a man was hit by a rubber bullet while buying bread in a bakery in the suburb of Rufisque. He was an innocent bystander. A protester was killed in another protest 25 kilometers from the capital after he was hit in the head and authorities said a 21 yer-old tailor died in the city of Kaolack, about 190 kilometers southeast of Dakar from injuries he received in a protest.

"Look at these bullets here, they want to kill us, they do this on purpose. Abdoulaye Wade, that's enough, look at your bullets, your teargas, these kill if they touch you,"

cried another young protester at one protest as he held a rubber bullet in his hand.

Wade followed up that weekend with claims through spokesman Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye, that an unnamed candidate had appointed a retired army colonel to recruit a militia, made up of 200 ex-soldiers.

"Beyond these 200 soldiers recruited and led by the colonel, there are also youths being recruited in the neighborhoods and in the interior of the country," Mbacke said.

"Those who think that we don't know, let them understand that we have formally identified them. We know who's in charge of recruiting, how much they are paid per day, who is financing it," he said. "Those that are behind this plot are after one thing only - blood. That lots of blood be spilled in our country. The fundamental thing for them is that chaos installs itself in the country so that the nation becomes ungovernable."

Many think that Abdoulaye Wade's game plan is to prepare his son Karim Wade, who, at 43, already heads four ministries, to replace him in power. They think Wade is trying to setup a neo-monarchy similar to that accomplished by Assad in Syria and attempted by Ben Ali in Tunisia, Murabak in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya.

At 85 years old, Wade is running for a third seven year term even though the constitution limits the president to two terms. Angering many, Senegal's constitutional court has ruled that law doesn't apply to Wade because it came into effect after he became president. In fact, he introduced it, and that is not the only paradox in the way Wade is stubbornly clinking to power.

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo who is leading an African Union observer mission in Senegal, has called upon Wade to pull out of the race. Aware of the political climate in Senegal, Obasanjo said Feb 14, when he arrived "If necessary, my role will be more than that of a simple observer."

In 2007, after Obasanjo's supporters in Nigerian failed in their attempt to have the constitution amended so that he could stand for a third term, Wade said it was time for the Nigerian president to go. And although he had been a long time ally of Mummar Qaddafi, Wade that the first of the AU leaders to tell Qaddafi it was time to quit. But when its Wade's time to go, that's a different story.

The same court that ruled that Wade was eligible for a third term, also ruled that the leading opposition candidate, Youssou N'dour could not run because they questioned the authenticity of the signatures on his application form. It is not surprising that the opposition thinks the constitutional court is in Wade's pocket. Youssou N'dour has described the court's decisions as "a constitutional coup." Alfred Stepan and Etienne Smith write in the Times of Oman:

Wade has been tinkering with Senegal's constitution in dangerous ways ever since he was inaugurated in 2000. Of the 15 changes Wade made to the constitution, ten weakened democracy; the others were erratic, if not bizarre. For example, Wade at one point abolished Senegal's senate, only to reinstate it after realizing that it could be put to use as a place to reward political allies. Likewise, he reduced the length of presidential terms from seven years to five, but later restored it to seven.

In February 2007, Wade was re-elected as Senegal's president amid opposition charges that the election had not been free and fair. As a result, the opposition boycotted the June, 2007, parliamentary elections. That was a mistake, because the boycott gave Wade absolute control over the legislature, as well as the ability to appoint Constitutional Court judges unimpeded.

Last June, Wade attempted what would have amounted to a constitutional coup. The most recent credible opinion poll in Senegal, conducted the previous year, had indicated that Wade would receive only 27 per cent of the vote in the next presidential election. Given the existing constitution's provision for a mandatory run-off if no candidate wins 50 per cent, Wade would almost certainly lose if the opposition parties united behind a single candidate.

Wade, recognizing this, tried to have the National Assembly amend the Constitution in his favor once again. Any candidate who won a plurality and at least 25 per cent of the popular vote in the first round would win the presidency. No run-off would be necessary.

Thanks to massive demonstrations, in which many popular artists played a role, Wade backed off.

As this "constitutional coup" was widely denounced by the opposition which adopted the slogan "Wade dégage!" (Wade out!) - reminiscent of "Ben Ali, dégage!" in Tunisia a year ago, it cause some observers to raise the question "An African Spring in Senegal?" The opposition parties formed the June 23 Movement [M23] untied front, some Sufi religious leaders have asked for him to step down and governments of the United States and France also have called upon him to bow out, saying they would like to see a younger man take the job.

About 23,000 security personnel including the police and army voted in early balloting more than a week earlier and amiss many voter irregularities that have already come to light, it is widely feared that Wade is also rigging the election. 13 candidates are opposing Wade for the office and even with no leading opposition figure, Wade is unlikely to get a legitimate majority. His constitutional court had already ruled that the leading unity candidate, Youssou N'dour, ineligible, now there is a strong suspicions that Wade will rig the vote and the count so that he gets more than 50% in any case and doesn't face a run off. If this happens, the opposition vows to make the country ungovernable.

A long democratic history

The revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1848 bestowed two great benefits on Senegal, which was France's only significant colony in Africa at the time. The first was that slavery was abolished in all French colonies, including Senegal and the newly freed slaves automatically became French citizens. The second was that universal male suffrage was extended to all French citizens, including those newly freed slaves. Before the year 1848 came to a close, the people of Senegal took part in national elections and chose the first person of color ever to sit in the French Parliament. The further decree that the principal that any slave who reached French soil was freed also applied to Senegal made this tiny island of liberty a sanctuary for slaves from all over slave-holding West Africa, a kinda Canada of the African continent, if you will...

While the reality was never as good as the promise, slavery wasn't entirely eliminated from the interior until 1905 and runaway slaves were often returned, nevertheless, Senegal developed strong liberal democratic institutions. Elections have taken place regularly since Senegal became independent in 1960 and there has never been a coup.

France still maintains a permanent base in Senegal, Dakar, Senegal (23BIMa), with maybe 250 permanent personnel and rotating units coming from France. This base stems from a defense agreement Senegal signed while gaining its independence, today it is seen as a way for France to maintain a neo-colonial influence in Africa.

The World Capitalist Crisis Hits Senegal

Now, amiss rising food and fuel prices, and growing unemployment, especially for the youth, dissatisfaction has been rising with a regime that is widely seen as corrupt and self-serving, that is known for lavishing millions on grandiose projects leading to self-enrichment while letting the country's infrastructure rot, and that once boasted of its close ties to Mummar Qaddafi and his Libyan regime.

Probably the most famous Wade boondoggle is his $27 million dollar "African Renaissance" statue he commissioned just outside of Dakar. The 164ft statue is designed to be the centerpiece of a whole new tourist trap with new hotels and restaurants provided by Wade associates. Wade himself takes 35% of fees paid by tourists to see the statue and all merchandising profits and copyright because he considers it his "intellectual property." In a country with a 49% unemployment rate, the project didn't even go to a Senegalese company because Wade paid a North Korean firm, Mansudae Overseas Project Group, to build the statue. Christina Passariello wrote in the WSJ:

The African Renaissance is Mansudae's biggest work yet, measuring 164 feet high and crowning two barren hills in Dakar called "Les Mamelles" at the westernmost point of Africa. That makes it taller than either the Statue of Liberty (151 feet) or Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer (100 feet). The statue depicts a father holding a baby in his left arm. The man's right arm is around the waist of the baby's mother. The three are reaching out to the sky and out to the ocean.

"Its message is about Africa emerging from the darkness, from five centuries of slavery and two centuries of colonialism," says Mr. Wade.
In Senegal, however, the statue has been a beacon of discontent, sparking angry newspaper editorials and protests from religious leaders. The statue's sultry mother figure, dressed in a wisp of fabric that reveals part of a breast and a bare leg, has offended imams in this majority-Muslim country.

There was even a scandal about the land the statue was built on. Diplomatic cables [09DAKAR1069] leaked by WikiLeaks reveals it was built on state-owned land that had been given to a friend of Wade's, Mbackou Faye, who then sold a portion of it back to the government at an enormous profit. According to the cables, Faye is planning to build 270 luxury homes on the remaining portion.

Wade and Qaddafi, Senegal and Libya

Not long after Abdoulaye Wade's monster statue was finished in 2010, he received an email from Mummar Qaddafi asking how he could get one. Wade and Qaddafi had a long history together. Wade was a big supporter of Mummar Qaddafi's concept of a United States of Africa.

At a three day African Union meeting in Accra in 2007 both Libya and Senegal failed in a joint push to immediately establish a continental government. Pascal Fletcher in Reuters wrote:

Libya's flamboyant leader Muammar Gaddafi and octogenarian Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who like to cast themselves as crusaders of African unity, both lobbied noisily for the immediate proclamation of a government for Africa.

But many states, including the continent's economic and political powerhouse South Africa, preferred a more cautious approach which sought to first strengthen regional economic communities before advancing to the political union goal.

In 2001, there was a scandal that saw Senegal recall its ambassador to Tripoli following an alleged attempt to smuggle 100 young women to Libya. The 100 so-called "models" were apprehended attempting to board a charter plane at Dakar airport. The allegation was that they were really prostitutes going to Libya to entertain at celebrations to mark the 32nd anniversary of the coup that put Gaddafi in power.

Before that, Qaddafi's Libya had trained many Senegalese rebels. One of the most important was Ibrahim Bah. His story tells us much about how Qaddafi was able to use his control of Libya's oil billions to influence events in Africa and around the world.

After fighting with the Casamance separatist movement in Senegal in 1970's, Bah trained in Libya under the protection of Mummar Qaddafi. In the early 1980s he spent several years fighting alongside Muslim guerrillas against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, then he joined the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia to fight Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, returning to Libya at the end of the 1980s to train others who would go on to lead rebellions in West Africa, including Charles Taylor of Liberia and Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone, founder of RUF. Bah himself later fought in both of these countries. More recently he is said to be the king maker in the West African blood diamond trade.

Part of the social displacement being felt by Senegal now is caused by the return of newly displaced Senegalese immigrate workers and mercenaries from Libya. Wades story about a mysterious "colonel" putting together a militia of 200 ex-soldiers was, no doubt, designed to play on the fears created by this situation.

Wade may have been good buddies with Qaddafi in the AU and in other areas as well but once the saw he way the chips were going to fall, he wasted no time in jetisoning him. Under Wade's direction, Senegal recognized the National Transitional Council as the legitimate opposition that should be supported in May of 2011 when the African Union was only calling for a ceasefire. The next month violent protests were breaking in Senegal over his attempts to create a vice-president's post because people feared it was part of a scheme to put his son in power. Wade wasn't too concerned. He was in Benghazi meeting with NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and publicly urging Qaddafi to quit, saying "the sooner you leave the better." Now those are words he doesn't want to hear said to him.

"Its time for Wade to go."

While the various western governments may be trying to distant themselves from Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade now that he is faced with rising opposition to his rule, he has been able to maintain his position because he has been very useful to them. The changes he made to the constitution to increase his power and ensure his rule were accepted by them because they also further opened up the country to foreign investment. Similar in many ways, to the situation in Ben Ali's Tunisia or Mubarak's Egypt, this exploitation by world imperialism has not benefited the people as a whole but it has given rise to an internal business class that has benefited and is therefore willing to defend the regime and the status quo.

Toby Leon Moorsom, an editor of Nokoko Journal of African studies, elaborates:

Wade's primary skill seems to have been signing cheques to foreign companies. By far the most significant achievement for Wade has been opening up mineral exploitation in the country's Toumbacounda region, facilitated by a $527m project to build the largest port in West Africa.

The port is being built in a public-private initiative with DP World - an affiliate of the Dubai World Group, a company that also took on an $800m deal to build and run a special economic zone, based upon the Jebel Ali free-trade zone in Dubai. The port facilitates the extraction of gold by a Canadian and Saudi company, Oromin Venture Group, and two other Canadian companies; Sabodala Mining and Lamgold Group. They are joined by Jersey-based Randgold, and the multi-national Arcelor Mittal. Numerous other valuable metals are found in the area, such as copper, chromium, lithium and uranium. The quantities seem to be less significant than the rare properties they offer for blending in new metal composites.

These minerals will make their way to port via massive road rehabilitation and construction projects, which have been doled out to companies such as Swiss-based SGS Industrial, and China's Henan Industrial Cooperation Group and APIX, the government investment agency. Many Senegalese find it painfully insulting that, after 50 years of independence, they still cannot even build their own roads.

Under pressure from the World Bank, Senegal has also been involved in the protracted process of privatising its water services, with an early electricity privatisation that initially involved Hydro-Quebec and later Vivendi, among others. Vivendi is the company so loathed in South Africa for its pre-paid meter system. These privatisation processes lead to rising household bills for working people whose wages have been stagnant.

These conditions have led to the development of a protest movement with some surprising strengths. Not only has it been strong in Dakar, it has gained a lot of support in smaller towns throughout the country. 77% of the labor force still works in agriculture in Senegal.

A growing strike movement

There has also been a arising tide of labor struggles in Senegal since Ben Ali lost power in Tunisia and these have become more political. For example, recently there was a three day work stoppage by taxi and transport workers with near 100% participation to protest the rise in fuel prices, police harassment and bribery.

Before that, the union at the national broadcast company carried out a demonstration and brief labor disruption to protest the misuse of the company as a Wade propaganda machine in violation of journalistic ethics. The workers at Fox News could learn something from these Africans.

For the past three months there has also been a nationally coordinated strike of college and university professors that face growing class sizes but can't even afford decent housing.

In spite of these and other growing facets of the people's struggles, the leadership of M23 has been unable to really forge them into a unified struggle, provide the analysis to show how they are all connected, or provide a viable alternative. This is because most of these opposition candidates are themselves opportunists that have not stood on any principal and have been in and out of Wade's PDS party as the political climate suited them. They tend to limit their complaint to the whine "Wade's too old."

More recently a new group Y'en a Marre ["Had enough"] has emerged as an alternative to M23. Moorsom writes:

Y'en a Marre members reveal a greater interest in popular education and grassroots action, but are highly marginal in society and as a result face heavy police repression. They draw inspiration from a long history of non-violent anti-colonial resistance - especially as it existed among the Mauride Brotherhood - but they haven't been able to extend it beyond symbolic gestures into actions that actually obstruct the economy or galvanize large crowds prepared for police violence.

So the mass opposition to the current regime has been growing but the organization and leadership of those masses is still badly limited.

Even in the early days of the Arab Spring, some of us, i know we had these discussions around WL Central, look forward to the spreading of that movement from North Africa south. We especially thought that the fall of Qaddafi in Libya would lead to dynamic and revolutionary change throughout the continent, such was the retarding effects of his meddling and control. Steven Cockburn raised similar questions in a blog he wrote over a year ago, on February 23, 2011 and titled Tunisia, Egypt, Libya...Senegal?

It's a question on people's lips, consuming many a column inch here. Could the dramatic scenes witnessed in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli be played out in Dakar, Abidjan or Harare? Could the revolutions engulfing countries north of the Sahara spread their way south ?

So stay tuned to developing news from Senegal!

UPDATE: Tue Feb 28, 2012 at 12:46 PM PT: As of this hour there has yet to be an official announcement of the results of Sunday's presidential election but early results give Wade about 32% of the votes, meaning he should definitely face a runoff election. If the opposition unites around Macky Sall, who looks to come in second with 25% of the vote, Wade will not survive the runoff. As we await the official result, EU observers are questioning why the government is not publishing real-time results from the polls.

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