Middle East

Protest in Senegal Despite Ban in Some Areas

DAKAR, Senegal -- Senegal's opposition went ahead with a protest Saturday and thousands of demonstrators poured into a square after a last-minute change to the venue to skirt a ban on demonstrations issued by the Senegalese government.

They amassed at Place de l'Obelisque, just outside Dakar's downtown district, to demand the departure of 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade who is attempting to run for a third term.

The constitution only allows a president to serve for two terms, and Wade has angered the population of this normally stable country on Africa's western coast by insisting on an interpretation of the electoral code which would allow him to run again in 2012.

The protest marks the one-month anniversary of the massive June 23 demonstration which was the country's largest in recent memory and which emboldened the opposition, raising hopes that an Arab Spring-style democracy movement could spread south to sub-Saharan countries.

"If we want peace in this country, then the president who is in office and who has no right to be a candidate again, needs to avoid carrying out what could be considered a coup d'etat," said presidential candidate Ibrahima Fall, a former United Nations under-secretary on human rights.

A decree published earlier in the week by the Ministry of the Interior banned all demonstrations of a political nature in the major boulevards and in front of government buildings and monuments nearly all of which are located in the upscale Plateau district. Place de l'Obelisque was not mentioned in the decree, however, and so the demonstrators gathered there to call for Wade to step down.

"It's time for Wade to go," said a second presidential candidate Macky Sall, a top opposition leader. "Wade has run out of ammunition."

Senegal is a rare patch of democracy in a region besotted by coups. The nation of 12.6 million which is no larger than South Dakota has a history of choosing its leaders peacefully at the ballot box.

Wade came to power in 2000. His predecessor, former President Abdou Diouf, famously called Wade on the eve of the results to congratulate his opponent, an American-style concession that was unheard of on the continent and that was held up as proof of the maturity of Senegal's democracy.

In the 11 years since, the very people that helped elect Wade have become disenchanted by the increasing share of power he has given to his eldest child, by the garish display of wealth of his ministers and by his stubborn insistence on running for a third, extraconstitutional term.

Even on a continent where presidents are on average several decades older than their European or American counterparts, Wade's advancing age has also become a campaign issue. If he wins another seven-year term in next February's election, Wade will be in power past his 93rd birthday in a country where the life expectancy is 59.

His age raises the possibility of him dying in office, as happened recently in Togo and Gabon, where the death of the country's long-ruling dictator was followed by hastily organized elections in which their sons seized power.

The anger that spilled onto the street on June 23 was sparked by Wade's attempt to rush through a change to the constitution which would have created a vice presidential post. The opposition charged that the vice presidential post was being created so that Wade could run on a ticket with his unpopular son, and create a mechanism for his succession in the event of the father's death in office.