DAKAR, Senegal – DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — You would be forgiven for thinking that the launch of this country's newest TV station was an event backed by Senegal's government.
The prime minister arrived in a cortege of cars, their sirens blaring. So did numerous other ministers, flanked by bodyguards. They all made their way to the front of a stage where under the purple spotlights they warmly embraced the station's owner, pop star Youssou Ndour.
But Senegal's ruling party has forbidden Ndour from doing newscasts on his channel, and his license allowing him to do "cultural programming" was only granted after a two-year stalemate. A petition protesting the delay was signed by 2 million of his countrymen, nearly one-fifth of the population.
"The people in power are afraid of him," says Dame Seck, a 39-year-old vendor of African cloth in the Sandaga market where the pop star's CDs are big sellers. "He is the voice of the people and the regime fears that he could use his TV to topple them."
Outside Senegal, the 50-year-old chart-topping artist is best known for his grooving beat and his emotive voice which won him a Grammy and such a following that he sold out the 17,000-seat Bercy stadium in Paris. His music is constantly pulsing out of boomboxes here, but Ndour is also known in his own country for his scathing critique of the ruling party.
He already owns a private radio station that holds regular debates featuring government critics and has a newspaper that routinely highlights corruption allegations involving the country's ruling elite, including the family of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. He recently interrupted his own concert in the Dakar nightclub he owns to unleash a tirade against the country's leadership whom he called "completely inept."
Political analyst Babacar Justin Ndiaye notes that TV has immense power to influence.
"Via television you can touch the maximum number of people," he said. "You can manipulate public opinion. So the state always wants to maintain a monopoly on that."
But the government may fear not just Ndour's influence on public opinion. It may also be worried about the prospect of him becoming a political rival.
"I am a politician ... I affirm it. It's my civic duty to awaken the conscience of people," Ndour told The Associated Press this week as he relaxed in black jeans and leather sneakers in a conference room at his new station. "I am a musician first, but I am interested in what is going on. And let me be clear, and say it again: Starting now, I am taking an active interest in the politics of my country."
The singer says he invested $3 million of his own money to build the TV studio, but the project stalled in 2008 when the government refused to authorize a license. They accused him of financing the station through money given to him by a foreign donor, which would be illegal in Senegal.
"During these two years, they made me lose a lot of money. The studio was already built. I had ordered all the equipment. I had hired my employees. I think their intention was to bleed me, to weaken me by bleeding me financially,"
He says the impasse dragged on even though he produced proof that the money was from his royalties, including his 1994 hit "7 Seconds" with Neneh Cherry which was named Europe's Song of the Year and sold 2 million copies.
The government eventually yielded, but the license issued earlier this year is limited to cultural programming and forbids the station from doing newscasts. Television Futurs Medias — or TFM — finally went on the air last week but only in the capital and its immediate suburbs. A request to broadcast to the rest of the country has so far been denied.
Yet despite all this, the men at the heart of the country's power apparatus flocked to the launch last week, their limousines jostling for parking space on a sandy alley leading to the studio. Soon sirens announcing the arrival of Prime Minister Souleymane Ndiaye could be heard above the microphone of the presenter.
His bodyguards made a tunnel through the crowd, allowing the wide-girthed prime minister to make his way to the stage where he took Ndour in his arms. They touched their heads temple-to-temple, a traditional greeting. Later Ndiaye took the microphone to say that the hold-up was "a big misunderstanding."
"It was not the intention of the president to block the TV station," the prime minister's spokesman Doudou-Sarr Niang told AP. "But it's true that in general television is something to be feared. It's a medium that is extremely powerful."
Political analysts say the hold-up is indicative of the recent wave of censorship and authoritarianism in the country of 10.7 million which was previously seen as a model of democracy.
Local bookstores, for example, don't carry books critical of Wade because doing so is likely to prompt tax authorities to suddenly "remember" to deliver a bill for backdated taxes, says former Minister of Culture Penda Mbow, a historian at Dakar's Cheikh Anta Diop University and president of a citizen's movement calling for political change.
Critics accuse the 84-year-old Wade of trying to position his son to seize power if he dies in office.
Near Ndour's station is the headquarters of Sopi FM, a soon-to-be launched radio station owned by the ruling Senegalese Democratic Party. The station says it plans to broadcast news but many people believe its purpose is to spread pro-Wade propaganda ahead of the country's next election, to be held in 2012.
Although his station is not allowed to do newscasts, Ndour says there is a gaping loophole in the government's regulatory language.
"I think that the people that didn't want this TV station to exist had thought they could restrict it to a channel limited to musically themed programs," Ndour said. "Luckily for us, they didn't choose the right word. The word 'culture' means everything."
He made that clear on the cool summer evening last week when he took the microphone in front of the dozens of ministers, presidential advisers and palace whisperers at the launch.
"(Senegal's first President) Leopold Sedar Senghor said, 'Culture is the beginning and the end of everything,'" he told them. "So I invite you to reflect on this: Where is the start and where is the end of culture? The floor is open for debate."
Bathed in purple light, the man that is arguably the continent's most famous musician then enveloped the crowd in a beautiful melody. The song is dedicated to the new station and starts with the lyrics: "TFM — you belong to all of Senegal."