, DAKAR, Jan 26 – Senegal anxiously awaits a ruling Friday on whether President Abdoulaye Wade can seek a third term in office, with fears of violence rising as the opposition threatens to defy a protest ban.
Amnesty International warns in a new report that the nation is at a crossroads ahead of a tumultuous election period and the potential for violence high as the 85-year-old leader bids for a third shot as leader.
Some 20 presidential candidates, including Grammy-award winning singer Youssou Ndour, will have submitted their candidacies to the Constitutional Council for the February 26 presidential election by Thursday night.
Then, in what Amnesty calls “the first moment of truth” in the electoral period, the five-judge body which has the final say on constitutional matters will on Friday unveil the list of approved contenders.
The decision has set the nation on edge as it waits to hear if Wade’s controversial bid on a constitutional technicality will go through.
“Wade’s decision to seek another term is seen by his opponents and some influential civil society figures as a challenge to Senegal’s traditions of constitutional order; prominent local experts believe that a third term would breach the rules,” says Paul Melly, Associate Fellow of the Africa Programme at the London think-tank Chatham House.
“But there is a widespread expectation that the constitutional council will in fact give the green light.”
Wade was first elected in 2000 for a two-term mandate, and re-elected in 2007, but since the length of presidential terms was changed while he was in office he argues that he is able to run for another stint.
The constitutional row led to violent riots in June last year and clashes between rival parties in December which left one person dead.
Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom on Tuesday announced a five-day ban from Thursday on all protests to prevent any violence over the council decision and “preserve peace and serenity”.
“We don’t want any pressure on the members of the Constitutional Council and those taking part in the decision,” he said.
But the June 23 Movement (M23) comprising main opposition leaders and civil society groups, decried the move as a “violation of civil liberties” and called on the nation to join an “active resistance” against the ban.
“The minister’s ban on protests is null and void and of no effect,” the leaders said in a joint declaration.
Amnesty’s west Africa researcher Salvatore Sagues said: “In this tense pre-election period where lawful political debate should be held freely, the authorities’ decision to prohibit public gatherings is all the more worrying”.
“Senegal is at a crossroads and the potential for destabilisation is huge. It is crucial for the future of the country that February’s election is free of human rights violations.”
US deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, William Fitzgerald, said Monday that Wade’s bid to stay in office was “regrettable” and he should retire “to protect and support a good democratic transition in Senegal in calm and security”.
Senegal has long been seen as a good example of democracy in Africa, with previous leaders Leopold Sedar Senghor and Abdou Diouf peacefully handing over power, although both served several terms under a previous constitution.
Wade, a veteran opposition figure who dislodged the Socialist Party after 40 years of rule in 2000 elections on his fifth shot at the presidency, has grown increasingly unpopular as he attempts to cling to power.
While welcomed with hope and elation, his regime has battled criticism of corruption, nepotism and financial scandals, and he has been accused of trying to groom his son Karim Wade to fill his shoes.
Among the main contenders in February polls are three of Wade’s former prime ministers — Moustapha Niasse, Idrissa Seck and Macky Sall.
Also in the race is Ousmane Tanor Dieng, leader of the Socialist Party.
The most famous name in the running is Youssou Ndour, who has emerged a fierce critic of Wade and announced earlier this month he had given up music for politics.