, DAKAR, Feb 3 – Riot police deployed in downtown Dakar on Friday as the opposition planned a prayer meeting near the presidency, after days of unrest sparked by President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid for a third term in office.
Armed with anti-riot gear, groups of police gathered on corners near the Blanchot Mosque as the town was choked with traffic ahead of Friday prayers. The presidential palace a few streets away was also under guard.
Local newspapers warned the prayer could spark further unrest as tensions remain high over the octogenarian leader’s candidacy in February 26 elections, despite already having served two terms in office.
The anti-Wade June 23 Movement (M23) called the prayer meeting for those killed during protests in recent days which have seen angry youths clash with police and demand to march on the presidential palace.
One of M23’s leaders Cheikh Tidiane Dieye said the movement’s resistance to Wade’s candidacy must remain peaceful.
“We don’t encourage anyone to march on the palace, we will not do that,” he told journalists on Thursday night.
Recent unrest was sparked by a constitutional court decision a week ago allowing Wade to run in the elections. A policeman, a teenager, a 60-year-old woman and a student have died as protests descended into riots.
Senegal has a two-term limit enshrined in its constitution but Wade argues that he should still be able to run as the restriction was only introduced during his time in office.
The West has distanced itself from its erstwhile ally amid rising violence in what has long been one of Africa’s most stable nations.
But the under-fire president on Thursday underscored that “Senegal has a long tradition of elections… and peace has prevailed despite tensions noted by others.
“This situation, given that Senegal is approaching elections, is normal,” he said, promising a “free and transparent” vote.
With no legal recourse left for the opposition, they have vowed to force Wade to withdraw his candidacy with pressure from the street.
The government has brushed off opposition threats of mass resistance, saying the turnout — around 10,000, witnesses say — showed a lack of support.
“A breeze is a light wind which rustles the leaves of a tree, but never becomes a hurricane,” Wade said Wednesday during a ceremony in Dakar.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on Wednesday said the country “wished a generational change could be organised,” in the first sign the former colonial master would prefer that Wade steps down.
Following riots in June last year, Juppe warned that Wade’s insistence on seeking a third term could “produce the same effects” as seen in Libya, where leader Moamer Kadhafi was overthrown in a popular uprising.
Paris echoed earlier calls from Washington which urged Wade, in office since 2000, to allow power to pass “to the next generation.”
Senegal’s Foreign Minister Madicke Niang told journalists that while Senegal was open to advice, it would not “take lessons in democracy from anyone.”
“The election will not take place… in the United States, nor France, nor anywhere else,” he said.