Wade hits campaign trail in Senegal despite protests

Senegal leader Abdoulaye Wade, facing a storm of criticism over his third-term presidential bid, rallied voters in the city of Thies on Wednesday evening after days of opposition protests.

About 5 000 supporters gathered in a square of the city 70km east of Dakar for the 85-year-old’s second big meeting since the election campaign kicked off on Sunday on the back of riots over his candidacy.

Wearing a blue and gold flowing boubou, reflecting party colours, Wade promised to “eliminate poverty in Senegal” and give greater social security for those aged over 60. Banners demanding a first round win decked the square.

Thies is one of the country’s main cities which fell to the opposition in 2009 local elections, and its mayor is presidential candidate Idrissa Seck, Wade’s former prime minister and presumed successor before the two fell out.

Promising to strike a “deal” with voters, Wade said if he won back the city, he would bring greater infrastructure development and high speed rail services.

Blaring campaign music praised the president for what he calls his “Grand Projects”, such as the construction of many new roads including a recently opened toll highway, universities and health centres, and a still incomplete new international airport.

Chief among these “wonders” as proclaimed in one song is the African Renaissance monument, a North Korean-built bronze behemoth costing €15-million ($20-million).

‘The right president for us’
While critics say his eye for infrastructural grandeur has left the people behind, his development projects are cited by most supporters as their reason for their ardent backing.

“He is the right president for us. He has done many projects, we are very happy,” said 51-year-old marabout, or Muslim religious leader, Mamadou Sane.

Law student Fatime Diouf (26) agreed: “Since his election he has done a lot of work, we see Senegal developing.
We support his third mandate.”

This mandate, seen as unconstitutional by the opposition, has sparked fury in the West African nation seen as one of the continent’s democratic success stories.

An opposition movement on Wednesday called for fresh protests over the weekend. Protests since Wade’s candidacy was confirmed by the highest court on January 27 have descended into riots, leaving four dead.

As Wade’s blue-light convoy left Thies, a handful of people, mostly youths, lobbed rocks at his convoy, setting a tyre and Wade T-Shirts alight in the middle of the road.

“We are throwing stones at them to show our anger,” said electrician Julien Gomis.

‘Pie in the sky’
Those opposing Wade are fatigued by corruption, electricity cuts, rising fuel and food prices while the president focuses on legacy construction projects using what a US diplomatic cable published on Wikileaks refers to as “pie in the sky” rhetoric.

A stone’s throw away from Wednesday’s rally, Augustine Gomis, 53 railed against the cost of living, increased price of sugar, bread and rice and access to health care. “We are tired, tired,” she said.

Wade, however, remains certain of a first round victory on February 26, brushing aside opposition concerns and criticism from abroad.

He will face 13 other candidates in an open race with no clear opposition favourite, and a split vote could hurt their bid to oust Wade from office.

Wade was first elected in 2000, an outcome met with elation as he took over from Abdou Diouf and the Socialist Party after 25 years as opposition leader.

The peaceful transition was welcomed as a beacon of democracy in a troubled region. This was fortified as Wade a year later introduced two term limits into the country’s Constitution for the first time to strengthen its democracy.

However term lengths were amended in 2008, and the octogenarian now says this entitles him to two seven year terms from 2012.

The opposition has vowed to pressure him to withdraw his candidacy and Washington and Paris have both criticised his run for re-election.

On Tuesday US Ambassador Lewis Lukens was summoned to a meeting with the foreign minister. While the details were not divulged, it came after he gave a critical interview to local journalists.

Echoing earlier statements made by Washington, Lukens said it was “regrettable that Wade has chosen to compromise the elections, to put the security of his country in peril by insisting on seeking a third mandate.”—AFP

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