Out With the Old, Senegal Youth Urge Voters by Drew Hinshaw, Wall Street Journal

Saturday, February 18th, 2012   |   Harvard and Africa News   |  



Led by rappers, youth call Thursday for the exit of Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade. Riot police have dispersed protesters with tear gas.

DAKAR, Senegal-Opposition leaders across Africa cheered this country’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, when he became the first West African to defeat a sitting president in 2000 and swiftly changed the country’s constitution to limit the presidency to two terms.

But the accolades have soured ahead of Senegal’s presidential election on Feb. 26, when the 85-year-old Mr. Wade, once seen as a torchbearer for Africa’s democrats, will himself seek a third term.

Mr. Wade’s perceived bending of his own rules has uncorked anger, helping to turn Africa’s third-longest-running democracy into a stage for near-daily skirmishes between police and youth protesters, many too young to recall Mr. Wade as the human-rights lawyer who for 27 years led Senegal’s opposition.

On Friday in Dakar’s chic commercial district, small groups of young men screamed for their president to leave office, marching with crossed arms into phalanxes of police who lobbed tear-gas grenades. Smoke wafted into cafes and travel agencies. Lebanese businessmen closed their boutiques and street vendors ambled home.



Associated Press

Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade

The strains between Senegal’s massive youth population and its aged leader bodes ill for African democracies struggling to be more like this former French colony, a robust republic whose citizens could vote as early as 1848 and that has never experienced a coup or civil war.

From Burkina Faso in the west to Uganda in the east, Africa’s onetime democrats are aging through their second, third-or in the case of Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, fourth-decade in power. Their continent, meanwhile, has become the world’s youngest. In 42 of Africa’s 54 countries, the median age is 20 or less.

In Senegal, fully half of the population is under the voting age, 18. They are presided over by Mr. Wade, who at 85 would be the world’s third-oldest head of state. He may in fact be the oldest, opponents say, given a once-common Senegalese practice of filing birth certificates several years late. Mr. Wade denies this.

After Mr. Wade’s 2000 election, Senegal’s youth regularly swarmed his motorcade, screaming cheers of “change, change!” In Dakar, billboards continue to proclaim “Change still happening.”

But it hasn’t happened quickly enough for Senegal’s exploding population. As Senegal’s once-sumptuous state universities collapse from overcrowding and job creation remains flat, President Wade’s bid for a third term has come across as unaware.

He says he needs the seven-year extension to finish signature projects: an airport, a new city and a complex of museums, theaters and art schools called The Seven Wonders of Dakar. He has also proposed a solar-power plant 282 times the size of the world’s biggest, a constitution for a United States of Africa, and a tunnel that would entirely cut beneath Gambia, Senegal’s adversarial neighbor state.

Young Africa, Old Leaders

Gaps Between Age of Population, Presidents

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 74 
In office for: 12 years 
Median age: 27

José Eduardo dos Santos, 69 
In office for: 32 years 
Median age: 18

Burkina Faso 
Blaise Compaore, 61 
In office for: 24 years 
Median age: 17

Paul Biya, 79 
In office for: 29 years 
Median age: 19

Equatorial Guinea 
Teodoro Obiang, 70 
In office for: 33 years 
Median age: 19

Girma Wolde-Giorgis, 87 
In office for: 11 years 
Median age: 17

John Atta Mills, 67 
In office for: 3 years 
Median age: 21

Abdoulaye Wade, 85 
In office for: 12 years 
Median age: 18

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, 68 
In office for: 26 years 
Median age: 15

Robert Mugabe, 87 
In office for: 31 years 
Median age: 18

His two-term limit, he argues, shouldn’t be applied retroactively to his first term. That opinion was upheld by a panel of five constitutional judges, each appointed by the president.

In Sunday’s first-round vote, the incumbent faces three of his former prime ministers and 10 other contenders. His most vocal opposition has been a clique of rappers called Y’en a Marre-We’re Fed Up-who are asking him to follow the example of Senegal’s founding President Leopold Senghor, a poet who left office in 1980 writing: “Either the Senegalese are too young, or I’m too old.”

On Wednesday, as riot police shot tear gas and water cannons in the commercial district, the rap artists attempted a sit-in across town. Loudspeakers blared their song’s message to Mr. Wade: “You were an example to the world before you started to toy with our constitution.”

Police on Thursday arrested two of the rappers, whose call for a sleep-in at a public park brought out hundreds of young men, the interior minister said.

The youth movement has refused to support a candidate, backing only one position-that President Wade leave. “We have chosen to be like sentinels for democracy,” said Omar Toure, whose stage name is Thiat. “Our combat will continue until the people gain their voice and [Mr.] Wade is no longer in power.”

Mr. Wade can point to concrete accomplishments. In his 12 years in power, Senegal’s capital has evolved into a business hub for mining and telecom companies, airlines and aid agencies. Over that period, the agrarian country has grown an average of 4% annually. Poverty has fallen 7%, according to the World Bank. The percent of girls in school has risen to 43% from 15%, according to Senegal’s state statistical agency.

A new road network under construction could further expand Senegal’s economy by 5%, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation estimates. Last year, Senegal sold its first Islamic bond as well as a euro bond, both touted as signs that Africa is advancing beyond aid.

“On his record, they can’t attack him,” said Mr. Wade’s spokesman Serigne Mbacké Ndiaye. “They only attack his age.”

The accomplishments haven’t translated into work for the country’s youth. Official unemployment statistics aren’t available for the country of 13 million, where 65% of working-age Senegalese are 15 to 24 years of age. According to a World Bank-backed study by the Youth Employment Network projects, only 4,106 full-time, salaried jobs will have opened up in 2010 to 2015.

“We don’t want Wade anymore, we want jobs,” said unemployed Cheikh Mbodj, one of hundreds of young men working out on a Dakar beach as riot cops surveyed the crowd.

The tension between old and young have turned more ominous since pro-democracy protests began in north Africa. At Senegal’s Presidential Palace, guards block the sidewalk to prevent repeats of a protestor who last year immolated himself here, in homage to a suicide that sparked that wave of unrest.

For some, Mr. Wade’s efforts to quell youth ire-with a pledge to build a nationwide set of cyber centers, plus a new, ultra-modern University of the African Future-are too little, too late. “He betrayed the hopes of the youth,” rapper Fadel Barro said on a recent day, as hundreds of young men, many in baseball caps and jeans, filtered into a park for a protest.

Corrections & Amplifications 
Senegal’s presidential elections will be held Sunday, Feb. 26. An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested they would be held Sunday, Feb. 19.

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