Wade: The man who would be president – again
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When he finally became Senegal’s president after four unsuccessful bids, Abdoulaye Wade was a symbol of democracy. But over the past 12 years he has been steadily chipping away at that badge of honour.
When he first came to power, back in 2000, Abdoulaye Wade did all the democratically right things, including reducing the presidential term and imposing a two-term limit. But now the octogenarian Senegalese leader appears to be reversing his own amendments, imperiling his democratic track record and threatening the stability of one of Africa’s most vibrant and stable democracies.
In the run-up to the much-awaited February 26 presidential election, excitement levels have been mounting in this West African nation famed for its pulsating music scene and vibrant nightlife.
Even the international press, much criticized for ignoring news from the African continent, caught the fever weeks before the election, when Youssou N’Dour, Senegal’s Grammy award-winning global icon, announced that he was running for president.
But for most Senegalese, the real drama has been the unfolding saga of their president’s bid to remain in power.
On January 27, the country’s constitutional court – comprised of judges nominated by Wade – ruled that the 86-year-old president was eligible to run for a third term.
The court also ruled that N’Dour was not eligible to contest the election since he did not have the required 10,000 signatures of support.
“The entire city erupted after the announcement,” said FRANCE 24’s Tatiana Mossot, reporting from the Senegalese capital of Dakar shortly after the court ruling. “The opposition momentum was building up, but the moment they announced the court verdict, we saw a radicalisation of the discourse, which was, they won’t stop until Abdoulaye Wade quits power.”
The furore from the opposition has been steadily mounting over the past few years.
Following a January 2001 referendum, a new constitution was adopted, reducing presidential terms to five years following the completion of Wade's seven-year term in 2007.
But barely a year after his 2007 re-election, Wade revised the 2001 constitutional revision and reverted the shortened five-year term to the old seven-year mandate.
In June 2011, Wade backed down from his attempt to amend the constitution by lowering the minimum votes required to win the first presidential round from 50 to 25 percent. Under Senegalese law, a presidential candidate requires 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off.
Wade’s capitulation followed mass demonstrations which helped trigger a movement known as Y’en a marre - French for “fed-up” – which has proved adept at mobilising young people in a quintessentially Senegalese campaign complete with rap concerts, funky T-shirts and online mobilization.
In December 2011, Wade dismayed the opposition when he announced that he would be seeking a third term – or in other words, reneging on a promise he made shortly after his 2007 re-election where he vowed not to run for president again.
The 'gorgui' – or old man – in office
Things weren’t always this way in a country that has long been a beacon of hope in the region and especially in French-speaking Africa.
A merchant’s son, Wade was born in the western region of Kébémer. He earned his doctorate in law and economics in France, where he met his wife Viviane, then a philosophy student also active in student union circles in the early 1950s.
After their marriage, Wade worked as a barrister in France for a few years before returning to Senegal, where he set up his law practice before going on to teach at the University of Dakar and finally ended up in politics.
His early years in politics though were difficult ones. Under former President Abdou Diouf's rule, Wade was dubbed the "president of the street" and was imprisoned several times.
When Wade finally became president in 2000, he was a symbol of democracy across the continent. He had competed in four elections over a 25-year period before he succeeded in dislodging the Socialist Party after four decades of uninterrupted rule following Senegal’s independence from France.
He was not a young man when he took office. But his exact age was a mystery. Although Wade's official date of birth is May 29, 1926, many Senegalese claim he was born earlier – record-keeping at that time is not considered suitably reliable to dispute the claim.
Wade’s official vs. unofficial age was mentioned in a 2010 Time magazine list of “Top 10 Old Leaders”. But the Senegalese president who is often referred to as “gorgui” – or “old man” in the West African Wolof language - nevertheless qualified for the list.
A razor-sharp politician, Wade can be pugnacious on the subject of his age.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 earlier this year in the sumptuous piano room of the Dakar presidential palace, Wade delivered a comparative cultural lecture on how age is perceived in different societies.
“In the West, one does not always understand the benefits of being an elderly man, such as the wisdom and judgment,” said Wade, before noting that “all the political leaders in the country are elderly – the people in the opposition are older than me by six or seven years.”
His rival, 52-year-old N’Dour, might beg to disagree, but Wade is a master of disregarding the Senegalese music icon – at least publicly. When asked about N’Dour’s candidacy, Wade’s clipped reply to FRANCE 24 was, “I wish him lots of luck.” When specifically asked if that meant he didn’t want to talk about N’Dour, Wade answered with an honest, “No, not at all.”
He was, however, willing to expound at length about the legal arguments enabling him to run for a third term, noting that his 2000 election pre-dated the 2001 two-term limit amendment and that the law cannot be applied retroactively.
Joining the ‘world’s most controversial’ ranks
Since he first announced his plan to run for a third term, Wade has argued that he needs more time to complete his projects.
But critics say the Senegalese leader has done little during his 12 years in power to alleviate poverty in a country where formal employment is scarce, and has dragged his heels on tackling official graft. Wade of course disagrees, noting that he has implemented several development and infrastructural projects.
One of his most controversial projects has been the 2010 unveiling of the Africa Renaissance Monument, a colossal, $120 million North Korean-built copper statue featuring a social realist-style muscular man with a baby in his arms, emerging from a volcano and dragging a semi-clad woman.
The statue was the subject of widespread opprobrium and promptly joined the ranks of one of the world’s most controversial monuments.
But critics say his most contentious project has been his attempts to line up his son, Karim Wade, as his successor.
Both Wade junior and Wade senior vehemently reject suggestions of any succession attempts. Senegalese opposition supporters however are not convinced and a leaked 2010 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks warned that Wade was attempting to “open a path to a dynastic presidential succession”.
Many Senegalese feared that Wade’s attempt to create a vice-president post in 2011 was the first step in securing his unpopular son’s succession. In the end, the octogenarian leader was forced to back down following violent protests.
But Karim already holds a powerful “super minister” post in his father’s administration, overseeing the energy, international co-operation, regional development, air transport and infrastructure portfolios.
International disappointment in one of Africa’s once most highly regarded leaders has been mounting. Shortly after the January 2012 constitutional court decision allowing Wade a third term, a senior US State Department official said Wade's candidacy was "a bit regrettable".
For many Senegalese who believe Wade is transmogrifying from a symbol of democracy into a caricature of an African “Big Man” more interested in staying in power than his country’s future, “a bit regrettable” is an understatement.