On Friday, Senegal’s constitutional court ruled that incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade, who will soon complete his second term, is eligible to run in the country’s February 26 presidential elections. The announcement, though expected, came in the context of long-standing tensions between Wade and large segments of the country’s urban youth, who want the president to step down. On Friday youth rioted in Dakar, the capital.
Wade’s candidacy has also drawn negative reactions from abroad, notably from Washington. Yesterday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns spoke to journalists in Addis Ababa, and cast doubt on the wisdom of Wade’s current path:
We are concerned that the decision by President Wade to seek a third term … could jeopardise the decades-long record that Senegal has built up on the continent for democracy, democratic development and political stability…We hope very much that the political process will be a peaceful one and it will allow for the free active participation of all Senegalese.
Burns’ comments were matched by those of Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, at a press briefing yesterday:
QUESTION: Do you have any reaction about the Senegal situation, about Wade running for a third bid for presidential?
MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, the Senegalese constitutional court has now confirmed the validity of 14 candidates running for president, including President Wade. Our own view, while we respect the process, the political and legal process in Senegal, the fact that he’s now been cleared to run, our message to him remains the same: that the statesmanly-like thing to do would be to cede to the next generation, and we think that would be better.
And with regard to the reference to Museveni last week, Matt, I am reliably told that we did also suggest to him that he allow the next generation to —
QUESTION: Yes. And he didn’t, and now he’s your best friend.
MS. NULAND: Well, we work —
QUESTION: So what’s wrong with – now what’s wrong with it in Senegal?
MS. NULAND: We work with the government the people elect. But again, our view is that Senegalese democracy is strong enough to move to the next generation.
European countries’ statements have not been as strong as Washington’s, but it is clear that the European Union and former colonial power France are also concerned about the situation. The former has questioned the constitutional court’s decision to bar singer Youssou N’dour from running in the elections:
Thijs Berman, the head of the EU election observer mission, urged the council, which meets on Sunday to hear appeals, to release the reasons for its decisions, both for candidates whose bids have been accepted and for those who have been rejected.
“A candidate such as Youssou N’Dour, who had thousands of signatures backing his bid rejected, should have access to the files in order to look closely at why they were rejected, that is important,” Berman said, speaking on French public radio RFI.
“For now we have the decisions but we don’t have the motivations. I think that not only each of the candidates but also every citizen of Senegal has a right to know,” Berman said. “It is only by understanding the reasons of the Constitutional Council that the decision could be accepted.”
France, for its part (see statement in French here), has so far merely stated that it is following the process closely and that it hopes “all opinions, in their diversity, can be expressed on the occasion of this presidential election.” The French government also affirmed its commitment to democratic principles, including the riot of peaceful assembly.
Washington, Brussels, and Paris are obviously worried about what the next month, and the outcome of the elections themselves, will bring for Senegal.
On a final note, the exchange between Ms. Nuland and the journalist above – the reference to Museveni in particular – is interesting, although the conversation did not play out in full. What do you think? Does the example of Museveni give Wade comfort that even if foreign powers wish he would step aside, they will continue to work with him even if he does not?