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Dissatisfied Senegalese look forward to election

Unfulfilled promises, poverty and joblessness leave many ready for a change. The president faces 14 challengers.

February 24, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

DAKAR, SENEGAL — Every time Senegalese rapper Xuman performs onstage, he calls out to the audience, "You got the card?" The young fans reach into their pockets, pull them out and wave them: voting cards.

Now his new album has delivered an even stronger message ahead of the election Sunday: a burning condemnation of 80-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade, whose seven years in office are seen by many disaffected Senegalese as either a disappointment or a downright betrayal of hope.

"All of the youth, we are disappointed after seven years of reign," the 7-foot-tall rapper said in an interview. "There were a lot of promises that we are going to get jobs and life is going to be cheaper. But in seven years, we've seen these two things get worse."

In 2000, Xuman and others like him were singing condemnation of a different leader. After 40 years of socialist rule, the country voted out President Abdou Diouf, in one of the few cases in Africa of a sitting president losing power at the ballot box.

Some rappers in Senegal see themselves as messengers who tell the young what's going on in the country and urge them to use their votes against those who failed them. Xuman said his album was about ordinary people whose daily suffering was so common that politicians ceased noticing it.

"It's about the jobless people. It's about the hopeless people," he said. "It's about all the kinds of people you see all the time, like the beggars, and you forget they even exist."

Sunday's election is seen as not just a test of the health of Senegalese democracy but a test of an elderly leader, some of whose supporters doubt that he will be able to finish five more years in office. Wade faces 14 challengers, making it difficult for any candidate to win more than 50% of the vote and thereby avoid a second round between the top two vote-getters.

Worrying signs

In 2000, Wade was elected after mass opposition rallies. Since he took office, worrying signs have surfaced: politicians and journalists jailed, a radio station closed for criticizing the president, and recently an opposition rally shut down by police, although others went ahead.

In a level of political tension rare for Senegal, Wade's supporters and followers of his main competitor, Idrissa Seck, clashed violently Thursday in Dakar, the capital, leaving five people seriously injured.

Seck, 47, was prime minister under Wade and seen as the president's natural successor until he was sacked in 2004. He was jailed in 2005 for six months on charges of embezzling public money. The charges were later dropped.

The opposition is predicting that the ruling party will resort to fraud to cling to power while the government promises a clean election. Senegal's media remain vibrant and free compared with many African countries.

But ask local analysts and journalists about the health of Senegalese democracy and the typical response is a shrug. In a country where opinion polling is illegal, no one knows the real level of the president's support or whether the high standard of the 2000 vote will be whittled away this time.

"It's very difficult to assess until we have the vote on the 25th. Depending how the vote goes, depending how the counting goes and how the result is announced, then we will know whether we still have a working democracy," political analyst Hamadou Tidiane Sy said.

Wade's seven years have been marked by inefficiency, infighting and a failure to deliver much in the way of services or jobs. His trademark is his grands travaux -- big public works projects such as road construction. Grandiose promises of a new capital and airport never materialized, electricity blackouts are frequent, and the costs of cooking fuel, rice and gasoline are rising.

"He's focused on these big projects. If you can speak of an achievement, that's the main achievement," Sy said. "But what is the impact of these projects on people's lives? Many people feel they're irrelevant.

"Of course people need roads, but what if you have roads and there's no electricity at home?" he said. "In the delivery of services there's been total failure."

Political analyst Babacar Ndiaye said Wade came to power on a pro-youth platform in 2000, with a population fed up after decades of socialist rule.

"He didn't deliver a lot of his promises, which in the end causes a lot of dissatisfaction," Ndiaye said.

The biggest crisis of public confidence in Senegal has been the flight of its young men, who take to the sea in fragile craft for Europe in the hope of finding jobs and a better life.

In the choked streets of Thiarowe neighborhood on the outskirts of Dakar, cart horses jostle with ancient dilapidated buses that are painted with bright images, including eyes to see the way. The buses spew out fumes, and sometimes passengers have to jump off to push-start the vehicles. The neighborhood is one of the poorest and most crowded in the capital.

'The situation ... is worse'

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