Senegal braces for violence after presidential election

At dusk, people hunker down for the evening, holding portable radios to their ears and clustering in doorways to peer at fuzzy black-and-white televisions. Shops are boarded up and hawkers flee before nightfall.

The nights belong to the protesters.

Most begin peacefully with the demonstrators seated on the ground, arms crossed, as they demand that their 85-year-old president step down.

"The old man is dead," they chant. "We have had enough." Then, stones are hurled and police retaliate with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons.

Senegal, one of the most stable and peaceful nations in West Africa, has faced weeks of street protests in the capital, Dakar, and other cities since President Abdoulaye Wade won his court bid in January to stand for a third term in Sunday's election despite the constitutional two-term limit. At least six people have died in the protests.

When police and protesters clashed at one point early this month, Wade described the demonstration as "a light breeze which rustles the leaves of a tree, but never becomes a hurricane."

The unrest marks the first significant spread of the "Arab Spring" that rocked North Africa last year into sub-Saharan Africa, where despots abound and presidents often cling to power until death. (Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for more than three decades, said on his recent 88th birthday that he would seek reelection.)

With Senegal's opposition divided among more than a dozen candidates, a Wade victory appears likely. But opposition leaders have pledged to make the country ungovernable, raising speculation of a disputed election and more protests.

"I'm scared," said Moustapha Ndiaye, 42, a tradesman. "At first I thought it would all calm down. But now I'm afraid of what will happen after the election if Wade wins. That's when the real violence will begin."

But days before the vote, the opposition had failed to unify behind a single clear candidate to replace Wade.

Popular Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour, blocked by Senegal's constitutional court from running against Wade in January, is a leading force opposing the president's bid for a third term, along with rappers, journalists and civil society groups. N'Dour was injured Tuesday as riot police dispersed a rally in Dakar's Independence Square.

The opposition coalition M23 and rapper activists Y'en a Marre ("I'm Fed Up") have dominated the headlines with their calls for Wade to stand down.

Protester Cheikh NDiaye, 33, demonstrating against Wade on Wednesday night, said he was "ready to die."

"Wade has nothing more to do with this country. He needs to walk out in a dignified way through the front door," he said.

"All we want is that Wade stands down," said another protester, Ami Fall, 30. "There are so many problems here. We're peaceful but we've come to reclaim our rights, that's all."

"We're totally against Wade. He's staging a coup d'etat," said Ami Diallo, 40, also demonstrating. "We're forced to do this because Wade won't listen. He's deceiving young people."

"We just want the old man to go," said Modou Niang, 25. "He's finished."

Amadou Fall Ba, 30, a political rapper, said Senegalese were outraged that the government had outlawed the protests.

"These people are politicians, students, doctors, lawyers; they are responsible people. During an election campaign, the government can't tell people they can't demonstrate. That's why it's so violent."

Walls and bridges are splattered with political graffiti and ragged campaign posters supporting the 13 opposition candidates, among them three former prime ministers.

Student Moctar Ba, 22, said most of the candidates facing Wade were not well known. "No one really knows who they are. No one wants Wade, but no one knows who to vote for instead."

One major election issue is the cost of living. Prices of staples like sugar, rice and oil have almost doubled in the last year, and there is a growing hunger crisis in the country's north. Taxi, bus and truck drivers stage regular strikes over spiraling fuel costs, and unemployment is rife.

"Without Wade, none of this would be happening," one taxi driver said angrily as he drove away from the protest Wednesday night. "Look at how much it costs me to drive this car. He is too old; his time is up."

Meanwhile, Wade says the monthlong tour of Senegal he's undertaken has been received with "enthusiasm."

"M23 [the opposition coalition] just wants to get me out of the presidential palace," he said Wednesday. "When they say they want to march on Independence Square and on the palace, the reason is illegal — so how can I authorize such a thing?"

Labous is a special correspondent.

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