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Senegal Radio Program Pushes for Direct Democracy

  • Joe Bavier

The recent arrest of Senegal's former prime minister and the expected postponement of legislative elections next year are raising questions about the future of a country considered a standard of democracy in West Africa. One radio station is now opting for a more direct form of democracy, with an open forum that is taking politicians to task.

Music plays through a loudspeaker at the main market square in the town of Tambacounda, east of Senegal's capital, Dakar. A crowd of more than 100, mainly women, gathers, waiting for the show to begin.

The event is part of a new series of open forum programs set up by Duniya FM, a private radio station, aimed at promoting direct democracy. In live, regional shows across the country, the station hands the microphone over to the ordinary people, allowing them to air their grievances before local politicians, who respond from a nearby studio.

As the event begins, an elderly woman named Bintou Manneh steps up to the microphone.

She says the government has failed to deliver on its election promises to create new jobs. Ms. Manneh says she has two university educated children, who, for the past three years, have been out of work.

In 2000, President Abdoulaye Wade, then an opposition leader, swept into power, ending decades of single party domination by the Socialist Party led by Abdou Diouf, whom Mr. Wade succeeded as president. A year after he became president, Mr. Wade's coalition took control of parliament, promising to develop the economy, reduce unemployment, and provide easy access to healthcare.

But five years on, many in Senegal see little change.

As heavily pregnant Jankey Jallow pushed her way through the crowd, she noted, "At health care centers today, you pay for almost everything, including medicine. The government has failed rural people."

Over the loudspeaker, local politician Saidou Barry replied. "The government is doing everything it can, but we can't provide everything for everyone," he said.

The show's creators at Duniya FM say this kind of interaction with politicians is especially important now that the hope sparked by the opposition takeover has begun to fade.

President Wade's coalition has split into factions. Former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck, a onetime ally of the president, is now in jail on charges of corruption and plotting against the state. Mr. Seck says the charges are politically motivated.

Adding to the concerns of many in Senegal is that Mr. Wade has proposed postponing next year's legislative elections so that they coincide with presidential polls in 2007. Many opponents fear it will be easier for the government to cheat if the elections are combined.

But the program manager for Duniya FM in Tambacounda, Seedy Mboob, says the open air forums he organizes are helping make sure democracy still functions. He says before people had trouble making their problems known. Now, he says, they are doing so with the help of radio.

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