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Peace Prize to President Wade Increases Tensions in Senegal

  • Nico Colombant

The recent awarding of a prestigious international peace prize to Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade has caused consternation within his own country. Many Senegalese feel democracy is going backwards in their country, and tension going upwards, since Mr. Wade took power in 2000, ending four decades of Socialist one-party rule.

This month, a committee headed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger awarded Mr. Wade the 2005 UNESCO Felix Houphouet-Boigny prize, named after the late long-ruling Ivory Coast leader.

Mr. Kissinger said Senegal's president had contributed to democracy in his own country and to reconciliation elsewhere in Africa.

The only other Africans to win the award are South African anti-apartheid crusader Nelson Mandela and then President Frederik De Klerk in a joint win in 1991.

In a recent interview with VOA, Mr. Wade talked about some of his mediation work in Africa, following a widely popular and successful coup by a military council in Mauritania.

"Their intention is to change, and not only to change the head of state, but the way of governing Mauritania and they asked me to be the mediator for this. I think that the best is to bring all the forces in a common direction," he said. "Now we are going to a very intense period of discussion and I am ready to help for that."

Many Senegalese are proud that Mr. Wade won such an award, but it is the part where he is congratulated for promoting democracy that has them puzzled.

Recent months in Senegal have been marked by the jailing of journalists and politicians on charges they say amount to a political vendetta. A top government auditing official recently said she feared for her life after exposing a possible corruption scandal in the finance ministry.

Many opposition activists are afraid of what they call macoutes militias, roaming youths who threaten them and sometimes attack them.

A Dakar-based teacher, Amadou Kane, says so far democracy for Senegal has become synonymous with political jockeying, instability, and shaky governing.

"We can see that things are not working as they should. All this political unrest has negative effect on the Senegalese economy," he said. "The ministers are not working very well as they should because all of them maybe are no expecting [to remain] in their position."

A businessman, Mamadou Yayasa, says Senegalese are peaceful by nature, so maybe that is why, he says, Mr. Wade won the award, but he does not think he deserves it.

Mr. Yayasa says Senegalese have been disillusioned by the promises of prosperity made by Mr. Wade, and that his governing has become a disappointment, mired in corruption and reshuffling. This sentiment is widely echoed on the streets of Dakar.

But the head of a Senegalese human-rights group, Alioune Tine, wants to be optimistic. He says he congratulated Mr. Wade on the prize, and hopes it will refocus him to do a better job.

"The impression of people is that we are making some steps backwards about democracy, rule of law and so on," he said. "Very recently UNESCO gave an award, the peace prize of Houphouet-Boigny to Mr. Wade. I think it is a good thing, it is some way to tell Mr. Wade go forward [on] democracy. Senegal has no right to go backward. Senegal is a good example and it must [remain] a good example for the continent."

Mr. Tine also praises Mr. Wade for dropping plans to hold the next legislative election and presidential vote together in 2007. The opposition wants the legislative poll to go ahead next year, saying it is more difficult to cheat when the elections are not held at the same time.

Mr. Wade says he wanted to save money to help pay for recent flood victims, but that the uproar against the idea was such that he dropped pushing the proposal for now.

Mr. Wade repeatedly defends his human-rights record. He says those being jailed must face the rule of law, and that there is no political vendetta. He says some are wanted for making seditious comments or fabricating scandals while others are wanted for corruption.

A Senegalese newspaper quoted him as saying that Senegalese like to exaggerate. Reacting to winning the prize, Mr. Wade said it increases his responsibilities to seek peace and justice in Africa.

Meanwhile, some neighboring presidents, like the deposed Mauritanian leader, or the embattled Ivory Coast president, facing a three-year rebellion, have accused him of meddling in their affairs and promoting instability - accusations Mr. Wade also denies. These types of charges were also repeatedly dismissed by the late Ivorian leader Mr. Houphouet-Boigny, for whom the prize is named.

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