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Senegal President Reaches Out to Opposition

  • Nancy Palus

In Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade has said he is ready to meet with opposition leaders, who are rejoining the political process after boycotting legislative elections last year. But opposition politicians say they are skeptical about whether the president is committed to meaningful dialogue and say he might be doing this because an international conference is about to be held in Dakar. Nancy Palus reports.

Opposition leaders say they need time to consider President Abdoulaye Wade's recent offer and they say they will announce a decision in the coming days.

But many say the president simply wants to portray the country as a healthy democracy as Senegal gears up for an international conference next week in the capital, Dakar.

Abdoulaye Bathily, secretary general of the opposition Democratic League party, says President Wade has long rejected the opposition.

"He has refused any dialogue," he said. "This is just an exercise for him to show an image of himself, which does not correspond to the reality."

The opposition last year boycotted legislative polls to protest the February 2007 election that put President Wade in office for a second term. They said that the election was fraudulent. International and national observers said the vote was satisfactory, but that opposition candidates did not have equal access to funding and media.

Since the disputed poll, the opposition coalition has been calling for a broad national conference - including civil society, rural leaders and the business community. While they do not reject the idea of a political dialogue with President Wade, many say such a meeting cannot replace a national forum.

Penda Mbow is president of the civil society group called by its French name, Mouvement Citoyen, which means citizen action.

She says a national conference is necessary to take stock of Senegal's democracy, and citizens' and civil society's concerns must not be ignored.

Presidential spokesman Amadou Sall says the opposition is free to hold a national meeting, but the president would not be involved.

The spokesman says the president is always ready to meet the opposition, which he says is only normal in a democracy. But he says the president would not take part in a national meeting the opposition would see as an occasion to talk about sharing power.

Both sides say Senegal is not immune to unrest that recently struck other countries in the region. Residents of Burkina Faso and Cameroon last week took to the streets to protest the high cost of living.

Opposition leader Bathily calls Senegal "a boiling pot."

"It is a bomb," he noted. "We are sitting on a bomb which may explode anytime, because of the level of poverty, the level of social tensions, the level of injustices brought about by this regime of Abdoulaye Wade."

Political analyst Babacar Justin N'diaye says Senegal faces problems typical in a developing county, but that it can avoid a political and social crisis.

He says there are very, very serious social and economic difficulties in Senegal. He says no one side holds a magic solution and he is confident the president and the opposition will find a way forward.

While efforts are underway to prepare the capital for next week's conference, opposition leaders say they, like all Senegalese, want it to be a success. But opposition coalition spokesman Madior Diouf says Senegal's political problems will be waiting when the summit is over.