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AU/ECOWAS Call for Compromise in Senegal Presidential Vote

  • Anne Look

Riot policemen stand in a row to block access to Independence Square during an opposition demonstration against Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade's controversial third term bid for presidency in Dakar February 24, 2012.

Riot policemen stand in a row to block access to Independence Square during an opposition demonstration against Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade's controversial third term bid for presidency in Dakar February 24, 2012.

People in Senegal go to the polls Sunday amid uncertainty and continued calls from the opposition for elections to be postponed and incumbent president, Abdoulaye Wade, to withdraw his candidacy. The African Union and West African regional bloc ECOWAS are proposing that, if re-elected, Mr. Wade serve an abbreviated two-year mandate before fresh elections are organized.

Just hours before polls open, Senegal remains in political gridlock.

On one side is the opposition M23 movement, which is calling for a delay and the withdrawal of President Wade's candidacy. On the other is Mr. Wade, who has remained defiant in the face of weeks of street protests and says elections will proceed as planned.

Former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has proposed a controversial compromise to the pre-electoral discord which he says risks propelling the historically stable West African country into "chaos, tragedy and disaster."

"We have heard, and that has not been in doubt, that even the president had indicated that if he wins the election he will consider utilizing three years of the term. Then, we have heard, also talking to the opposition group, that they will not want to allow anything more than one year. So we said to ourselves if one side is talking of one year and the other side is talking of three years, we should stay in the middle and take an average. We suggested in our proposal two years," he said.

The former Nigerian leader arrived in Dakar Tuesday at the helm of a joint AU/ECOWAS election observation mission attempting to ease tensions following weeks of violent, anti-government protests that have killed at least six people.

Mr. Obasanjo is also proposing that the opposition be allowed to appoint a technician to join the existing electoral team, as he said there have been "rumors of manipulation." He would not elaborate on whether the mission had deemed current conditions conducive to a fair and transparent vote.

Mr. Obasanjo said late Saturday that neither side has agreed to the proposed compromise.

The opposition M23 Movement says Mr. Wade's bid for a third term is unconstitutional, citing a reform he signed into law in 2001 that limits presidents to two terms. The presidentially-appointed Constitutional Court ruled last month that reform did not apply retroactively to his first term.

The decision sparked the riots during which protestors throwing rocks and erecting fiery barricades clashed with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

The M23 movement, which includes several opposition candidates, has proposed that elections be postponed by six to nine months and held without Mr. Wade and under the supervision of a new electoral commission.

Opposition candidate and a leader of the M23 movement, Cheikh Bamba Dieye, says they support dialogue and peace. He says he knows that Senegalese want them to accept compromise in the name of peace, but not just any compromise. He says the M23 movement has been fighting for the respect of the constitution and the withdrawal of Wade's candidacy.

The 85-year-old incumbent faces 13 opposition candidates, many of whom did not stay in Dakar with the protest movement. Rather, frontrunners like former prime ministers, Macky Sall and Moustapha Niasse, campaigned nationwide and have called for the election to go forward as planned.

Critics of Mr. Obasanjo's eleventh-hour proposal say it accepts Mr. Wade's victory as a foregone conclusion.

Spokesman for candidate Macky Sall, Seydou Gueye, says they are not of a mind to compromise, negotiate or make deals. He says they will defend their institutions and the constitution without concession. He says Africa must emerge from this pattern of negotiation and power-sharing and act within the law. He says the law should be fair and apply to everyone, including President Wade.

Despite rising tension, campaigning wrapped up quietly Friday in Dakar. Indeed, police had not fired tear gas on demonstrators downtown since Mr. Obasanjo's arrival on Tuesday.

Still, Mr. Obasanjo said there remains an alarming "lack of trust" between the opposition and the ruling party. "We believe that even when the election is won, by whoever wins it, there will still be the need to win peace and win security and bring this country together for progress to be made," he said.

The volatile campaign season has put international observers on high alert. There are concerns that the president's desire to stay in power could send this celebrated democracy down the path of its coup and conflict-stricken neighbors.

U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon has expressed "concern" over the poll and called for a "peaceful, orderly and transparent" election.