On 19 March, President Abdoulaye Wade‘s government announced the arrests of four alleged coup plotters with links to the opposition parties in the country. But coming on the eve of a big anti-government protest in Dakar, the arrests had a hollow ring to them. Even more, the protests overshadowed the president’s 11th anniversary celebrations.
On 19 March, supporters of President Abdoulaye Wade had planned big festivities across Dakar to celebrate his 11th anniversary in office. But the occasion was overshadowed by protests calling for the president’s resignation.
In a television broadcast, the interior minister, Ousmane Ngom, announced the arrests of four men for allegedly targeting several public places in Dakar in a plot to overthrow the government, a claim the opposition described as a plan to stop the protests. The four men were released after five days in custody, with the government conceding that there was not enough evidence to prosecute them.
March 19 should have been a day for President Wade and his followers. It was supposed to be a day of celebration by the president’s supporters from across the country, a time to renew their allegiance to him and his party. Ihey had billed it as a day to highlight his achievements since he took office 11 years ago.
President Wade defeated Abdou Diouf in the second round of the presidential race on 19 March 2000 and ended 40 years of socialist rule in Senegal. He won with the help of the other major opposition parties that went into an alliance with him under the banner of Sopi (change).
That was his fifth try. On four previous occasions, going as far back as 1978, he had been beaten. But he kept trying, promising sound and effective policies and programmes in the areas of the economy, education, infrastructure, democracy and the rule of law. There was optimism that the new president would live by his promises and keep the hopes of the nation alive.
In fact, he did – to an extent. Over the last 11 years, Senegal has seen more infra-structural development than ever in its history. Wade built tarred roads, big bridges, pedestrian paths, and even a controversial Renaissance Monument in Dakar.
Before Wade started the road construction project, travelling within the capital, Dakar, was a nightmare. The roads were so bad that a 20km journey could take four hours. On his ioth anniversary as president last year, Wade told his cheering supporters about his roads programme, mainly across Dakar, and said he could not recall a “single failure” during his decade in power.
But truth be said, the 84-year-old leader’s road construction crusade has diverted his attention from other core issues affecting his people. So in the early hours of 19 March, Momodou Ba, Asse Sylla and thousands of others met at Dakar’s Independence Square, to start a massive demonstration that took the shine off the celebration by Wade’s supporters.
Holding placards with messages such as “Enough is enough: Senegalese are fed up with lies”, Ba and Sylla stood next to each other among the crowd. It was the first time they had met, but it did not take long before they become friends against a common enemy: unemployment. Ba, 26, graduated from college in 2007. His plan was to find a job, save some money and start his own business. But he has been looking for a job for more than three years without success. Today, he fills his days hanging out in front of the electronic stores in Dakar asking for tips from foreigners, or giving them directions to places they already know in order to earn some money. He earns a maximum of $10 every week.
He says: “I wake up every morning and head for the electronic stores because that is my job. I had so much ambition but because I don’t have a father, an uncle or a cousin who is a top government official, it s impossible for me to get a job.” Between late 2007 and 2010, Ba sent out at least 200 CVs and application letters to employers, but he received no interviews. He blames the government for his ill-luck.
“In this country, the government and the population are like two separate nations. Government officials live in luxury while the masses suffer. They don’t create any jobs for us and as a result the lives of most of the youth are being wasted. My friends always try to give me hope but I don’t have any hope any more. My life will never be any better under this government,” Ba says with a heavy face. His “new” friend, Sylla, was one of President Wade’s youth campaigners in the suburbs of Dakar during the 2000 election which brought him to power. He spoke a few times at Wade’s political rallies and he had hoped that he would be guaranteed a job once his candidate won the election.
But in 2005, Sylla left the ruling party for the former Socialist Party. “During the 2000 campaign,” he explains, “I had access to Wade and most of the officials of his campaign team. They needed the votes of the youth and they turned to me for mobilisation. They promised me that a job would be created and the youths would be better off. But are we – xi years on?”
Sylla, Ba, and thousands of other people took to the streets to call for the president’s resignation. At Independence Square, approximately 800 metres away from the presidential palace, Sidy Lamine Niasse, a prominent Muslim leader and media mogul, mobilised at least 5,000 people to express their “disgust and anger” at the government’s “record” of no jobs.
Ihe protesters said they were fed up with the frequent power cuts, the lack of employment, the high cost of living, and the bad economic situation.
Despite a heavy security presence, Ba was confident that for once, President Wade would be forced to listen to the population who put him in power. “For 11 years, he disconnected himself from us. But with this protest, with the determination and anger in the faces of the demonstrators, I think the president will now understand that he is the most unpopular man in this country,” Ba said.
The government had initially authorised all protests, but backtracked less than 24 hours before the event. On the eve of the protest, the government announced it had arrested several “commandos” with links to the opposition for plotting to overthrow it. But the opposition said the arrests were politically motivated and showed the government’s paranoia over opposition protests.
While the protests were on, thousands of government supporters had gathered in front of the presidential palace to show support for the president. They too held banners and placards with messages like “Thank God for President Wade”. They also sang songs and danced to music while hailing the president for his projects.
Unfazed by the protests against him, President Wade, wearing his trademark blue gown, addressed his supporters from inside the palace, often waving his fist at the sky and shouting, “Victory come 2012”.
Despite the mass protests, Wade’s supporters are convinced he is still the right man for the country. Alioune Sene, a mo-biliser for the ruling party, said: “Wade has done in n years what past presidents put together have not done in over 50 years. He has built roads, made education accessible and affordable, and improved agriculture and the lives of the peasants.” Another ruling party supporter asked: “What do the protesters want from the government? The president has fulfilled most of his promises and he is still doing the best he can for the people. What else do they want?”
Next year, Senegal will vote in national elections, and whether or not Wade s words match his deeds will be decided by the electorate then.