Senegal: Dakar rocked by anti-Wade demonstrations

DAKAR, Senegal — Clashes between protesters and police continued for the fifth straight day Sunday in downtown Dakar, where demonstrations of any kind are prohibited ahead of the February 26th elections.

Angry demonstrators controlled three blocks in the center of Dakar Sunday afternoon and tore down a large campaign sign of President Abdoulaye Wade.

At the core of the unrest remains Wade's controversial candidacy. The 85-year-old president is running for a third term, despite a constitutional limit of two, and this has prompted the unrest.

But protests in this Muslim-majority country have taken on a religious tone since Friday, when a police officer threw tear-gas into a downtown mosque in which some demonstrators had sought refuge.

The incident was broadcast on local television and acknowledged by the government, which promised an investigation into the matter.

"Effectively, the perpetrator will be punished," said presidential spokesman Serigne Mbacké Ndiaye over local radio.

Sunday's protest took place near the same mosque and started as the result of a miscommunication, according to members of the congregation.

The El Hadj Malick Sy Mosque held a gathering for a religious leader returning from Morocco. False reports that it was a political gathering in response to Friday's incident attracted protesters, who may not have come otherwise and who clashed with police 100 yards away from the mosque.

However, the conflict was tinged with religious sentiment, with protesters yelling "Allahu Akhbar" as they advanced on police behind improvised shields made from vendors' metal shacks and wooden tables to protect themselves from tear-gas and rubber bullets.

"Abdoulaye Wade doesn't have the right to throw tear-gas into our sacred places," said Diop, a protester who only gave his last name. "It is unjust. It is an insult and we will never forgive it."

More from GlobalPost: Senegal protests small but determined

Others at the mosque respected the call of the imam to refrain from violence, even if they understand the sentiment of those who did not.

"We're not here for a political reason," said Djibril Dieng, a member of the Tidjane brotherhood that owns the mosque. "But, as you can see, it has turned into something else because the security forces have come to attack us."

"We are only defending our mosque," he added.

The crowd seemed more passionate and less-easily dispersed than in previous protests, which have been common since Senegal's high court approved Wade's third term candidacy on January 27th.

The police held their position for about two hours and refrained from fully dispersing the protesters until after the religious gathering had adjourned. At least three protesters were injured in the conflict, including a young man who suffered a head wound, reportedly from a tear-gas canister.

Despite the increased intensity, the protests have remained relatively small in Senegal — a stable democracy where many have confidence in the electoral process that has seen two for two peaceful transitions of power. 

Although small the protests have disrupted the order in Dakar. Wade has dismissed the demonstrations as nothing more than a “light breeze which rustles the leaves of a tree, but never becomes a hurricane.”

Senegal is widely viewed as key to the stability of West Africa. It is the only nation in the region and one of only a few in Africa that has never experienced a military coup.

Senegal’s democratic tradition dates to 1848, when citizens in the then French colony had the right to elect a deputy to the French parliament. This is a considerably longer history with democracy than most African countries which only started holding elections after colonial rule ended in the 1960s.

More from GlobalPost: Amid protests, President Abdoulaye Wade leads his own motorcade rally in Dakar

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