DAKAR, Senegal — In the biggest challenge yet to Senegal’s aging president, thousands of demonstrators shut down the capital’s downtown district Friday and took to the streets in three towns in the interior, lobbing rocks at police who forced them back with tear gas, rubber bullets and fire hoses.
Anger is boiling over after the party of Senegal’s 85-year-old leader proposed a constitutional amendment which would create the post of vice-president.
Critics say the position is being engineered so President Abdoulaye Wade can hand power to his unpopular son — expected to become the vice-president if the measure passes — if Wade dies in office.
Clouds of tear gas enveloped the square in front of the country’s parliament, where lawmakers gathered to deliberate the proposal on Thursday.
Young men covered their faces with T-shirts and took cover in the garages and courtyards of homes lining the spokelike avenues leading to the seat of government.
Private radio station RFM reported that the demonstrators set fire to the home of ruling party lawmaker Farba Senghor.
Protesters also encircled the home of another pro-Wade lawmaker to make it impossible for him to reach parliament in time for the vote.
Demonstrators also blocked roads and burned tires in the provincial towns of Matam, Kaolack and Saint Louis, indicating the protests were spreading. Wade is already facing criticism for deciding to run for a third term in next year’s presidential election, which would mean he could rule into his 90s.
“Back in the old days we had kings and kingdoms, but we’re supposed to be a democracy now,” said 55-year-old Gallo Diene, a factory worker who took the day off work to join the march. “I voted for Wade in 2000 and again in 2007. But I’m done voting for him. What he’s doing is trying to install a monarchy.”
Passage of the amendment by the 150-member National Assembly seems ensured because Wade’s party controls 131 of those seats. If passed in the assembly, the senate, where the ruling party also has the majority, would vote on the proposal.
“People are not dumb,” said London-based writer and critic Mbaye Sanou, who was in Senegal for the protest. “We were just waiting for a detonator. Everywhere else in the world people are rising up — Tunisia, Egypt. But nothing was happening here. This is the drop of water that made the vase run over. I just hope that what comes next will follow the Tunisian scenario, not the Ivorian one.”
In Tunisia, the longtime ruler chose to leave after protests. In Ivory Coast, strongman Laurent Gbagbo nearly dragged the country into civil war by refusing to leave office after losing last year’s election.
Once a symbol of the opposition, Wade came to power 11 years ago in what is considered the first free and fair election in the region. Outgoing President Abdou Diouf is held up throughout Africa for stepping down without a fight and for telephoning Wade on the night of the president’s defeat to congratulate him.
Since he was first elected, Wade has strayed from his opposition roots, going the way of other entrenched African leaders who have used control of state institutions to prolong their stay in office.
He set off a wave of criticism in 2009 when he announced he planned to run for a third term in 2012, using a loophole in the electoral law to circumvent the two-term maximum set out in the constitution.
The opposition claims that Wade, officially 85, is in fact several years older and may already be nearing 90. It is common for rural families to delay registering the birth of their children, especially boys, so that they can stay at home longer to help in the fields before being required to start school.
Although Wade has not announced whom he would choose as his running mate, critics say the post of vice-president is being created for his eldest child, Karim Wade, who has already been appointed minister of state and minister of energy.
“We’re not against Karim Wade,” said protester Assane Ndiaye, a university student. “Karim can be a candidate like any other, but he shouldn’t be carried into office on his father’s shoulders.”
Having a vice-president would allow for automatic succession in the event of the president’s death. Currently if Wade were to die in office, the head of the National Assembly would become interim president until new elections can be organized.