World-renowned singer Youssou Ndour stirred up the battle for Senegal’s presidency Tuesday by announcing he plans to take on veteran incumbent Abdoulaye Wade in February elections.
Revered in his home country as a music icon, it remains to be seen whether Ndour can turn listeners into voters in a politically savvy country with well established parties and leaders, including a vibrant opposition.
"Youssou Ndour has the capacity to reach sections of the population, particularly among urban youth that some other politicians might not be able to reach," said Paul Melly of the London-based Chatham House Africa program.
"But his ability to translate that into an effective political campaign is of course untested."
On the streets of the bustling capital Dakar, some say they were surprised by Ndour’s announcement Monday night, many applaud him for throwing his hat into the ring, but most feel his bid is too late to make a difference this year.
"He is not a head of state, he is an artist," said a security guard in downtown Dakar, asking not to be named.
However he conceded some might vote for him to avoid the re-election of Wade and "violation of the constitution" he is accused of in seeking a third term in office.
"It is a novelty," says insurance salesman Djibril Diop. "But let’s keep our feet on the ground. In the past Senegal has known its leaders as intellectuals. It is good to try but he belongs to the future. Time will tell for him."
In a country whose first post-independence president Leopold Sedar Senghor was a leading poet and academic, Ndour recognized that his lack of higher education was a shortfall.
But in declaring his "supreme patriotic duty" on his privately-owned television station Monday night, Senegal’s most famous export said he had heaps of experience to bring home.
"I have studied at the school of the world. Travel teaches as much as books."
Ndour has emerged as an outspoken critic of Wade, whose bid for a controversial third term in office has opposition and civil society groups fuming, and tensions have led to violent clashes in recent months.
"I have listened, I have heard, and I am responding favorably," Ndour said, referring to numerous requests that he throw his hat into the political ring.
Clashes between the ruling party and opposition at the end of December left one person dead and three injured, pointing to heightened tensions in the run-up to the poll.
Ndour, 52, announced at a concert in November that he had put performing on hold and formed his own political movement, Fekke ma ci bolle ("I am involved" in the Wolof language).
One influential analyst, who asked not to be named, said Ndour’s bid was "absurd … the Senegalese will never elect a singer as president."
Journalist Baba Diop however said it was possible "if he surrounds himself with competent advisors," referring to the upcoming poll as "the most open election" held since the country achieved independence from France in 1960. Hailed as one of the world’s greatest living singers, Ndour has achieved huge international success with his mixture of Senegal’s popular Mbalax music style with samba, hip-hop, jazz and soul.
In his declaration, Ndour said his campaign would include initiatives for peace in the troubled southern Casamance region, good governance, as well as agricultural and social development projects.
Wade was first elected president in 2000 for a seven-year term, and re-elected in 2007 for five years after a constitutional reform shortened presidential terms.
In 2008, the seven-year term was re-introduced, raising confusion over whether Wade had exhausted his two-term limit. The opposition says yes, he says no, and the constitutional court will rule on the issue later this month.
Some 20 candidates will be taking part in the election.
Former colonial power France is reportedly against the elderly Wade’s candidacy but, while trying to shake off its reputation for interfering in African affairs, is remaining publicly neutral.
"It’s for the Senegalese to decide, democratically," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday, when pressed on Ndour’s candidacy.