By Rukmini Callimachi / AP
DAKAR: Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is in Senegal to observe and help mediate a solution to this weekend’s contentious election, is meeting opposition candidates on Wednesday.
The retired leader, who has helped mediate conflicts elsewhere in Africa, told reporters upon his arrival Tuesday that Senegal “is a very beautiful country and nothing should be done to destroy it.”
Senegal is tense and an air of uncertainty blankets the capital with just five days to go before Sunday’s presidential election. Businesses on the main commercial avenues surrounding the presidential palace are boarded up and pieces of plywood cover shop windows as if a hurricane is about to pass through town.
The country has been rocked by daily protests after the opposition vowed to render the country ungovernable if 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade runs for a third term on Sunday. Wade has been dismissive, characterizing the protests as nothing more than a “light breeze which rustles the leaves of a tree, but never becomes a hurricane.”
Many are worried, however, because the pace of the protests is unlike anything Senegal has experienced in years.
The country is considered the most stable in the region. Its democratic traditions run deep, with historians dating Senegal’s democracy to at least the mid-1800s, when France allowed citizens of this former colony to elect a deputy to the French parliament.
Obasanjo is officially in Senegal as the head of a joint African Union and West African regional bloc observation mission. But since leaving office in 2007, Obasanjo has become one of Africa’s most high-powered mediators. At the airport Tuesday he told reporters that he would not hesitate to help mediate a solution in order to “prevent the preventable.”
Among the opposition leaders that he is meeting on Wednesday is Wade’s former protege, ex-Prime Minister Idrissa Seck who is now running against the leader. Earlier this week, Wade’s spokesman Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye called a press conference to disclose that the government had discovered that one of the 13 opposition candidates had recruited a personal militia with the aim of sowing unrest ahead of the vote.
Senegalese newspapers identified the candidate as Seck, even though he called the accusations absurd. Unlike the other candidates, Seck’s bodyguards wear ski masks over their faces with cutout holes for their eyes and mouth. They wear camouflage or else a black uniform, giving them a paramilitary look.
Obasanjo is also meeting with M23, a coalition of opposition groups which takes its name from the massive anti-government protests that immobilized the capital last June 23.
The M23 said in a statement Tuesday that they are calling on the international community to do what it can to prevent Wade from running in Sunday’s poll. Even though Senegal has one of the most established democracies in the region, people fear that the ruling party will try to rig the vote so that Wade wins.