Third Term Crisis: Obasanjo peace envoy to Senegal

Olusegun Obasanjo

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Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has arrived Dakar, Senegal saying that he would not rule out intervening to mediate over “undesirable” events as protests again rocked the capital ahead of weekend polls.

Senegal has witnessed days of protests over the plans by incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade to seek a third term mandate at the polls scheduled for 26 February. Obasanjo too had attempted to change Nigeria’s constitution during his tenure to secure a third term. The move was aborted by Nigeria’s National Assembly.

Obasanjo heads a joint mission between the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but the opposition hopes he will talk President Abdoulaye Wade out of seeking a highly disputed third term in Sunday’s election.

“The mandate we have is of election observation, but because of the situation that is on the ground we will not say that we are observing elections and where the need arises that we should do something to be proactive and prevent what is preventable, that we will fail to do so,” Obasanjo said.

The former Nigerian leader later added that part of his mission entailed preventing “what is undesirable and unwanted” as fresh clashes erupted in downtown Dakar between police and opposition protesters.

An ECOWAS statement said Obasanjo’s mission was “to engage all the political stakeholders in Senegal with a view to promoting dialogue and ensuring peaceful, fair and transparent elections.”

Wade’s critics have recalled that he was among the African leaders who pressured Obasanjo not to seek a third term in 2007 elections when he attempted to change the constitution to do so. His plan was thwarted in parliament.

Obasanjo, who appeared not to recall Wade’s urging, said that if it was true “maybe he can best advise himself.”

Asked what message he had for the country’s leaders from the African Union, Obasanjo said: “This country is a very beautiful country, and nothing should be done to destroy it.”

Senegalese police on Tuesday used tear gas to disperse opposition supporters attempting to gather for a banned protest against President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid for a third term in weekend polls. Small groups of protesters converging on Independence Square, close to the presidency, were met by riot police firing tear gas, an AFP correspondent reported.

Protestors did not respond with stone-throwing, as they had done in several other rallies during the tense run-up to Sunday’s election which has already claimed six lives.

A few hundred yards away, policemen were locked in a standoff with a group of protesters headed by former prime minister Idrissa Seck, who is contesting Sunday’s vote, and music legend Youssou Ndour, whose candidacy was rejected by the constititional court.

Hundreds of supporters gathered around the two opposition leaders’ vehicles, chanting in Wolof, “Gorgui, na dem!” (Get out, old man), in reference to Wade who, at 85, is Africa’s second oldest head of state.

The opposition is hoping that Obasanjo can talk 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade out of seeking a third term.

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Wade’s camp said he was welcome to observe the February 26 election but made it clear there was nothing to mediate for the former Nigerian president.

“It would be poetic justice,” said prominent anti-Wade campaigner Alioune Tine, recalling that Obasanjo had been thwarted from changing the constitution to accomodate his own ambitions for a third term in 2007 elections under pressure from African peers, including Wade.

Despite having served two terms in office, a limit he himself introduced, Wade says later changes to the constitution allow him to serve two more mandates.

Presidential spokesman Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye said Obasanjo would be welcomed with open arms but “as of now no mediation is expected.”

“If he takes advantage to talk to someone or the other we are open to that, but we remain firm on certain principles” such as the election taking place on Sunday, he said.

Tuesday protest was called by opposition presidential candidate Cheikh Bamba Dieye, his spokeswoman Awa Marone confirmed. Election-related violence has already claimed six lives.

On Monday despite calls to protest few turned out and police calmly sent them away without the violence seen in preceding days.

Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom reiterated in a statement that the ban was in place “to preserve a sensitive area which houses several state institutions, diplomatic representatives, banks and hospitals.”

He said alternative areas such as Obelisk Square, where the opposition held earlier protests, were available to candidates wishing to hold rallies.

Wade’s spokesman called for “peace and serenity” assuring that all measures had been taken for the holding of a peaceful, democratic and transparent election.

He said nearly 3,000 observers from 101 organisations were accredited. The AU is sending a team of 90 people and ECOWAS 150.

Senegal, one of Africa’s most stable democracies, is facing its most tumultuous polls since independence.

Wade has brushed off opposition concerns as “temper tantrums” and derided criticism from France and the United States, which have both urged him to retire.

He will face 13 opposition contenders, including three former prime ministers, in Sunday’s election.