Ex-Nigerian leader in Senegal to mediate
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo arrived in Senegal on Tuesday to try to mediate a solution to the country's political impasse less than a week before a contentious presidential election takes place.
In the hour before his arrival, police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators as they took to the streets and set fire to tires in a show of anger over the candidacy of the country's 85-year-old leader.
Despite President Abdoulaye Wade's age and the growing unrest, he has continued to say he will run for a third term in Sunday's election even though the constitution was revised to impose a two-term maximum.
Six people have been killed in clashes that have erupted regularly over the past three weeks since the country's highest court ruled that the elderly leader could stand for a third term.
Obasanjo is officially in Senegal as the head of a joint African Union and West African regional bloc election observation mission, but his experience in brokering disputes elsewhere in Africa is likely to play a prominent role.
He told reporters at the airport upon his arrival that although his primary reason for being in the country is to monitor the election, he will not hesitate to step up and take a proactive role in order "to prevent what is preventable."
"This country is a very beautiful country and nothing should be done to destroy it," he added.
A former United Nations envoy, Obasanjo has played a role in mediating conflicts elsewhere on the continent, and last year traveled to Ivory Coast to tell ex-Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo to relinquish power after losing that country's election.
It's a turning of the tables for Wade, who has tried to broker conflicts across the world, even traveling to Benghazi last year to call for the departure of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Senegalese newspapers have been quick to remind readers that Wade himself counseled Obasanjo not to run for a third term.
Obasanjo is remembered for overseeing the first peaceful transfer of power from a military to a civilian government in Nigeria's history, as well as for stepping down in 2007 after two terms.
Asked at the airport to comment on that incident and what message he is bringing Wade now, Obasanjo replied: "If President Wade advised me not to run for a third term — which I was not running (for) — maybe he can best advise himself," he said.
Earlier in the day, opposition leaders attempted to lead a demonstration in Place de l'Independance, a square located blocks from the presidential palace and the seat of government.
Among the demonstrators was international pop star Youssou Ndour, who said Wade should be taken at his word. The Senegalese singer recalled that Wade — who spent 25 years as the leader of the country's opposition before winning the 2000 poll — had once said that he would leave if the people stood up and told him to go.
Earlier Tuesday, reporters asked Wade's spokesman if Obasanjo was coming to Senegal to ask Wade to refrain from running for a third term.
"Obasanjo is coming as the head of a mission of African Union election observers. If in addition to this observation mission he wants to take the opportunity to talk to people, we're open," said presidential spokesman Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye.
"In the subject of democracy, I think no one is in a position to give us lessons," he added.
"When there is violence, it's regrettable, but less than a year ago, you saw what happened in the suburbs of France where the youths destroyed everything in their path. And yet, France is a great democracy. So there can be a tense situation in a country. There can be unrest, because we're only human."
The street violence that has disrupted daily life in Senegal is highly uncharacteristic for this normally placid nation, long held up as a model of tolerance and stability. Many worry that if Wade is declared the winner of Sunday's ballot, the unrest will spread.
The country's opposition had vowed to render the country ungovernable if Wade insists on running for a third term. The M23 opposition coalition said in a statement hours before Obasanjo's arrival that they are calling on the African Union to apply pressure so that "Wade is obliged to backtrack in order to preserve peace in Senegal."