By Rotimi Fasan
SENEGALESE President, Abdoulaye Wade, is an old man by any standard. You only need to look at him to know. While according to official records he was born in 1926, street lore has it that he might be much older given poor record keeping in those days. Which means the president might be entirely blameless in the mix-up in his age.
Was it not in 2003, on the eve of his seventieth birthday, that JP Clark-Bekederemo, one of Nigeria’s celebrated writers, discovered he was born in 1933? Up till that time any fresh student of English or Literature, in Nigeria, believed the writer of Song of a Goat among other memorable plays and poems was born in 1935.
This probably proves right those who say that age is a mere number, for I doubt if that difference in his date of birth had any fundamental effect on the person of Professor Clark. Yet one might say there is nothing strange about Mr. Wade reducing his age if he had done so deliberately. It’s wide spread practice in these parts of the world. For both understandable and quite dishonest reasons people, even those that are ordinarily honest, lie about their age.
So President Wade would only be doing the typical by reducing his age. While his actual age might be disputable, what is not disputable is that President Wade is quite advanced in age even if he is one old man with apparently very strong constitution. This much is clear when you see the president in person.
This brings me to the strange part of his story- his reluctance to leave office after almost 13 years. Given the history of African leaders, this part of the story might not be strange after all. Were the likes of Kamuzu-Banda and Hup Boigny young men when they chose to turn their stay in office into life presidencies?
Even Leopold Sedar Senghor, Wade’s mentor, Senegal’s first president and one of Africa’s most celebrated men of letters, left office an old man. But Wade is not only an old man, he is also one man with solid ideological presumptions, one whose long years in opposition politics gave the impression he was not power-hungry. All of this now appears like ancient history as President Wade has chosen to go for an unprecedented third term.
On 27th of January this year, a constitutional court ruled that the president could go for a third term in office, a decision many Senegalese rejected and took to the streets in violent protest.
President Wade who took office in 2000 after defeating Abdoul Diouf in the election of that year had promised not to run for a third term at the beginning of his second term in office in 2008. Perhaps in a bid to show that he neither had respect for sit-tight leaders nor harboured any intention of overstaying his welcome, he had cut the presidential term from seven years down to five years.
This was in 2001. But just as his first term came to an end he backtracked on his earlier decision and changed the presidential term back to seven years.
This was the early warning sign for the opposition that the president had begun to savour the pleasure of office and might not be eager to leave. Wade offered no explanation beyond saying that it was within his right to change his mind as he pleased. At some point many thought he might in fact be grooming his son, Karim, to take over from him. Karim is the Senegalese Minister for the Interior among other portfolios.
His sister is a leading member of the ruling elite. Situation like this seems to justify the charge of nepotism that has been levelled against the president. Increasingly, Senegalese criticise the culture of corruption, ineptitude and misuse of public funds that that has taken over their country. Like Houphouet Boigny who wasted Ivorian public fund on a Basilica in his home town of Yamoussoukro, President Wade has his own grandiose project in a so-called African Renaissance statue, a project into which he committed hard earned public fund and for which he expects to be paid royalty- for his ‘intellectual property’. Is this the kind of trick old age plays on people’s mind?
Yet one has the impression the president’s thinking is in no way impaired. Except the last one year has done serious damage to the man who spoke at the long conference sessions at the 3rd World Black Festival (FESTAC) hosted by Senegal in December 2010. Nigeria had hosted the second edition in 1977. It was my second visit to Senegal, the first being in 2003.
President Wade stayed through the long sessions, not as a passive guest or figure head but as a robust contributor to the debates and discussions that took place. He was very much at home, alert and attentive to all that went on. He was more or less the all-round discussant to the presentations made by various speakers.
He spoke with insight and at length. This should be big deal for any leader- but even more so for someone of his age. How terrible then that it is this same man of high intellect that is somehow leading his country down the slough of disintegration.
Abdoulaye Wade made his first bid for the presidency in 1978. He would make three more attempts before finally coming up victorious in 2000. Although he made brief forays into the corridors of power participating in past administrations, he was mostly in the opposition camp where he championed the cause of the masses. He formed and had led the Senegalese Democratic Party since 1974.
His staying power was his unflinching commitment to the cause of his people. A champion of African unity, his advocacy of a United States of Africa underscored his continental outlook and placed him in the mould of Kwame Nkrumah among other first generation African leaders. This sterling record is now been sullied by President Wade’s sit-tight ambition. Coming in the wake of the Arab Spring that swept off sit-tight leaders from across Tunisia through Egypt and Libya, it is not only disappointing but also lamentable that this should be happening again in Africa.
Can nothing good come out of this continent? I have fond memories of Dakar, especially of my first visit there. There is something of the character of that city, the weather and markets, that reminds one very much of Lagos or any of Nigerian cities despite the obviously French architecture. Would this city, the country now go the way of other maimed African countries like Ivory Coast after Laurent Gbagbo or Liberia after Samuel Doe? This is the question President Wade must ponder before he plunges his country into an avoidable war.