DAKAR (Reuters) - “I will tread on no corpses to get to the presidential palace,” Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade once declared from the opposition benches in a famous pledge to win power by democratic means.
But 12 years after he gained the presidency of the West African nation through the ballot box at his fifth attempt, riots over the octogenarian leader’s bid for re-election in an upcoming February 26 vote have already caused at least four deaths.
The bloodshed risks tarnishing both Wade’s legacy as one of the continent’s most prominent senior leaders and Senegal’s enviable image as a stable African state that has not suffered either a damaging coup or civil war since its independence.
Rivals say his renewed candidacy flagrantly breaches rules limiting presidents to two terms and they have vowed to make the predominantly Muslim former French colony, which is a popular with foreign tourists, “ungovernable” unless he backs down.
But the president, whose neoclassical palace overlooking the Atlantic Ocean is now protected by tear gas-equipped riot police, is determined to have a few more years’ tenancy.
The bald-headed ruler, whose diminutive stature belies a super-sized political ego, does not see why street protests should force him out.
“His road to power was long, hard and often lonely,” said political commentator Babacar Justin Ndiaye of Wade’s 26 years of opposition which, in a twist of irony, included jail spells for inciting anti-government protests of the sort he now faces.
“That gave him an unshakeable belief in his own legitimacy. He thinks he can do no wrong,” Ndiaye added of Wade, who openly mocks any comparison with the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011 that ousted incumbents in other Muslim states further north.
This apparently unmoveable self-belief has fueled a political career extraordinary even by the standards of a continent all too used to larger-than-life leaders.
While his birth date is disputed, Wade’s official age of 85 makes him a peer of founding fathers of African independence such as Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere or Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure. Along with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, he is the only one of that generation in power today.
The controversy over his candidacy has transfixed Senegal and drowned out debate over the unemployment, poverty and desperation that are the lot of many of its 12 million people.
It has also earned Wade opprobrium abroad. The United States has urged him to go gracefully, while France has complained about the invalidation of the bids of rivals by the Constitutional Council, whose five judges Wade picked.
Admirers and critics call him “The Hare” - an animal which in Senegal symbolises cunning as the fox does in Europe. If Wade wins the election as he predicts, he would be at least 92 years old if he completes his seven-year mandate.
But the prize Wade covets is not so much another full term as the right to have a say in who comes next. The risk for him is that in trying to shape posterity, he ruins his own legacy.
While both father and son strenuously deny it, critics say Wade’s last ambition is to see his 43-year-old son Karim Wade take over from him in a monarchy-style succession.
A merchant banker who is fluent in English but struggles in the local Wolof language, Wade Jr’s political debut in 2009 municipal elections in Dakar ended in humiliation as rival Socialists gained control of the capital city.
While that silenced talk of Karim running for president this year, his father handed him a “superministry” portfolio whose duties range from re-launching the national airline to overhauling the decrepit power grid.
Abdoulaye Wade insists his son is a financier of genius. Critics see a transparent attempt to ease him into line for the presidency in the same way Gabon’s late leader Omar Bongo positioned his son Ali to secure power in 2009.
For some, Wade’s move last June to break ranks with other African leaders backing Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and declare support for Western-backed rebels during a visit to their Benghazi stronghold was a bid to win foreign blessing for the succession scheme.
Days later, he unveiled plans to limit the Senegalese election to a single round and create a “double-ticket” ballot shared with a vice-presidential running mate - a move many saw as a ruse to get his son into the presidency by the back door.
But if Wade thought his Libyan trip had curried favour with Paris and Washington, he was wrong. Neither capital offered any word of support as angry street protests promptly forced him to withdraw both the proposals.
“Going to Libya like that, at his age, was no fun,” said analyst Ndiaye. “But he was snared by his own ambition - to put his son in power.”
While that interpretation is widely shared and has credence among Dakar-based diplomats, it is rejected outright by Wade’s inner circle and others who know him well.
Wade biographer Marcel Mendy sees his candidacy as a gambit to win time until his beloved Democratic Party of Senegal (PDS) has found a new-generation presidential hopeful after the exodus of a series of party heavyweights who rowed with the president.
“Wade knows better than anyone that the PDS would lose if he doesn’t stand,” said Mendy. “It is a candidacy by default.”
Sitting at his desk in an annex to the presidential palace, Wade’s campaign manager and long-time ally El Hadji Amadou Sall re-tells Wade’s favorite story of the moment when he revealed to his father an ambition to enter politics.
“His father asked him two questions: ‘Have you got money? And are you ready to go jail?’ When Wade replied ‘yes’ to both questions, he said simply: ‘Right. Off you go then’.”
It was a moment of paternal prescience that would prepare the son both for the bruising encounters ahead and for the hole that Senegal’s patronage politics would burn in his pocket.
A grant scholar at the Concordet lycee in Paris whose alumni include Jean Cocteau and Toulouse-Lautrec, Wade went on to pick up a wad of diplomas around French universities during the 1950s before returning to Dakar to teach and finally practise law.
Consultancy work for the African Development Bank and others gave Wade the financial wherewithal to step into politics. As a short-lived and maverick member of the ruling Socialists, he made his name highlighting the plight of farmers during the drought that swept through West Africa in the early 1970s.
But Wade was stifled in a party dominated by Senegal’s founding president, the poet-intellectual Leopold Sedar Senghor. He needed to strike out on his own - but with strict limits on political parties still in place, the question was how.
Finally, Wade asked Senghor for permission to launch a mainstream, liberal party. In an era when incumbents throughout Africa were watching their backs for Marxist coup-plotters, Wade’s choice of the latter reassured the aging leader.
“At the time a lot of people were flirting with the ideas of the left, but Wade was convinced they wouldn’t work in Africa. He is a nationalist,” said Sall.
The Democratic Party of Senegal (PDS) Wade launched in 1974 was to be his political warhorse for the next four decades.
“CASH DISPENSER UP HIS SLEEVE”
Initially styling the PDS as a coalition-minded group rather than an out-and-out opposition party, Wade lulled Senghor into a sense of security - only to stand against him in the 1978 vote.
It was the shocked Senghor who first dubbed Wade “The Hare.”
While it was the first of what would be four presidential defeats, it heralded the emergence of a politician with both the charisma and resources to worry the entrenched ruling elite.
Amath Dansokho, secretary-general of the left-wing Party of Independence and Labor (PIT) who over the decades has been both friend and foe to Wade, describes a “political virtuoso” at work during one early campaign tour together.
“When he arrived in some villages, old men would weep as if Mohammed had descended from the skies,” he recalled.
“And the money: it was like he had a cash dispenser up his sleeve, dishing out 50,000 CFA francs ($100) in villages whose total worldly goods added up to 5,000 CFA,” Dansokho said of “gifts” which are still today features of African elections.
Wade was gradually stacking up a number of achievements to his name: he had been a main mover behind Senegal’s transition to multi-party politics and had campaigned with success for an easing of restrictions on civil and democratic rights.
But the late 1980s and the 1990s were lean years for Wade, who - fulfilling his father’s prophecy - saw short spells in prison accused of inciting riots after disputed elections which his supporters were convinced he had really won.
By 1998 he had even left Senegal for brief exile in France. But two years later, Wade’s moment finally came.
Persuaded by Dansokho and others to fight the 2000 election against Senghor’s successor Abdou Diouf, whose government was struggling against rising unpopularity, Wade flew back o Dakar to streets lined with hundreds of thousands of supporters.
“It was then that Diouf knew it was over,” Dansokho told Reuters in the living room of the Dakar apartment where a small group of backers helped Wade draft his campaign manifesto.
“AFRICAN RENAISSANCE” MAN
After beating Diouf with a comfortable 58 percent victory that ousted the Socialist Party from power for the first time since 1960, it took Wade a while to adjust to his new role.
In cabinet, his prickly, domineering character led to run-ins with allies: Wade has gone one through prime minister every two years. Three of them - Moustapha Niasse, Idrissa Seck and Macky Sall - are now standing against him this month.
“He is an ideas factory and his style is direct and without frills. He has the pragmatism of the private sector,” said Amadou Sall, acknowledging internal frictions.
A diehard Keynsian, Wade has pumped cash into a Western-standard motorway and gleaming new airport which, when completed, he hopes will turn Senegal in a regional trade hub.
While his advanced age occasionally shows, palace workers say he is rarely out of the office before 9.30 p.m. In a late-night January 9 interview with Reuters he repeatedly scolded advisers for trying to wrap up the meeting quickly.
“I don’t have to list my achievements because they are there for all to see,” he said. “For me it’s always been about work.”
His admirers say Wade has done more in 12 years than the Socialists did in 40 - and even some rivals are apt to agree.
But whether it has been enough is another matter.
According to the U.N. Development Programme’s measure of poverty, two-thirds of Senegalese still face deprivations in health, education and living standards.
With formal employment rare, urban youth hawk phone credit cards by the roadside and college graduates stack shelves in supermarkets to eke out a living and send money “back to the village” - shorthand for their even poorer rural relations.
Wade has missed a goal of attaining food self-sufficiency, while a simmering separatist conflict in the postcard-beautiful southern Casamance region - which Wade vowed in 2000 to solve in 100 days - has hamstrung the tourist sector.
As daily power outages in the crumbling energy sector plunged the country into darkness, Dakar locals were agog when Wade unveiled in 2010 a monument to “African Renaissance” slightly bigger than New York’s Statue of Liberty.
Described in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable as a “titanic, grandiose edifice of a style reminiscent of the Stalinesque behemoths of the halcyon days of the Soviet Union,” some Senegalese joke that the statue of man, woman and child is none other than Wade, his wife and his son Karim.
Far from going away, the accusations of corruption which dogged the Socialists have got louder during the Wade years - and even earned him a warning from the United States that failure to tackle graft could jeopardise foreign aid.
The North Korean-built “Renaissance” statue itself has been in the line of fire. Wade has taken flak for shaving off a cut of tourist revenues for his private charity, and has batted away allegations of shady real estate dealings linked to it.
His rule has given birth to a new class of Senegalese - the nouveau riche “cornichards” spotted zipping in powerful sports utility vehicles along the ocean-side corniche which Wade built from his palace to the airport.
It is this division of Senegalese society between the massed ranks of the losers and a privileged clique of winners which is now firing the protests against Wade’s bid for a third term.
Whatever his intentions - and Wade has shown in the past he can change his mind at a stroke - he has created confusion in a fragmented opposition camp of no fewer than 13 challengers.
If he wins, that victory may come at a cost of turning foreign allies away from him. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said this week his candidacy could endanger Senegal’s democracy and stability.
By calling it a day, Wade would have pulled off Senegal’s first democratic handover of power and then been able to join the small but prestigious band of African leaders who have quit of their own accord.
As it is, he is skirting dangerously close to the pariah camp occupied by the likes of Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to step down last year cost his country four months of bloody conflict. International and domestic observers will be scrutinising Senegal’s vote for any trace of fraud.
But for now, Wade is in his element. The blue-and-white scarf of the PDS around his neck, the president was on the campaign trail this week - exuding confidence and goading his rivals with the taunt: “I am the last barracuda among the little fish.”
Writing by Mark John; Editing by Pascal Fletcher