Youssou N’dour In The Sights Of Power

Senegal, long seen as a democratic model in West Africa, has begun an unexpected slide toward autocracy. The country’s 85 year old president, Abdoulaye Wade, in power for 12 years, has amended the constitution to allow himself another term in office.

Astou, who resides in Dakar and is a fan of the singer, put it this way :” He has too much to lose. He’s a community figurehead. Everybody loves his music, no matter the generation to which they belong. By getting involved in politics, he would, of course, make enemies. In Senegal, politics really are a quicksand pool. “

Nonetheless, this man, perceived above all as a” crooner ,” ran for the highest office. To be sure, his image rapidly evolved once he began putting together a powerful media group. Some even nicknamed him the Senegalese Citizen Kane. In addition to L’Observateur, the most widely-read of Senegalese dailies, he owns RFM, the most widely-heard of radio stations in Dakar, as well as TFM, a rapidly-growing private television station.

During one of its broadcasts, Youssou Ndour made the speech in which he declared himself a presidential candidate. After reminding listeners that he left school at a very young age, the singer explained that the presidency is a position and not a profession. That was his clever way of throwing into the relief the shortcomings of politicians who – unlike him — have never had success in other fields such as business and entertainment.

Barred from running

Youssou Ndour’s presidential ambitions were squelched by the Constitutional Council of Senegal, which invalidated his candidacy on January 31, 2012 on grounds that he had not collected the minimum necessary 10,000 signatures. Immediately, many in the international media, as well as regular political allies of Senegal, denounced what they considered an abuse of power.

In Dakar, though, many observers, including some who count among the singer’s supporters, were a great deal more circumspect.

One source close to the singer said :” Sure, Youssou Ndour collected more that 10,000 signatures, but when the Constitutional Council tried matching the signatures of his supporters with their addresses and voter registration numbers, irregularities began to show up. Of course Youssou Ndour has more than 10,000 supporters in Senegal, but his team is not familiar enough with the machinations of politics here. He should have formed his own party, if he wanted his candidacy taken seriously. “

An attorney asked about this thorny matter said ;” Twenty-four hours before the Constitutional Council’s decision was announced, a deal was proposed. In exchange for money, the irregularities in the signatures on his list would be overlooked. The singer and his team rejected that deal, believing it nothing more than a trap set by the authorities. “

However that might be, though the singer appealed, the Constitutional Council sustained its decision. The political opposition believed that power was being unjustly wielded – the President names the members of the Constitutional Council – and, according to that political opposition, the President did not want the singer running for office.

According to a source close to the singer :” Youssou Ndour has reason to be bitter. He had paid the high fee that the treasury required from him. He therefore thought he would be able to run for office. Yet despite all of that, he wound up being excluded from the election. “

Assan Fall, a senior official in Dakar, said” He would have been able to take a lot of votes away from President Wade. He would have garnered support from the same demographics, including the underclass and les mourides (a powerful religious brotherhood to which Abdoulaye Wade and Youssou Ndour belong). “

” If Wade asked the Constitutional Council to invalidate Youssou Ndour’s candidacy, he didn’t do it because he really thought the singer could beat him, as Wade believes himself unbeatable. He underestimates Youssou. In all of this, there is a certain amount of class resentment. “

He adds :” Abdoulaye Wade was also afraid of there being too much reporting about the election. He feared what would happen if all Western media were watching at the time of the ballot. Were the international media to take up Youssou Ndour’s cause, and if the political opposition started crying foul, that would have become difficult for him to keep control over. That could have had a disastrous impact on the image of the president. Senegal is supposedly the democratic showplace of French-speaking Africa. And Wade still mocks his counterpart heads of state in other African countries, by claiming that he got elected more democratically than they did. “

In resistance mode

When his candidacy was invalidated, Youssou Ndour showed the Senegalese a new face; an angry one.

” That surprised us a lot, ” says Aminata Diop, a business executive and an admirer of Youssou Ndour.” You could see his face twisted up in anger. Before, we had always seen him smiling. It was a big shock for us. And besides, that isn’t necessarily the best thing for his image. “

The invalidation of the candidacy did not stop Youssou Ndour’s political activism. Since then, he has not stopped criticizing President Wade’s” Consititutional coup d’Etat. ” He participates in meetings and marches of M23, the political movement that claims Wade’s candidacy is not constitutionally valid because, as the incumbent, Wade already served two consecutive terms.

Youssou Ndour is playing a major role in galvanizing the opponents of” Gorgui, ” — (a Wolof language word for” the Old one, ” as Wade is called in Dakar) — the 86-year-old president who wants to begin another seven year term. That commitment and tenacity is suprising to no small number of Senegalese, as Youssou Ndour actually long had maintained excellent rapport with President Wade.

The artist has put his singing career on pause. In addition to his media group, he owns a recording studio and le Thiossane, the famous concert hall where he shows up on weekends. What is Youssou Ndour hoping to achieve by throwing himself into the political arena to this extent ? The Senegalese are still asking themselves that question.

More popular in Europe

And the Senegalese are asking themselves that all the more because, according to quite a number of them, his political candidacy was taken more seriously in Europe than in Senegal.

” I find just unbelievable that the French claim that the invalidation of Youssou Ndour’s candidacy provoked the deadly Dakar riots, ” says Issa Sall, a well-known Dakar editorialist. He adds :” In truth, it was the validation of President Wade’s candidacy that lit the fuse on the powder keg. “

” I don’t understand why the Western media are obsessed with Youssou Ndour. We aren’t necessarily going to vote for him because he’s famous and we enjoy his music. He has no political experience. It’s idiotic for people to compare him to Reagan. Prior to becoming President, Reagan long served as Governor of California. By contrast, Youssou Ndour has no political experience, ” says Fatoumata Seck, a teacher.

She adds :” It’s a bit condescending towards the Senegalese to suppose that we would elect as president a singer who left school very early and has no political experience. “

In Dakar, it was rumored that upon hearing the announcement that Youssou Ndour would be running, President Wade asked.” Who does that circus entertainer think he is ? “

Another roadblock to Youssou Ndour’s candidacy was his class status ; he is a member of the griot caste. A business owner says :” I would never have voted for him. I would not give my daughter’s hand to a griot. I would not elect a griot president. “

” Officially, the caste system is no longer in force in Senegal. Intellectuals no longer dare to talk about it openly. There is a great deal of hypocrisy regarding the topic, but in reality the caste system still is in effect. The lower castes are still held in disdain by the upper classes, ” says Aissata, a student in Dakar.

Not everybody is as negative about Youssou Ndour’s electoral potential.” He could have been damaging to those in power. With Ndour in the running, Wade would not have gotten elected on the first round of voting, ” says Abdoulaye Bamba Diallo, head of the Nouvel Horizon, the most widely-read weekly in Senegal.

However that might be, Youssou Ndour is not giving up. By working the streets with the political opposition, and by demonstrating a certain degree of physical courage — something not seen in all of the opposition leaders — he has shown that his involvement in politics is not just a passing thing. In the months and years to come, he doubtless will be a force to reckon with.

” Even if Youssou does not become president one day soon, ” says a source close to him,”he could still play the role of king-maker. Not bad at all for a griot. Those who took him for a naive fool will soon regret having done so. “

Pierre Cherruau , Editor-in-Chief of Slate Afrique, in Dakar