DAKAR, Senegal — Senegal's highest court ruled Friday the country's increasingly frail, 85-year-old president could run for a third term in next month's election, a deep blow to the country's opposition, which has vowed to take to the streets if the aging leader does not step aside.
Minutes after the court's verdict, police opened fire with tear gas to disperse hundreds of young men who had gathered at a downtown roundabout. Protesters hid in side streets and in groups of five and six ran back out to lob rocks at the security forces.
The protests spread throughout the capital as demonstrators dragged wooden market tables into intersections and set them on fire. In the provincial capital of Kaolack, a mob set fire to the ruling party's headquarters, and in Thies, angry youths blocked the national highway, according to a private radio station.
The legality of President Abdoulaye Wade's candidacy is bitterly disputed because the constitution was revised soon after he assumed office in 2000 to impose a two-term limit. Wade argues the new law should not apply to him since he was elected before it took effect.
The court deliberated behind closed doors for hours before emerging and issuing a list of 14 approved candidates, including Wade. Senegalese pop star Youssou Ndour, arguably Africa's most famous musician, was not on the list — another blow to the opposition, which had hoped that Ndour's candidacy would shine an international spotlight on the race.
"The fact that my candidacy was deemed unacceptable is a political matter. Those in power are afraid of me," said the Grammy-winning Ndour on the private TV station he owns. "I will not let go of this because when I decide to do something I do it all the way. This Saturday, I will draft an appeal."
Since early afternoon, hundreds of youths carrying cardboard signs calling for Wade's departure milled around a downtown square, where they vowed to spend the night in protest if the court approved the leader's candidacy.
Police wearing fiberglass helmets took up positions at strategic intersections in the capital. Businesses sent their employees home. Schools sent notes to parents asking them to pick up their children early.
A lawyer by training with multiple degrees from universities in France, Wade spent 25 years as the country's opposition leader. He ran and lost in four elections before his victory 11 years ago in an election hailed as a breakthrough for democracy on a continent better known for strongman rule. Former President Abdou Diouf stunned the world by calling Wade to concede defeat, a gesture unheard of in the region. Now many are wondering if Wade himself will step aside gracefully.
Since taking office, he has come under mounting criticism, first for delegating an increasing share of power to his son, as well as for the corruption scandals that have overshadowed his administration's achievements, including the building of numerous roads and bridges.
After winning a second term in 2007, Wade told reporters he would not seek a third term. He then reversed course, arguing that the term limits were imposed after he was elected, and that no law can be applied retroactively.
"I'm a lawyer too. And the constitution, it's me that revised it. All by myself. ... No one can interpret it better than me," Wade told the news portal Dakaractu.Com in an interview this week. "I was elected in 2000 on the basis of a law dating from 1963. After I was elected, I saw to it that a new constitution was adopted. Everyone knows that a law dictates the present and the future, but it cannot be retroactive."
Hours after the court's ruling, Wade addressed the nation. "Let us stop with this display of bad temper which leads to nothing," he said according to the state-owned news agency. "I did not ask for anything except the law. And the law is what was expressed."
Senegal is considered one of the most mature democracies in Africa, and unlike many of its neighbors, its democratic tradition dates to even before independence from France 51 years ago. Starting in the mid-1800s, France allowed its colony to elect a deputy who served in the French parliament.
And in his official biography, Wade traces his roots to the Cayor kingdom located in Senegal's central plains, where kings were elected by a committee of elders rather than through a hereditary system common in many other parts of Africa.
"What shocks people is that he would try to run for a third term," said the country's leading investigative journalist Abdou Latif Coulibaly, the editor-in-chief of The Gazette magazine who voted for Wade in 2000 but who is now supporting the opposition. "It's the problem of his age. It's the problem of the constitution. And to be frank, people are very scared that he will try to hand power to his son — which is something that the population does not want at all."
Hours before the court was due to release its verdict, Pape Sy circled the city looking for an open gas station. For three days, a fuel strike had closed down gas stations, adding yet another point of applied pressure. Finally in the Medina neighborhood of the capital, he pulled in behind the 13 other cars lined up head-to-toe at a Total station, which had just reopened. His gasoline gauge had already dipped below 0.
"Things don't smell good," he said, summing up the mood in the capital. "There are economic problems, and these other issues are attaching themselves onto that like pieces of Scotch tape. People want change. ... To me this really feels like the end of a reign."
Unlike nearly all its neighbors, Senegal does not have history of violent demonstrations, or of military intervention in state affairs. The country was shaken, however, by the riots that shut down the capital last summer when Wade's party attempted to rush a law through parliament that would have created the post of vice president, a move that critics said was an attempt to create a mechanism of succession through which Wade could pass power to his son.
At Place de l'Obelisque, hundreds of youths gathered to protest before the court's decision, saying they planned to turn it into the equivalent of Egypt's Tahrir Square if the five judges presiding over the constitutional court validate Wade's candidacy.
"Everyone knows that Wade's candidacy is anti-constitutional. The court must play the role of referee," said 34-year-old Ibrahima Diop, who like many in the square is unemployed. "We placed a lot of hope in Abdoulaye Wade. He let us down. We deserve better."