Thousands filled a sandy plaza here Saturday to demonstrate against Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, who is trying to extend his time in office in what critics say is a violation of the country’s Constitution.
The attempt by the 85-year-old president has unleashed a wave of protests, some violent, in a poor West African nation that alone among its neighbors has a long tradition of relative democracy. There has never been a coup d’etat in this former French colony, and the speakers at Saturday’s rally urged Mr. Wade to respect the country’s record and to step down immediately.
The opposition press and politicians here routinely accuse Mr. Wade — a remote, acerbic figure who spent a lifetime in opposition politics before his peaceful election in 2000 — of trying, as many of his peers in this part of the world have done, to stay in his sumptuous colonial-era presidential palace until his death.
“The countdown has begun, and we’re going to keep up the pressure until Abdoulaye Wade leaves,” one of the president’s former prime ministers, Mack Sall, who has joined the protesters, told the cheering, densely packed crowd in the palm-fringed Place de l’Obelisque. “We say no to the violation of the Constitution!” Mr. Sall yelled, as people held up signs, some using language imitating that from the protests in North Africa this year. One sign read: “Wade, give it up, you are 100 years old.” (The president is widely believed to be older than his official age.)
Buses later brought in thousands of pro-Wade supporters to a counterdemonstration.
Mr. Wade, first elected for seven years, was re-elected in 2007 for five more years after a change in the laws shortened the presidential term. His supporters argue that the change gives him the right to run for a third term next year despite a two-term limit. The critics say he is violating the spirit of the Senegal Constitution and the country’s record as a continental bastion of democracy.
“The president is doing whatever he wants, and he is not respecting the Constitution,” said one demonstrator, Serigne Touray Faye, who works in a car-rental agency. Like the others on Saturday, he had been forced to protest in a neighborhood at the edge of this bustling metropolis’s center after Mr. Wade’s interior minister last week banned demonstrations downtown. Trucks filled with armed soldiers dotted the capital on Saturday. In last month’s protests, some national electricity company offices were burned; power cuts lasting hours and sometimes days are a major grievance here.
The earlier protest forced Mr. Wade to back off a proposed change that would have given him victory with only 25 percent of the vote, however.
“This is a cry from the heart,” said Djily Aidara, one of Saturday’s protest leaders and a founder of a prominent local rap group Y en a Marre (“We are Fed Up”) .“We’re fed up with their games. We say no to corruption. Senegal doesn’t belong to any single politician.”