Olusegun Obasanjo Meets Opposition In Tense Senegal

AFP – Africa’s top envoy met Senegal opposition leaders Wednesday in a bid to defuse tensions ahead of weekend elections as Dakar was on alert for more protests against President Abdoulaye Wade’s third term bid.

The European Union weighed in with a call for all sides to halt violence and for a ban on street protests to be lifted, while France condemned security force violence against protesters.

The United States also urged Senegal to respect the right to peaceful protest and to avoid the use or threat of force.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said all Senegalese should be able to “participate peacefully and actively in the political process.”

Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who is heading an African Union observer mission, held talks with several presidential candidates on his first day in the country, the AU said in a statement.

Obasanjo indicated upon his arrival Tuesday he would be willing to mediate the stand-off to “prevent what is desirable and unwanted” in a country long regarded as one of Africa’s most stable democracies.

But the government said this was not necessary.

Downtown Dakar cleared out by late Wednesday afternoon, with a heavy presence of riot police as the opposition planned to defy a ban on gathering there which has led to daily clashes in the run up to Sunday’s polls.

However only a few dozen people had shown up by nightfall, along with presidential candidates Idrissa Seck, Ibrahima Fall and Cheikh Bamba Dieye, before dispersing peacefully.

The European Union urged all sides to end violence that has left six dead and dozens injured since late January in Senegal’s worst political crisis since independence.

“The EU considers that the ban on demonstrations is unnecessary and unhelpful, and it urges the authorities to lift it,” said Sebastien Brabant, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

“The EU supports the right of Senegalese people to demonstrate peacefully,” the spokesman said, calling for credible, peaceful and transparent elections.

Interior Minister Ousman Ngom has defended the ban, saying it covers a sensitive area housing state institutions, diplomatic buildings, banks and hospitals. He urged the opposition to gather in another suburb instead.

The June 23 Movement of opposition parties, rappers, civil society and music icon Youssou Ndour are however demanding the right to rally at Independence Square, a few blocks away from the presidential palace.

Members of the rapper-led “Fed Up” movement appeared in court Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to charges of staging a forbidden protest, after being arrested during an attempted sit-in last week.

The opposition wants 85-year-old Wade to withdraw his candidacy which they say is unconstitutional as the country’s law allows only two terms.

The defiant leader says changes to the constitution since his election allow him a fresh mandate.

Almost daily for the past week police have fired teargas to disperse protesters who try to access the square, throw rocks at security forces and set up flaming barricades in side-streets.

Nervous shop owners, many of whom complain about a drop in business, have boarded up their windows in the blocks around the presidential palace to try and prevent damage from the street clashes.

Former colonial power France, which has previously urged Wade to retire, on Wednesday condemned violence against protesters. France also expressed “solidarity” with Ndour, who was hurt in a clash with police.

Wade will face 13 opposition candidates, including three former prime ministers and the leader of the former ruling Socialist Party, in what is seen as a wide-open race.

Analysts say he has to secure a first round win against the divided opposition as he would be unlikely to fare well in a run-off.

A first round win could lead to more violence as the opposition has already raised concerns that Wade will find a way to steal the vote.

However Senegal, which has held elections since independence in 1960, has strong institutions and a democratic tradition which could thwart attempts by a president to manipulate the vote.

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