DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegal's opposition movement plans a sleep-in Thursday at a downtown square in the capital, even though the government refused to authorize the demonstration being held only a week before the country's presidential election.
Senegalese police are allowed to use force to break up crowds at unauthorized protests as they did on Wednesday, when authorities fired tear gas to stop marchers who got within 500 yards of the presidential palace. Protesters are calling for the departure of 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade, who is running for a third term in the Feb. 26 election.
Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom defended the government's decision to ban the protests even though the campaign season is in full swing, and the ruling party is holding regular rallies. He told reporters Thursday that Senegal has a long democratic tradition, and pointed out that 3050 demonstrations had been authorized last year, while only 245 — or less than 5 percent — were banned due to a threat to public order.
He described the recent opposition demonstrations as a crime spree by vagrants and said that they cannot be equated with campaign events.
The sleep-in on Thursday is being organized by the youth movement Y'en a Marre, French for "We've had enough." The anti-Wade group is allied with the opposition but they are not fielding a candidate in the election, Ngom said.
Ngom also said that the police had recovered one pistol, explosives and several molotov cocktails at recent demonstrations — which he said showed that protesters had the intention of using violence.
Four people have been killed in anti-Wade demonstrations over the past two weeks since the country's highest court ruled that Wade could run for a third term, even though the constitution was revised in 2001 to impose a two-term maximum.
The violence has been mild by comparison to recent elections in Ivory Coast, Guinea and Nigeria where hundreds were killed. But the unrest is rattling Senegal, a nation of 12 million on Africa's western coast, which is considered the most stable democracy in the region.
Alioune Tine, the coordinator of M23, which represents a dozen opposition candidates running against Wade in next week's election, announced that they too would go ahead with demonstrations Friday and Saturday despite the ban.
"Citizens need to come to say 'No' to the violation of our constitution, and to demand the unconditional rejection of President Wade's candidacy," said Tine. "I want to remind the police that it is here to defend the republic. They need to refuse to be used by the regime."
Unlike many countries in Africa, Senegal has never experienced a coup or a military takeover. The country is deeply proud of its democratic tradition, which dates to the mid-1800s when the former French colony was given the right to elect a deputy to the French parliament.
Most of its neighbors in West Africa only began their democratic experiment in the 1960s after independence from France, an experiment that was frequently hijacked by the military. Guinea, for example, which shares a border with Senegal, held its first democratic election in 2010.
Associated Press Writer Sadibou Marone contributed to this report.