Is He 90? Senegal Leader's Age A Campaign Issue

Published February 19, 2012 5:00PM (EST)

KEBEMER, Senegal (AP) — The question dogging the president of this nation as he tries to convince his country to vote for him one last time can be traced to this town enveloped in sand. It's here inside a house with a goat tethered outside that President Abdoulaye Wade was born. The problem is when?

His birth certificate is locked away. And the page stating when he entered primary school has been torn out. As Wade tries to persuade voters to give him a third term in next week's election, his age has become a campaign issue.

Officially, Wade was born on May 29, 1926, making him 85 years old in a nation where most people die around age 59. His critics contend that he may be 90 — and the world's oldest leader.

They point to the common practice in rural Senegal of reducing children's ages on official documents so they can stay home longer and help in the fields before starting school. The issue is so touchy that a longtime resident who knew the president before he was elected began receiving death threats this week after he claimed Wade was born in 1919.

"His age is a problem. The issue is the uncertainty it causes. Is he capable of managing the nation?" says Cheikh Bamba Dieye, the mayor of Saint Louis, where Wade's birth certificate is kept in a locked room. "The worst-case scenario is not that he dies, but that he remains in office and is incapacitated — a president by default. Someone in office who is exercising his power without actually doing so."

Before independence from France 51 years ago, only people born in one of the four administrative centers in the French colony were considered French citizens. The closest of the four to Kebemer was Saint-Louis, located 45 miles (73 kilometers) to the north over dusty plains dotted with thorn trees.

In his biography, Wade says that although his father never attended school, he understood the benefits of French citizenship, so he asked a friend in Saint-Louis to register the birth right after it happened.

The archive where Wade's birth certificate is housed is inside a narrow hallway, where men sit in darkness behind moldering binders. Not even the head of the government's main research institute has been allowed to see it.

Ibrahima Gueye, the division chief overseeing birth records in Saint-Louis, will not show reporters Wade's birth certificate, or even comment on it. But he says it's no secret that the colonial-era records usually don't state authentic dates of birth.

"It's well-known that this is what parents did. They reduced the age of their kids. It's not even anything extraordinary," said Gueye. "It's not specific to Wade. It's specific to Senegal."

Before independence in 1960, most Senegalese only sought a birth certificate when their child needed to enroll in school.

Elementary School No. 1 in Kebemer has not changed much in the eight decades since its most famous student passed through its halls. Its children still learn to read in classrooms that are rectangles of cement.

The register listing the names of former students is locked away inside a rusting filing cabinet. Its pages are disintegrating and when you leaf through the book, pieces of brittle paper fall to the ground.

Wade appears in the book's alphabetical section under V — for "Vade." But the page stating his date of entry into the school, which could be used by someone to deduce his date of birth, has been ripped out, explains headmaster Badary Diop, showing reporters the missing section.

Before and after it, the names of his former classmates appear. Nearly all of them are dead. Among those still alive is Pape Souleye Aw, who attended first grade with Wade and remembers playing with him on the school's grounds.

Aw lives not far from the school and needs to be pulled up by one hand to sit up in bed.

He says his parents waited until he was around 10 to send him to school. For him to be admitted, they needed to reduce his age on his birth certificate, and so they registered him as being born in 1928.

"It was like that. When you enroll for the first time, your age is reduced, because you need to give the age that the school wants to hear," says Aw, who stops talking several times to cough into a handkerchief. "I don't know when I was born. But I think they reduced my age by five or six years." Meaning that he was actually born in 1922 or 1923.

He says he doesn't know if Wade's parents did the same, only that the two of them were in the same class — and that it's his impression that they were the same age.

The year 1922 is the date that Wade's opponents frequently cite as the leader's real birthday. Several of his former ministers — including three who are now running against him — use the president's own words to try to prove that he is older than he says he is.

Former Prime Minister Moustapha Niasse says that when he worked alongside Wade, the president liked to tell the story of how he ran after the horse of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a mystic that many here consider a saint. The only problem is that Bamba died in 1927, while Wade claims to have been born in 1926. To be able to have run after the horse, Niasse says Wade needed to be at least four, meaning that he was born in 1922 — like his classmate Aw.

His spokesman Serigne Mbacke called the allegations that Wade is older than his official age "a fable."

The president himself has insisted that he is in good health and is able to serve another term. "We're as old as we want to be," he told the online news portal Dakaractu.Com last month. "I still feel like I have the physical and intellectual capacity to serve my people."

His decision to run for a third term opens up the possibility that he could die in office, which could destabilize the country.

If Wade were to die while still president, people fear that his son — who is unpopular and who already controls numerous ministries — would succeed him.

"What shocks people is that he would try to run for a third term. It's the problem of his age," said leading investigative journalist Abdou Latif Coulibaly, who was detained by police after publishing a book in which he described how Wade's son allegedly embezzled government funds.

"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."

The idea that Senegal may head down this path is especially distasteful to people in this nation of 12 million who are proud that Senegal is one of the oldest democracies in Africa.

In June, the worst riots in a decade shut down the capital amid Wade's unsuccessful attempt to create the post of vice president. Critics said it was intended for his son, who could have automatically succeeded Wade if he died in office.

Protesters have taken to the streets every few days since January when the country's highest court said Wade could run for a third term, even though the constitution now imposes a two-term limit.

"It's like a king in the Middle Ages. He wants to stay in power for the rest of his days," said opposition candidate Niasse. "Or else be replaced by the one person he trusts — his son."

It's a sad turn of events for a man once considered a bright hope for Africa.

One of six children born to a peanut wholesaler in Kebemer, Wade was a brilliant student. His most treasured possession as a child was a Larousse dictionary. He slept with it pressed against his chest, according to his biography.

He went on to earn at least eight degrees from French universities including in math, psychology, economics, political science as well as a doctorate in law. He launched Senegal's first opposition party in 1974 and ran for president four times unsuccessfully before winning in 2000.

So many people used to run out of their houses to follow his beat-up automobile that some believed he possessed a gris gris, or amulet, that drew the population to him like a magnet. Nowadays he is accused of paying people to attend his rallies.

Since Wade became president, nearly every economic indicator has improved, including life expectancy which grew from 56 to 59 years and adult literacy jumped from 39 to 50 percent, according to World Bank statistics. And according to government data, the number of public hospitals went from 17 to 35, the number of doctors from 350 to 1,016 and the number of midwives from 558 to 1,032.

But his government's achievements have been overshadowed by corruption scandals and the increasing share of power he has given to his son, who is referred to in diplomatic cables as "Mr. 15 Percent," a reference to the alleged cut he takes from government contracts.

Half the population still lives in poverty. And while many families can afford to eat only once a day, members of the ruling party drive over potholed streets in the latest BMW X series.

Kebemer is an example of the country's uneven development. Due to the sand that covers all but the town's main arteries, the preferred mode of transport is horse-drawn cart, just as it was when Wade was a child.

At sundown on a recent evening, 27-year-old Djiby Dieng sat in his taxi buggy looking dejected. He said he had only had four clients all day, earning him $0.80 cents. That's barely enough to feed his horse.

"Things are not going well for me," he said. "In the 12 years since Wade came to power, my life hasn't gotten any better. I've not seen any kind of improvement."

By Salon Staff

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