There are multiple levels to politics in Senegal, one of the oldest -- and until recently, most successful -- African democracies. There are the power plays and massive government projects reported on by the international media, but also a parallel system of religious affiliations, cultural networks, and tribal ties, little seen by outsiders. To understand the headlines, you need to delve into the latter.
The big news this week is that Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal's geriatric president, is breathing a sigh of relief. The constitution says he can only run for two consecutive terms, but on Friday the constitutional court of this West African country ruled that this did not apply to him. It also decided that Youssou N'Dour, the global pop superstar and the country's greatest export, who had thrown his hat into the ring, was not eligible to run. Violent protests have flared, in Dakar and elsewhere, in response to the decision and at least three people have been reported dead. Once regarded as one of the most progressive and democratic of African countries, Senegal's stability is under threat with opposition leaders calling for "popular resistance."
Wade has dismissed protests as "temper tantrums." It is an attitude which verges on the pharaonic, which in the wake of the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and among calls by Senegalese opposition groups to turn a square in Dakar into the Senegalese Tahrir, might seem risky. But then, perhaps Wade's tastes and outlook had already long since turned pharaonic.
Imagine, for example, a woman so big that if her breasts were turned into huts, a couple of families could live inside them. When Senegalese go to the polls on Feb. 26, and think of how Wade has spent their taxes, maybe they will be thinking of her too. The woman, of course, is not just statuesque but, along with her muscle-bound man and child, part of the colossal Monument de la Renaissance Africaine statue, which at 160 feet tall tops a steep hill that looks out over the Atlantic Ocean and can be seen for miles across the capital.
Whether Wade wins or loses the presidential election, they will say this of him: He was the man who gave Dakar this monument. Not health care, never mind schools, forget this that or the other: This monument, designed by a Senegalese, built by North Koreans, will be his legacy. (It cost at least $27 million. The way it was paid for led many to query its apparently convoluted financing, as a WikiLeaked U.S. diplomatic cable reveals.)
"Stalinist," scoff some, "Un-African" say others. Some say that the woman, unveiled (so to speak) in 2010 to mark the 50th anniversary of independence from France, in a country which is 94 percent Muslim, cannot be Senegalese because no decent woman would ever comport herself in such an outrageous state of semi-undress. But then the monument, like Wade himself, has divided this country, and not necessarily along obvious lines. One religious man, an editor at a radio station to which people call in to ask for religious sung poetry to be dedicated to friends and family, reminded me that, once upon a time, people carped that the Eiffel Tower was an eyesore and a waste of money too.
But for a sense of where this country's real, hidden power lies, shoot down the road in front of the statue, drive along the scrubby, Atlantic corniche, then turn into the heart of the city. Downtown, in the sandy, streets of a middle-class district, all is dark. Much to the constant irritation of Senegalese, power cuts are frequent. But, drifting through the night air, above the hum of generators, comes the chanting of a group of men singing in a circle out on the pavement. Women sit on the ground listening to them.
These men, mostly in their twenties, thirties, or forties, come together twice a week for two hours to sing the devotional poems of Amadou Bamba, a towering figure in Senegalese history who died in 1927. These gatherings are common across the country.
And, here is the thing: Bamba's legacy is extraordinary, but in the outside world hardly anyone has ever heard him. But, if you don't understand his legacy and the Mouride movement he founded, you won't understand the complex power structures of this vibrant country.