Senegal braces for "Tahrir Square" protest day

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 11:31 AM
Senegal braces for "Tahrir Square" protest day

By Diadie Ba

DAKAR (Reuters) - Government critics in Senegal are planning a protest on Saturday in the capital Dakar's main square, dubbing it "Tahrir" square for the day in homage to the epicenter of Egypt's uprising.

While few expect the rally or other protests brewing across sub-Saharan Africa to gain the momentum being seen across the Middle East, they are a worry for the region's entrenched elites, some of whom are acting to firmly stamp them out.

The protest, called by a coalition of opposition parties and local media magnate Sidy Lamine Niasse, is scheduled on the day that marks 11 years under the rule of President Abdoulaye Wade.

There is anger with Wade's government over rising living costs, almost daily power cuts that sometimes last over 30 hours at a time and accusations that the octogenarian Wade is bending constitutional rules to stand for a third term in power at February 2012 elections.

Previous attempts to organize protest marches in countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, Angola, Zimbabwe, Togo and Mauritania, have been swiftly snuffed out by the authorities who deployed state security machinery against protesters.

Analyst Mark Schroeder at global intelligence company Stratfor said Saturday's protests would be a test of the ability of Wade's critics to mobilize, but was skeptical that it and other African protests would become more virulent.

"Social-economic grievances have been hot-wired into the populations: they have little hope or expectation that their government will do anything for them," he said of countries where swathes of the population are condemned to living on little more than a dollar day.

WEAK OPPOSITION

Senegalese authorities have not yet confirmed whether they will allow the march to proceed.

Some countries have hastily announced social projects and job creation plans to tackle grievances, while clamping down on media. Last week Cameroon banned an SMS Twitter service provided by South Africa's MTN, citing security reasons.

Eric Mathias Owona Nguini, political science lecturer at the University of Yaounde II in Cameroon, said most opposition parties in the southern part of the continent were weak, dispersed and lack resources to mobilize the population.

Days before a planned march on February 23 in Cameroon, the government of President Paul Biya -- who has ruled for 29 years -- announced plans to recruit 25,000 people into the public service, the first of such employment drives in decades.

"So for many people there was no reason to go down the streets to demonstrate and maybe ruin their chances or chances of their children being recruited," Owona Nguini said.

In Mauritania, a country which straddles the Arab Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, youth protests have rarely topped a thousand despite food price hikes hurting living standards.

"For now it (the protest movement) has not managed to ... extend past young intellectuals and a certain Nouakchott elite," said Abdel Wedoud Ould Abdallah, an ex-minister and now research director at Nouakchott University.

A protest called by Togolese opposition groups on Thursday in the capital Lome against a draft bill regulating public demonstration, was quickly dispersed with teargas.

Authorities in neighboring Burkina Faso, ruled with a firm grip since 1987 by Blaise Compaore, shut down universities on Monday after student protests sparked by the death of a student following a spell in police custody.

In Zimbabwe, 46 people accused of planning "Egyptian-style" protests were arrested in February and are facing trial. Police said the people were detained in the capital Harare as they watched videos of protests in the north African countries and discussed possible demonstrations in Zimbabwe.

"In much of sub-Saharan Africa ... it is still the government that dictates the order of things. It controls everything, from the army, police and security forces to the means of communication and, of course, the state treasury," Owona Nguini said.

(Additional reporting by Mark John in Dakar, Tansa Musa in Yaounde, Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott, and John Zodzi in Lome, Writing by Bate Felix)