The aging president of Senegal tried to divert attention from growing street protests calling for his resignation and prove that he still had grassroots support by leading an impromptu rally through the capital late Tuesday.
Reporters were told to come to the presidential palace to meet with President Abdoulaye Wade's spokesman. Instead, the 85-year-old president showed up in person and invited reporters to follow his motorcade through neighborhoods in Dakar that just last week were immobilized by youth burning tires.
Several thousand people came out to see him, including in Niari-Tally neighborhood, a one-time Wade fief now known as an opposition stronghold. A week ago, taxis refused to drop off customers there after anti-Wade protesters set fire to market tables and cars.
Although people ran after his motorcade and applauded, the crowds were significantly smaller than he used to draw. Wade spent 25 years as the country's opposition leader, running and losing in four elections before winning the 2000 ballot. Tens of thousands of people used to flood the streets to greet him during his days as the icon of the opposition.
Now Wade is accused of the same repression and corruption as the regime he replaced in this nation of more than 12 million on Africa's western coast.
Last month, the constitutional court _ made up of judges appointed exclusively by him _ ruled that the octogenarian leader had the right to run for a third term. It prompted massive street protests, because the constitution was revised by Wade himself in 2001 to impose a two-term maximum.
"You came outside. What is your impression?" Wade asked reporters after they returned to the presidential palace.
"As you saw, it was an improvised visit, but I think it's clear that it was a plebiscite of the street. ... The people came out and greeted me spontaneously. This shows that the people of Senegal are with me," he said.
Wade, who is officially 85 but who is rumored to be as much as five years older, has weathered stinging criticism from the international community for his decision to run for a third term in a region of the world where the life expectancy is under 60. Last week, the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal Lewis Lukens called Wade's candidacy in this month's election "unfortunate."
"It's regrettable that President Wade has chosen to compromise the elections, to threaten the security of his country by his insistence on running for a third term," Lukens told local journalists, according to a transcript of the interview published on the online portal Seneweb.com.
Earlier in the day, thousands of people marched in the capital to call for Wade's departure. Leading one column was international pop star Youssou Ndour, who had turned in an application to run against Wade in the Feb. 26 election but was disqualified by the court due to a lack of valid signatures.