DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Police opened fire with tear gas on protesters who had gone ahead with a sleep-in Thursday at a downtown square, even though the government had banned the demonstration being held one week before the country's presidential election.
It's the second day that protesters have continued their demonstrations despite the government's refusal to authorize the gathering. Senegalese police are allowed to use force to break up crowds at unauthorized protests, as they did on Wednesday to stop marchers who got within 500 yards (meters) of the presidential palace.
The country's opposition is calling for the departure of 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade, who is insisting on running for a third term in the Feb. 26 election despite growing resistance from the population as well as criticism from the international community.
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 — 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 since most are not being organized by the candidates themselves.
The sleep-in on Thursday is being organized by a group of rappers known as Y'en a Marre, French for "We've had enough," which is allied with the opposition but is not fielding a candidate in the election. Riot police began pelting the group with tear gas, after protesters tried to light tires on fire.
Security forces moved in and arrested Simon and Kilifeu, two of the founders of the Y'en a Marre, who were led away to a police truck.
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.