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Poverty Looms over Senegal's Presidential Vote

President Abdoulaye Wade speaks with journalists in Dakar ahead of Sunday's elections.
Georges Gobet / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
President Abdoulaye Wade speaks with journalists in Dakar ahead of Sunday's elections.

There's a presidential election in Senegal Sunday. The West African nation, with a population of 11 million, is one of Africa's most stable democracies. Yet, for all the political enlightenment, Senegal's economy is so poor that tens of thousands of young men have been leaving the country at an alarming rate.

Has the president lived up to his 2000 election pledges, which included jobs for the youth? His record comes under scrutiny as the Senegalese prepare to vote for their new leader.

President Abdoulaye Wade, now in his 80s, is a veteran politician, but spent most of his career in the opposition before winning the last election in 2000.

The lyrics of a song composed for his campaign say, in part: "Yes, old man, we want more." The president's supporters have sung it throughout a three-week campaign. Wade wants a second term in office, he says, to finish the good work his government has started.

"With President Wade, Senegal has done a lot in seven years," says Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, Senegal's foreign minister and a part of the president's campaign team.

But opponents of the Senegalese president accuse him of failing to tackle poverty and other national priorities.

He has 14 challengers for the job, among them Abdoulaye Bathily.

"He mismanaged the country," Bathily says. "The level of corruption has never been reached in this country. The economy is in havoc. His chaotic manner of ruling the country has created today a crisis — political crisis, economic crisis, social crisis, identity crisis."

And a critical social problem — one that has drawn international attention — is the drama of thousands of young Senegalese men trying to leave the country.

A Senegalese rapper, Awadi, has a song called Sunuugall, or "Our Boat." It draws attention to the rickety, wooden fishing boats that carry young men off onto the high seas, on perilous voyages heading for the Spanish Canary Islands, in search of a better life.

Awadi says Senegal's leaders have killed the hopes of the younger generation.

"They made a lot of promises, but it's a real disappointment," he says. "They promised jobs, but there is only unemployment.

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.
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