President’s onetime protégé to run for election

Senegal’s popular former prime minister Idrissa Seck snatched the limelight from Independence Day celebrations and a state visit by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Tuesday by announcing his plan to run for the presidency in 2007, setting the scene for a potentially fraught election battle.

The 47-year-old Seck, who was recently freed after spending several months behind bars, is likely to be running against his former mentor and current head of state President Abdoulaye Wade, who despite being 82 intends to run for a second term.

Seck and Wade used to be a twosome. He was made chief of staff in the president’s office immediately after Wade’s election in 2000, and named prime minister in November 2002. But Wade sacked him 18 months later amid infighting within his Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS).

Then last year Seck was accused of misappropriating up to 17 billion CFA (US $32 million) allocated to renovation works in Thies, a city 70 kilometres from the Senegalese capital Dakar. He was imprisoned in September 2005 but was never indicted, and was released in February 2006 to acclaim from crowds of supporters.

Senegal has a reputation for democracy and tolerance in West Africa, a region plagued by coups and wars. Since independence from France in 1960 Senegal has had uninterrupted democracy. The country was ruled by the Socialist Party until Wade’s election in 2000.

However in May last year a vocal leader of a small opposition party was arrested and charged with threatening the state after he urged people to take to the streets to demand Wade’s resignation.

Shortly afterwards dissent broke out within the PDS’s own ranks when 12 members of parliament close to Seck briefly defected from the ruling coalition. Following their walkout, Seck’s home was attacked and a pro-PDS student leader was knifed.

Announcing his return to political life, Seck said “The political force which I count on is the Parti Democratique Senegalaise (PDS), my family, and the men and women who share my vision and my values, and who are the majority here.”

Seck also called on his political allies to start forming an opposition. “I am addressing the patriotic opposition and calling on them to assemble all the citizens who contributed to the change-over in March 2000, and to rediscover that the time has come again to make their choice about the future of Senegal”.

He is counting on winning the support of the majority of PDS party members as well as the backing of the Senegalese diaspora.

But Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye, director of president Wade’s cabinet, warned that Seck could still face legal action, declaring in the press that “Seck is not black or white. The case can be reopened at any time, especially on the question of the construction contract and corruption”.

And PDS spokesperson Abdou Fall said: “This candidature for the presidency is totally inopportune and premature. It is just a case of trying to politicize a problem which is legal in nature. The Senegalese people should not fall into this trap. This man does not have any right to have pretensions about holding the responsibility of state in this country.”

Seck has promised that he will not be making any political or financial agreements with his former boss. “I have recovered my liberty,” he said.