DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Demonstrators hurled stones at the convoy carrying Senegal's aging president to the regional capital of Thies, where he held a campaign rally Wednesday, according to witnesses and a private radio station.
Before the caravan of cars carrying 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade had traveled the 45 miles (70 kilometers) to Thies, at least five of the cars had been vandalized by rock-throwing protesters, according to Sud FM radio.
No injuries were immediately reported, and the limousine carrying Wade was not touched, but the incident further underscores how much the political landscape has shifted in this nation on Africa's western coast since Wade was first elected 12 years ago.
Back then, Wade was able to mobilize tens of thousands of people, who ran after his car, cheering. In Thies, the crowd that came to greet him was only in the thousands.
Before his arrival, security forces fired tear gas to disperse groups of youths demonstrating against Wade's bid to run for a third term in this month's election, said witnesses as well as Alioune Tine, the coordinator of a coalition of opposition parties.
"They prevented us from reaching the national highway," said 38-year-old El Hadj Diouf, one of the protesters who was reached by telephone on the streets of Thies.
He explained that they were trying to march toward a major road with the aim of preventing Wade's convoy from entering Thies. "They fired the tear gas grenades to disperse the crowd. We took cover in a neighboring house."
For the past two weeks, Senegal has been on edge as police clashed with protesters demanding that Wade withdraw his candidacy in the Feb. 26 election. Despite his age, Wade is seeking a third, seven-year term even though the constitution was amended after he took office to allow a maximum of two. There have been protests every few days since Jan. 27 when the country's highest court ruled that Wade had the authority to seek a third term, arguing that the new constitution cannot apply to him since he was elected before it took effect.
Last week, U.S. Ambassador Lewis Lukens called Wade's candidacy "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.
Senegal is considered a model of stability and democracy, a rarity in a region where every one of Senegal's neighbors has suffered one or more coups since winning independence from France in the 1960s. Wade spent 25 years as the country's opposition leader, running and losing four times against the socialist party that ruled Senegal for 40 years, before winning the 2000 election.
He is facing growing opposition. Twelve years ago, people flooded the streets, creating a human sea when he emerged for a rally. He is now accused of paying people to attend his rallies.
In Thies, security had cordoned off a 100-yard radius around the downtown "Promenade," a raised structure in the middle of a large traffic circle where Wade was expected to speak later on Wednesday. Only his supporters, wearing the ruling party's signature blue T-shirts, were allowed inside the radius.
"Yes, there are people at the Promenade, but it's because he gave them money to be there," Diouf said. "Even I was offered money — 5,000 francs (around $10) to wear the blue T-shirt. I even heard people who are against Wade who said, 'Let's just take the money, and go. And then once we are at the Promenade we can try to sabotage their meeting.'"
Wade told reporters Tuesday that he was confident he would win the election on Feb. 26. He took reporters on an improvised tour of the capital, to show off his support. Several thousand people came out to meet him along his multiple-mile (kilometer) trajectory from the presidential palace, through the Niari Tally neighborhood that was once his fief, as well as Avenue Bourguiba and HLM.
The crowds were roughly as large as had attended an opposition march earlier in the day. But they were far short of what people used to experience at the height of Wade's popularity more than a decade ago. Still, he sees it as an affirmation.
"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.