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In Senegal, Presidential Term Limits Spark Hot Debate


Senegal's President Macky Sall, seen in this Dec. 2015 file photo in Abuja, Nigeria, has come under pressure ahead of a constitutional referendum - set for March 20 - to limit presidential terms.

Senegal's President Macky Sall, seen in this Dec. 2015 file photo in Abuja, Nigeria, has come under pressure ahead of a constitutional referendum - set for March 20 - to limit presidential terms.

Senegal’s President Macky Sall has come under attack ahead of the constitutional referendum set for March 20. The proposed changes would limit a president to two five-year terms. But Sall has stirred controversy as saying the limit would not apply to his current term, which runs until 2019.

Campaigning is on in Senegal to vote “Yes” or “No” to the new constitution March 20.

In the “yes” camp is the Minister of Youth and Employment Mame Mbaye Niang. He met residents in Thiaroye, a low-income suburb of the capital.

He says none of the proposed constitutional changes are to help the president. He says these changes are about strengthening democracy and the rule of law and improving quality of life. He says he just passed through a neighborhood where people were complaining they lost their land. This reform will address those problems, he says, so you need to vote yes.

The 15 proposed changes include giving more power to the National Assembly and local administrations while also expanding on existing laws about land inheritance and local communities’ control of natural resources.

But the proposal is meeting fierce resistance.

A new single by rap group Y En A Marre is calling on people to vote “no” in the referendum.

Y En A Marre played a leading role in demonstrations against ex-president Abdoulaye Wade in 2012 when he ran for a third term at 87 years old.

The group helped Macky Sall beat Wade but now is threatening more protests, this time against Sall.

The group’s coordinator, Fadel Baro, says Macky Sall has failed to bring the big reform he promised and instead just wants to make small changes that have nothing to do with the lives of ordinary Senegalese. He says Macky Sall went back on his word and like all leaders who behave this way, he will pay a heavy price.

The key dispute here is over the shortening of the presidential mandate. Sall has repeatedly promised, even before he was elected, to reduce his term from seven to five years. But now that the provision is up for a vote, Sall says the new rule cannot legally apply to his current seven-year term.

That explanation has not played well with some of his supporters, who say Sall broke his word.

Human rights campaigner Aboubacry Mbodj says we are surprised that Sall changed his tune just a few weeks before the referendum. You know in Africa, he says, promises are very strong and sacred.

But Djibril Balde of the ruling coalition, Benno Bokk Yakaar, says Sall is still making history.

Balde says this is really quite extraordinary and rare in Africa for an elected president to campaign in favor of reducing his potential time in office.

Over the past two years, presidential term limits have become one of the burning issues on the continent. Efforts by leaders to extend their stays in office have led to unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, and the ouster of longtime Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore in 2014.

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