Africa
3:00 am
Thu January 5, 2012

Senegal Singer To Run For President

Originally published on Thu January 5, 2012 6:00 am

Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour made his name in music, and now he wants to be president of his homeland.

N'Dour gained an international audience in 1994 with his hit song "Seven Seconds," with Neneh Cherry. He went on to earn a Grammy in 2004 for the album Egypt, becoming one of Africa's most influential and popular singers.

The 52-year-old, known simply as "Youssou" by millions of fans in Senegal and beyond, grew up poor, in the Medina neighborhood of Senegal's capital, Dakar. He dropped out of school at age 13.

Today, he has his own radio station and television channel in Senegal. In addition, he owns a national newspaper that is part of his business empire. He also served as a U.N. goodwill ambassador, supporting causes such as the campaign to fight malaria. And lately, he has become an outspoken critic of the Senegalese government and the president, Abdoulaye Wade, who is 85 years old and has already served two terms in office.

Now, N'Dour has set his sights on the presidency and is predicting victory in the Feb. 26 election.

"I'm going to win this election in the first round. Definitely. No question," N'Dour told the BBC. "I am the most credible, most popular [candidate]. And what I say is coming from the people."

He also said he is confident of local and international support.

"I believe if I do [things] here in Senegal — good governance, freedom, and a lot of things the international community are waiting for — they're going to support my program," N'Dour said. "I think the world has to support a new model. I want to change Senegal, then change Africa."

Mixed Response To Candidacy

African music specialist Daniel Brown says it would be foolish to underestimate N'Dour.

"No one should be under the illusion that Youssou N'Dour is not a serious candidate for the presidential elections," says Brown. "He's a man of the people who has a huge following, both urban and rural. Youssou N'Dour crosses religious and class barriers, too. He's also a savvy businessman."

But will his popularity translate into votes? Reaction has been mixed.

Despite his street credibility as a singer, N'Dour has never held elected office. People are asking if he has the political smarts to lead Senegal — a West African nation that has been a bastion of democracy and stability as other countries in the region battled coups, rebellions and civil wars.

Senegalese opposition politician Abdoulaye Bathily says the doubters have a point.

"The question is whether an artist can be considered somebody fit for leadership," Bathily says. "You can have a lot of support from the young people, but the question is whether this support for an artist can be transferred into political support. This is the first time this kind of thing happens in Senegal."

Critics fear N'Dour's candidacy could split the opposition vote in next month's presidential election. They say he should have thrown his support behind one of the established opposition leaders.

Outspoken Critic Of Current President

N'Dour joins a crowded field of more than a dozen presidential rivals, including Wade, a political survivor with decades of experience and an iron grip on the machinery of government.

The president tried to modify the electoral law in June, which led to unprecedented riots. As a result, Wade dropped that contentious proposal, along with another one that would have created the post of vice president.

But Wade remains determined to run for a third term, though his opponents say this violates the country's constitution.

The opposition warns that the president is compromising Senegal's democratic credentials by trying to cling to power and install a dynastic regime. They say he is grooming his son Karim, who is now an unelected "superminister," even though he suffered a defeat in local government elections.

N'Dour used to be close to the president, but no more.

"Abdoulaye Wade doesn't have the right to go to this election," N'Dour says. "Our constitution says 'no.' I think also, even though I have great respect for him, that he's too old."

Already chanting the mantra of the populist politician, N'Dour is making campaign promises to provide food, electricity, health and education for all in Senegal.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

What do Michel Martelly, Joseph Estrada and, closer to home, Ronald Reagan have in common? All three were performers who became presidents of their respective countries - Haiti, Philippines and, of course, the U.S. Now, Senegal's singing sensation Youssou N'Dour wants to follow suit. He's announced his intention to throw his hat in the ring. N'Dour is challenging Senegal's veteran leader and other candidates in the presidential election next month. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "7 SECONDS")

YOUSSOU N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Youssou N'Dour shot to international stardom in 1994 with this hit, "7 Seconds," sung with Neneh Cherry. The Senegalese mbalax musician has gone on to win a Grammy and become one of Africa's most influential and popular singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "7 SECONDS")

N'DOUR: (Singing) Seven seconds away, just as long as I stay. I'll be waiting.

QUIST-ARCTON: The 52-year-old, known simply as Youssou, grew up poor in Senegal's capital, Dakar. Today, he has his own radio station and television channel in Senegal, owns a national newspaper and runs a business empire. He also served as a U.N. goodwill ambassador, espousing noble causes like fighting malaria. And now, Youssou N'Dour says he's ready to become Senegal's new president, and he anticipates victory in the election due February 26th.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

N'DOUR: I'm going to win this election in the first round, definitely. No question. I'm the most credible, most popular. And what I say is coming from the people.

QUIST-ARCTON: Youssou N'Dour told the BBC he's confident of both local and international support.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

N'DOUR: I believe if I do here in Senegal, good governance, freedom, and a lot of things the international community are waiting for, they're going to support me for my program. I think the world have to support new model. I want to change Senegal, then change Africa.

QUIST-ARCTON: But will his undeniable popularity and street cred as a singer in Senegal necessarily translate into votes for Youssou as president? He's never held elective office, and questions are being raised over whether, without much formal education - he dropped out of school at age 13 - he has the political smarts to lead Senegal.

The West African nation proudly flaunted its democratic credentials when other countries in the region were battling coups, rebellions and civil wars. Senegalese opposition politician Abdoulaye Bathily.

ABDOULAYE BATHILY: You know, the question is whether an artist can be considered as somebody fit for leadership. This is the first time this kind of thing happened in Senegal.

QUIST-ARCTON: There's bad blood between Senegal's opposition and the octogenarian president, Abdoulaye Wade, who's seeking a third term in office. His critics accuse Wade of political nepotism and trying to cling to power. Youssou N'Dour used to be close to the president, but has become one of his most outspoken critics. He, and many others, says it's time for Wade to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

N'DOUR: Abdoulaye Wade doesn't have the right to go to the election. Our constitution say no. I think also, you know, even I have great respect for him, he's too old. He's too old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "7 SECONDS")

N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Youssou N'Dour is already chanting the mantra of the politician, making campaign promises to provide food, electricity, health and education for all in Senegal.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "7 SECONDS")

N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.