They’re using a new type of tear gas in Senegal. It chokes you, blinds you, but it also burns and stings, like it’s been mixed with pepper spray. It’s a sensation with which more and more Senegalese are becoming familiar as presidential elections were held this past weekend. Among them is Africa’s most famous living musician, Youssou N’Dour, who tried to run for the presidency, was barred from doing so by the regime of President Abdoulaye Wade and is now helping lead a protest movement aimed at unseating Wade and restoring democracy in Senegal. The stakes are high, for two reasons. Senegal has a long and proud democratic tradition and is something of a weathervane for West Africa. And the opposition movement is hoping to unite the spark of reform and political
consciousness not just in Senegal, but across Africa, to finally bring to close the unhappy era of the continent’s Big Men.
Will they succeed? Almost everyone thinks Wade will win the election, not least, Western diplomats and opposition campaigners say, because the fix is in: they claimed to have evidence of hundreds of thousands of voting cards that have not been distributed to opposition supporters and the names of hundreds of thousands of fictitious voters appearing on the electoral role. But N’Dour and other opposition leaders claim they are in the fight for the long haul. “This is about patriotic civil duty,” N’Dour tells TIME. “More than that, what we are doing here is a model for a new Africa, one where power is returned to the people. I respect music, I do, I love it. But for the time being, my music is on hold. Senegal and its future are far more important. They’re my priority.”
Read more: “Youssou N’Dour’s Protest Song”
Alex Perry is TIME’s Africa bureau chief.