DAKAR, Senegal (AP) - Senegal's president agreed Thursday to cancel a proposed change to the constitution which would have paved the way for his son to take power, amid massive street protests that marked the biggest challenge to his 11-year rule and threatened to derail a country known as one of the most stable in the region.
Anger boiled over Thursday morning as thousands of protesters attempted to rush the gates of parliament, where lawmakers were meeting to debate the law.
Clouds of tear gas enveloped the square, as police fought back the demonstrators with gas, rubber bullets and fire hoses. The demonstrations quickly spread from central Dakar to its suburbs, to three major towns in the interior, as well as abroad to Paris and Montreal.
The controversial amendment would have created the post of vice president, a departure from Senegal's European-style government, which has a president and a prime minister. The opposition charged that the position was being created so that President Abdoulaye Wade could nominate his unpopular son. If the two were to win next year's election, it would put in place a mechanism for the son's succession.
The 85-year-old Wade has already faced stinging criticism for his decision to run for a third term, meaning the frail leader could rule into his 90s. It raises the specter that he could die in office. Under the current constitution, if that were to happen, the head of the national assembly would become president for a brief period before new elections are organized. If the vice president post is instituted, the No. 2 would automatically assume power without a need for new elections.
As the protests intensified during the morning and early afternoon, the 150 members of parliament called for a recess. The ruling party controls all but 19 seats in the national assembly, so the law should have been a shoe-in.
By afternoon, Senegal's capital was covered in a haze from the burning tires and houses, including the home of one of Wade's former ministers which was attacked by protesters and set alight, according to private radio station RFM. At least 107 people were injured in the daylong clash, the station reported.
Lawmakers began to waffle by evening and Doudou Wade, the head of the majority in parliament indicated that the deputies were not willing to sign off. "Senegal's peace is worth more than the text of this law," he said addressing the floor. The justice minister telephoned Wade and soon after, he re-emerged to announce that the president had changed his mind.
"I informed the president of the republic, and I shared with him your debate," Justice Minister Cheikh Tidiane Sy told the parliamentarians. "He took into consideration all of your concerns, especially those of the majority party. He took note. The president has received messages from all over and especially from the religious chiefs, and in light of all this, the president of the republic asks that you cancel this proposed law," he said.
The parliament hall erupted in cheers, and as the news spread to the street, cars drove by honking loudly and demonstrators cried out in victory.
"Back in the old days, we had kings and kingdoms, but we're supposed to be a democracy now," said 55-year-old Gallo Diene, a factory worker who took the day off work to join the protest. "I voted for Wade in 2000 and again in 2007. But I'm done voting for him. What he's doing is trying to install a monarchy."
Once a symbol of the opposition, Wade became president 11 years ago in a landmark election hailed for being one of the first peaceful transfers of power on the continent. Outgoing President Abdou Diouf is held up throughout Africa for stepping down without a fight, and for telephoning Wade on the night of his defeat to congratulate his opponent.
Since then, Wade has strayed from his roots, going the way of other entrenched African leaders who have used control of state institutions to prolong their stay in office.
He set off a wave of criticism in 2009 when he announced he planned to run for a third term in 2012, using a loophole in the electoral law to circumvent the two-term maximum set out in the constitution.
"There is a sense that Senegal has led the way in terms of democracy - and has been a shining light for others to follow," said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.