Youssou N'Dour Sets Sights On Senegal's Presidency

Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour performs at a concert in November in Tunisia paying tribute to Tunisian youth and the revolution that inspired the Arab Spring. The popular international celebrity has announced plans to stand in his country's presidential election in February.

Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour performs at a concert in November in Tunisia paying tribute to Tunisian youth and the revolution that inspired the Arab Spring. The popular international celebrity has announced plans to stand in his country's presidential election in February. Anis Mili/Reuters/Landov hide caption

itoggle caption Anis Mili/Reuters/Landov

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."

N'Dour, who was serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador at the time, visits a food distribution center at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya last fall. i i

N'Dour, who was serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador at the time, visits a food distribution center at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya last fall. Dai Kurokawa/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Dai Kurokawa/AFP/Getty Images
N'Dour, who was serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador at the time, visits a food distribution center at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya last fall.

N'Dour, who was serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador at the time, visits a food distribution center at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya last fall.

Dai Kurokawa/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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