3 January 2012

Senegal: Youssou N'dour - President?

Photo: allAfrica.com
Youssou N'Dour, left, with Sudanese mobile phone pioneer Mo Ibrahim.


"Who will Youssou sing for?" That was the question a national daily asked on its front page on January 2. On the same day, he gave the answer: Youssou N'Dour will be singing for himself.

The contrast could not have been greater. On New Year's Eve, Senegal's state television showed the country's geriatric president Abdoulaye Wade struggling through a national address, hollow-eyed, his voice faltering. Two days later, a fresh and sprightly Youssou N'Dour used his own television station TFM to announce his candidacy for the presidential elections, to be held at the end of February.

An extraordinary life

The announcement did not come entirely as a surprise. Politics is the next stage in the extraordinary life of a man who was born in 1959 in Medina, a poor suburb on the doorstep of the city's business and administration centre.

His voice was the gift that sent him to the stage at a very young age. In the 1970s this boy soprano belted out Latin-tinged repertoire, just like the Orchestre Baobab, the leading band in those days. But Youssou N'Dour was about to wipe out that music and replace it with a new, fast and furious dance style.


With his band Le Super Étoile de Dakar he first conquered his own country - and then the world. And at an early stage, he put his music to use for good causes. He took part in the Human Rights Now mega concerts Amnesty International organised in 1988 (I saw him perform that year in Harare, Zimbabwe, next door to the apartheid regime). Twenty years later, he was a guest star at the African alternative to Live Aid, organised by his good friend Peter Gabriel. But his mainstay remained mbalax, Senegal's frenetic national pulse.

Citizen's movement

A night club, a studio - nothing was stopping Youssou N'Dour. He founded Future Media and now owns a radio station, Senegal's best selling newspaper L'OBS (a racy mix of sleaze, journalism and sport) and TFM. And he was eyeing the political kingdom. He was in good books with Abdoulaye Wade for quite a while - but that was before he had an almighty row with the government over the endless delays for his television station.

And now N'Dour is pulling the strands of his extra-musical activities together, using his television station and a brand new citizen's movement he launched at the end of last year as platforms for his presidential bid.


He has a few advantages. First, he is self-made. Second, he is a bona fide patriot. This is what he said announcing his candidacy: 'I do not have two passports and have no possessions outside Senegal. Everything I have gained I have invested here.' A none-too-subtle dig at those who feign national loyalty while siphoning off their wealth to offshore bank accounts. Third, he is no professional politician; he does not belong to that class of people who transit from one political party to another for personal gain.


The big question for N'Dour is: will his fan-base translate into "votes"? The first crop of reactions on the popular website Seneweb suggests: not necessarily. At 52, he himself is gradually replaced by another generation of musicians who wield political influence. The opposition against president Wade's highly controversial bid for a third term in office is led by rap artists from areas even poorer than Medina. They are the basis of the new youth movements M23 and Y'en a marre (We're fed up). Whenever they hold a rally, Youssou N'Dour is careful to show up.

There are at least 19 other candidates in the race for the presidency. N'Dour's entry will certainly have an impact but it will take a coalition on the opposition side to give the incumbent a serious run for his money, which he uses to buy votes, his rivals - and (who knows) even his voice.

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