Senegal's N'Dour drops music for election "buzz"

DAKAR Tue Jan 3, 2012 5:52pm EST

Singer Youssou N'Dour performs at a concert called ''Africa Celebrates Democracy'' that pays tribute to Tunisian youth and the revolution that inspired the Arab Spring, in Tunis November 11, 2011.   REUTERS/Anis Mili

Singer Youssou N'Dour performs at a concert called ''Africa Celebrates Democracy'' that pays tribute to Tunisian youth and the revolution that inspired the Arab Spring, in Tunis November 11, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Anis Mili

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DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegal's Youssou N'Dour has taken his music to audiences around the world but says his decision to stop singing and run for president was prompted by a nagging sound straight from the streets of his West African nation.

"For over 15 years I have heard this buzz going about for me," N'Dour said at his headquarters in a chic suburb of the capital Dakar, adorned with awards including a gold-plated Grammy for his 2004 album "Egypt."

"An overwhelming majority of the Senegalese people have asked Youssou N'Dour to run as president ... I said 'yes' and I agreed to be a candidate," he said in an interview with Reuters and the African news agency APA.

After months of speculation, N'Dour, 52, announced his plan to run in a February 26 election late Monday. But whether the co-writer of the 1994 hit single "7 Seconds" has time to translate his domestic popularity into votes is far from certain.

A successful businessman with his own newspaper, television and radio channel, N'Dour already leads a grassroots citizen movement and has long been a conduit for criticism of incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade, who wants to extend his 11-year rule.

The 85-year-old Wade is a skilled political operator with decades of experience and his hands firmly on the machinery of power, while N'Dour must join a crowded pack of over a dozen presidential rivals.

In a country which treasures intellectuals and whose first post-independence president was the poet and linguist Leopold Sedar Senghor, N'Dour's relative lack of formal education is another potential handicap he knows he must overcome.

"For 50 years the people have seen Senegal run by what I would call traditional politicians and they have had enough," he said of a country where formal jobs are scarce and most of whose 12 million population are living on a few dollars a day.

"They want something new and I am the model," said N'Dour, peering through austere, thick-rimmed spectacles.

The February vote will be watched throughout Africa after a string of marred elections, from the deadly post-poll dispute that blew up in Ivory Coast just over a year ago to Democratic Republic of Congo's flawed attempt at democracy last November.

Wade's decision to run for a third term is in itself controversial, with opponents arguing it breaks rules limiting presidential terms to two mandates. Wade says a first term starting in 2000 pre-dated those rules and so does not count.

Government proposals last year to change election rules prompted opposition allegations it was trying to rig the election and were hastily dropped after they led to some of the worst street violence Senegal has seen.

Some fear more unrest if Wade is deemed eligible to stand again in a legal ruling due at the end of the month, or if the election itself is not seen as credible.

N'Dour, who like Wade predicts an easy victory for himself, said he rejected violence but warned the Senegalese were becoming impatient for change.

"The last thing I want to do is set fire to this country I love so much ... But do you think the people will accept a rigged election? No."

(Writing by Mark John; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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