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Senegalese rappers shaking up youth ahead of polls

DAKAR (Reuters) - For once, the trio joke, something concrete came out of one of the marathon tea-drinking sessions the Senegalese use to while away the time during the regular 20-hour power blackouts -- a rap-led protest movement.

A member of the hip-hop group Y'en a marre performs during a community concert in the Dalifort neighbourhood of Senegal's capital Dakar, June 18, 2011. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

It is quickly gaining traction in the West African former French colony and observers say it has the potential to become an obstacle to Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade’s re-election bid in 2012 by mobilizing young and disgruntled voters.

“We couldn’t keep talking without getting involved,” said Fadel Barro, the journalist who founded the anti-Wade group “Y’en a marre,” French slang for “Enough is enough,” with two of Senegal’s most popular rappers during that power cut in January.

“Politicians failed. They did not put people first. So we are trying to get them back involved. It is a citizens’ movement (but) not one that sits in offices and produces tracts.”

Using a mix of concerts, demonstrations and stomping the streets in black T-shirts emblazoned with their name, the group has been hard at work raising youth awareness of what it say is government corruption and mismanagement -- and urging Senegalese to act instead of just complain.

With nearly 40 local chapters formed across the country since January, “Y’en a marre” is focusing on encouraging youths who have turned 18 since the last election in 2007 to register for the February 2012 vote -- and to vote against Wade.

“I am watching with fascination how they are going to use their star power,” said a senior Dakar-based diplomat.

“There is a gap between the rhetoric and the reality here and they are focused on the average citizens in a way that none of the political parties are. They could be a kingmaker.”

Barro said the group would analyze potential candidates for the poll and perhaps endorse one -- so long as it is not octogenarian Wade whom they say must not be allowed a third term in power.

“Y’en a marre” has a number of groups on Facebook, but followers number for now in the hundreds, not the thousands seen in Arab protests. Its message is more likely to be put across through the music of the rapping pair, Keur Gui.

The group, since joined in the movement by other rappers, hails from Kaolack, in Senegal’s rural heart, but their songs attack corruption, urban flooding and rolling power cuts, and are ringing home in Dakar’s sprawling suburbs.

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Senegal has long been held up as a model of democracy in the region. Having never experienced a coup, frequently held elections and seen Wade come into power in 2000 on the back of years in opposition, it appears to have the credentials.

International investors trade several of its bonds and it is a regional partner for the France and the United States.

But there are concerns about power being concentrated around Wade and the possibility he might be grooming his son, a current minister with numerous portfolios, to succeed him.

Corruption is a donor concern while the state is struggling with services such as power and water. Analysts say real democratic progress has also been stifled by the ability of politicians to use religious leaders to control discontent.

Senegal has never looked like replicating North Africa’s revolutions. But “Y’en a marre” has attracted enough attention for some demonstrations and concerts to be banned. Their members are also increasingly harassed by the police.

“It is the logic of intimidation ... trying to stop them from mobilizing the youth. If people are arresting them it is because they are seeing the impact they are having,” said Djiby Diakhate, an independent political analyst.

“It is a movement that has emerged from the heart of the people, the real people, using the language of the people, which intellectuals can’t,” Diakhate added.

The gripe over the voter lists is that a large chunk of Senegal’s youth are not on them, and the group believes the government is actively seeking to discourage them.

One of their slogans is “My card is my weapon.”

A U.S., EU and German-backed audit found late last year that just 12 percent of 18-22 year-olds had a voter card, leaving 1.13 million off a register of some 5.5 million people.

“Where did they find these people? ... This figure is not real,” Interior Minister Ousmane Ngom said on state television last week, when questioned about the lists.


Donors have offered to help pay for mobile registration kits to register more voters but the government has refused, questioning the need and saying people were not obliged to vote.

Ngom said the government had launched a campaign to encourage more people to register and last week extended the deadline for closing the lists from June 10 to August 31.

The extra time may allow more of the newly eligible voters take part in the vote and official opposition parties remain divided, despite pledges to unite around one candidate.

But the poll is set to take place amid simmering social tension. Daily power cuts, the high cost of living and soaring youth unemployment grate with government rhetoric and grandiose projects, such as a $28 million statue unveiled last year.

Wade’s frequent travels abroad, like a day visit into Benghazi last week to try to end Libya’s conflict, do not help.

After revolutions in North Africa and contested elections elsewhere in the region, analysts warn against a shoddy poll.

“If there are any efforts to manipulate things, I don’t think the religious powers will be able to manage things ... the youth are ready to take on the religious leaders,” said Diakate.

“They have had enough.”

Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams