- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 8, 2012

DAKAR, SENEGAL Several months before a Senegalese court was scheduled to rule on one of the most divisive issues facing the nation, the country’s aging president took extra care to ensure that his interpretation of the law would prevail not only in Senegal, but also in Washington.

In October, the office of President Abdoulaye Wade contracted with a lobbying group in Atlanta. For a price tag of at least $200,000, the law firm agreed to research and draft a “white paper” showing that the 85-year-old leader was legally entitled to seek a third term in office, even though the Senegalese constitution was revised to impose a maximum of two.

The legality of Mr. Wade’s candidacy in this year’s election is deeply disputed and has become a source of conflict in this normally quiet nation on Africa’s western shoulder.

Late last month, when the court ruled in Mr. Wade’s favor, riots spread from the capital to the interior as mobs set fire to tires and hurled rocks at police. Four people have been killed in the violence, including a police officer who was stoned to death with cinderblocks.

In the days leading up to the court’s decision, the United States was uncharacteristically blunt in telling Mr. Wade he should step down.

Senegal: Facts about the West African country
Senegal: Facts about the West African country more >

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs William Fitzgerald called Mr. Wade’s candidacy “regrettable” and said that it would be a good time for him to retire in an interview with French radio station RFI.

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns said Mr. Wade’s insistence on running again “undermines the spirit of democracy.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “Our message to him remains the same, that the statesmanly-like thing to do would be to cede to the next generation.”

The international response to the court ruling that is making it possible for Mr. Wade to run again was much more muted.

As riots began after the court’s ruling, the U.S. Embassy in Senegal issued a statement calling for calm and urging the population to “respect the court’s decision.”

France, the country’s former colonial ruler, called on the court to clearly and impartially explain its decision, but it stopped short of criticizing the ruling.

Some Senegalese are wondering whether the lobbying effort by the Atlanta law firm caused the international community to tacitly support the court’s ruling because of its complicated legal nature.

Within hours of the U.S. Embassy’s statement, it was being discussed on radio talk shows and Senegalese took to Twitter to criticize the U.S. position.

“We don’t see it as contradictory,” the embassy said in an email to the Associated Press.

“Senegal has a legal framework, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Fitzgerald on the RFI interview said that it’s not for us to decide on Wade’s candidacy, but for the constitutional council. We have always said that we have no intention of interfering in the process, and indeed, we did not interfere in the process.”

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