Can Senegal, and Youssou N’Dour, Turn the Tide on Africa’s Big Men?

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

A Senegalese street vendor sits with her child in front of a Youssou N'Dour for President graffiti close to the university in Central Dakar, Feb. 14, 2012

The dynamic of Senegal’s Feb. 26 election is a familiar-sounding one: an aging, increasingly autocratic African President trying to cling to power, sending in the security services to beat up – and occasionally kill – young pro-democracy protesters. But as any Senegalese will tell you, their nation is not just any other African country but a proud exception: a beacon of stability and democracy on a continent that has often lacked both.

Which explains both why 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade’s attempts to secure a third term have provoked such outrage and why the outcome of this battle, which has already cost the lives of at least five protesters, has wide implications for Africa. “Senegal is a country where institutions work,” says Paul Melly, a West Africa specialist at the London think tank Chatham House. “So Wade’s idea that he alone is the man to lead Senegal is deeply insulting – people feel the political development of their country is being undermined, even trashed. Senegal is also something of natural leader in West Africa. So if things go wrong in Senegal, if even Senegal does not have the institutional defenses to stand up to this kind of manipulation, then the signals are worrying for the whole region.”

There’s another, even more intriguing reason why this Senegalese election matters. The protests are being led not by opposition politicians, though some are taking part, but by non-politicians. Those include a host of civil society groups; several newspapers; a pair of rappers, Kilifeu and Thiat from the Dakar group Keur Gui, and their journalist friend, Fadel Barro, who together lead a movement they call Y’en a marre, which means “I’m fed up”; and Youssou N’Dour, Africa’s most famous living musician and a global superstar, who has formed his own movement under the name “Fekke Ma Ci Bole,” which translates as “I am a witness and I must act” from his native Wolof.

The involvement of such a diverse array of players from outside politics is symptomatic of a generalized dissatisfaction with all Senegal’s political leaders, whether in government or outside it. Y’en ai marre and N’Dour don’t back any particular candidate in the election. (N’Dour briefly stood himself in January, but was barred barely three weeks later by a Constitutional Council stuffed with Wade loyalists). Rather, they advocate an invigorating of Senegalese civic responsibility and proactive engagement. Senegal will get the leaders it deserves, they argue. Whether those are good or bad depends on how much people demonstrate they want the former.

Nor does this movement limit its ambitions for a political awakening just in Senegal. N’Dour, Y’en ai marre – and some opposition candidates too – all talk of what is happening in Senegal as a possible spark for a kind of ‘African Spring’ that spreads across the continent and finally does away with the remaining African Big Men.

This is unusual. This is noteworthy. You can tell that, if you walk down to Dakar’s Independence Square of an afternoon these days – or, indeed, if you’re following coverage on any one of scores of regional channels who have suddenly found themselves so fascinated by Senegalese politics – because, chances are, you’ll see Africa’s answer to Michael Jackson (and, when they’re not in jail, Snoop Dog and 50 Cent) dodging tear gas and water cannons. If Wade wins the elections next Sunday – and diplomats in Dakar say they have evidence already that the fix is in – the potential for widespread unrest is real. But there is also the genuine possibility, after half a century of some of the world’s worst leaders, of the start of something extraordinary in Africa. No one thinks it’s going to be easy. But with so much at stake, almost everyone I met in Senegal last week – every protester, every civil activist, every opposition politician, every analyst and every pop star – couldn’t imagine giving up.