Thies: The sleepy town that may sway Senegal

With Dakar lying on the peninsular, the country’s second city is the prized political gateway to the capital.

Man, donkey, church in Thies, Senegal - Azad Essa/AlJazeera

Thies, Senegal – Pronounced as “chess” and known as “the city of the train”, Thies, with no more than 400,000 people is not your average sleepy hollow.

The town, considered Senegal’s second city, and a mere 60km from the capital, sits in an area considered to be among the most developed in the country, and is a transport hub, servicing routes between St Louis, Dakar and Bamako in neighbouring Mali.

While Dakar lies on its own peninsular, Thies is the gateway to the capital.

But over and above its geographic importance, and economic relevance as a fervent producer of the peanuts (also known as groundnuts) and phosphate fertiliser that remain among the country’s top exports, the city is considered to be of immense political value.

Word on the street says that if you win Thies, your chance of winning the presidency increases exponentially; the city is the next political battle ground after Dakar.

All eyes might be fixed on the recently restive capital, as the country heads to a contentious vote on Sunday, but here in Thies, another battle is playing itself out.

The popular mayor

Posters of presidential candidates are wrapped around lampposts in the city centre, splashed on school walls and propped up as billboards, most of which bear scars of visiting vandals.

But not the paraphernalia of Idrissa Seck, the current mayor of Thies – and one of the leading opposition candidates in the presidential race.

His face and name is borne neatly unadorned on posters glued to monuments at the centre of roundabouts, pinned to the vast and impressive Khaya trees that shower generous shade on to its wide streets. He draws animated praise from every bystander and their father.

Don’t be fooled. This is an ordinary dusty city, known for its livestock and tapestry, not unusual for the region.

But just do not feign confusion when you watch a horse and cart trot past a Baobab tree plonked in the middle of town, only to park itself neatly outside a butcher’s shop behind a European hatchback. Tradition and modernity sit side-by-side here. It is the type of city where the citizens actually praise their politicians.

“All of these roads, street lights and other developments are the result of Idrissa Seck being the prime minister of the country ten years back,” city resident Mamadou Thiam told Al Jazeera. “Wade should not be running for elections … [but] Idrissa is a man of principle.”

Locals will tell you that Idrissa Seck was a victim of his own success.

“All of these roads, street lights and other developments are the result of Idrissa Seck being the prime minister of the country ten years back … Wade should not be running for elections … [but] Idrissa is a man of principle.”

– Mamadou Thiam, Thies resident

“They got rid of him because he was becoming too powerful,” Thiam, a 28-year-old trader, added.

Seck was mayor of Thies in 2002, before becoming Wade’s prime minister until his dismissal in 2004. He was accused of corruption and was imprisoned. He was subsequently found not guilty and, on his release, re-entered politics – earning second place in the 2007 presidential elections. In 2009, he was elected mayor of Thies for a second time.

Dissident town

People here are proud that their town has always rebelled against the status quo. Little known Thies is credited for the birth of the labour movement in Senegal, which inspired some of the pro-independence protests shortly before and after the World War II.

But even after independence, the city continued to stir the political pot.

“When [Leopold] Senghor was president, we had better access to healthcare – but life changed when [Abdou] Diouf took over,” said Moussa Ba. Ba, a 52-year-old religious scholar, reminisced about the struggle to overcome the economic challenges that existed during Diouf’s tenure.

The city residents made their sentiments to the then-president known.

In 1988, youth threw stones at President Diouf’s convoy during his visit to the city. Diouf responded with a phrase that has since become part of folklore of the town.

“You young people of Thies, that unhealthy youth; I’ll show you who I am,” Diouf is reported to have said.

More recently, in early February, Abdoulaye Wade, the current president, was the latest victim at the hands of Thies’ rowdy youth. Five cars in the motorcade were damaged when rocks were thrown at their motorcade.

The anti-Wade sentiment here is vociferous. But, contrary to popular belief, not everyone in the city will be voting for local boy Seck.

“People here are grateful to Idrissa Seck … but I will not be voting for him.

– Moussa Ba, religious scholar

“People here are grateful to Idrissa Seck, because all these roads are a result of his efforts when he was the prime minister … but I will not be voting for him,” said Moussa Ba.

Ba will be supporting Ibrahima Fall, because he identifies with the candidate’s conservative and religious convictions, he said.

Likewise, 20-year-old student Aissatou Ba [no relation to Moussa] will be voting for Cheik Bamba Dieye, the candidate from St Louis.

“Cheik Bamba Dieye is the most courageous of the lot,” she said.

“He is the only one who repeatedly pushed to get into Independence Square. He also has a lot of ideas and he is the youngest.

“Of course it may be the case that he is also good looking,” she laughs.

Jokes aside, Cheik Bamba Dieye’s struggle to hold a rally in Dakar’s downtown Independence Square was seen as a manifestation of a larger commitment to stop Wade’s candidacy. His dogged resilence in defiance of a ban on public gatherings struck a chord with youth across the country.

“Everyone is worried about the situation, and things could get out of control … even I went to the hospital to fetch some medication just in case hospital services are affected on Monday,” said Aissatou Ba.

‘We will not accept it’

“Everyone is worried about the situation, and things could get out of control…

– Aissatou Ba, student

The tension notwithstanding; it is business as usual here in Thies. The markets are bustling and the roads busy with cars, carts and bicycles. Pedestrians hold umbrellas to escape the dry winter heat, men drop carpets to the floor of their stalls to perform the afternoon prayers, and kids in FC Barcelona kit amuse themselves with a punctured football.

There is anticipation in the air. And by no means is this Dakar.

That so many in the city have decided on Seck gives them hope that he will either win, or force the incumbent to a second round run off, in which all other opposition candidates will have been eliminated from the ballot. Voting is their end of the unspoken bargain struck by Seck’s nurturing of the city.

Locals here say that Seck has fought in such a way that he hardly spent time campaigning in his home town. They say that he was so dedicated to ousting Wade that he stayed in Dakar until the end.

“Everything he does is in such a professional manner,” said Yousou Diagne, a 52-year-old unemployed man. “I have seen so many mayors come and go, but it is only Seck that has ever made an impression on this town.”

The buoyant tone notwithstanding, Diagne admits that, while Seck will take Thies, he may not find the same approval elsewhere.

“But if Wade wins the election, it will send a very poor message to the people of this country. And we will not accept it,” Diagne ominously added.

Follow Azad Essa in Senegal on Twitter: @AzadEssa

Source: Al Jazeera