01/02/2012 07:26 pm ET Updated Mar 03, 2012

Senegal: Wade's George Washington Opportunity

It's a story we've heard before -- an African country makes huge strides before its leader decides his own tenure is more important than his country's future. He ignores or changes the constitution, while voters lose faith in their government and institutions. Progress halts. And this tale could end up as one of the most tragic yet.

In February, voters will go to the polls in Senegal -- a critical U.S. ally and, until now, a beacon of hope in the region: one of the freest systems of government in Africa, an economy growing and diversifying, and a foreign policy focused on African and Western cooperation. Now a constitutional crisis looms.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade officially announced last week that he would seek a third term. His announcement came six months to the day after citizen-driven protests and riots in the streets of Dakarforced him to withdraw a plan to change the constitution that would have made it easier for him to win re-election.

The current constitution was approved in 2001 -- while Wade was president -- and it imposed a two-term limit on the nation's president. After his re-election in 2007, President Wade said he would abide by the two-term pledge. Yet, now he says that the new constitution does not apply to him because he was first elected in 2000, before the constitution officially took effect.

President Wade should respect his country's constitution and not seek a third term.

Last week, four members of Congress, including Delaware Senator Chris Coons, sent a letter to President Wade urging him to do exactly this: step aside when his current term expires in February.

The outrage is taking place within Senegal too. In the wake of the June 23rd protests, a movement called M23 was created and last Friday, more than 10,000 people gathered at the Place d'Obeslisque, in downtown Dakar, to counter President Wade's announcement. They urged the 85 year-old leader to respect their country's laws and urged fair, free elections on Feb. 26.

Voice of America has also issued this call:

We urge President Wade to adhere to the spirit of his country's constitution and to facilitate the transfer of power through free, transparent and credible elections. The voting must reflect the will of the Senegalese people and adhere to the constitution. Senegal has an opportunity to set an example for the orderly transfer of power in Africa. We call on all stakeholders to ensure that the election is free, fair and peaceful.

Last April's free and fair elections in Nigeria gave promise to the region, as did September's free and fair elections in Zambia that saw the opposition candidate win and end 20 years of one-party rule. Africa was let down by November's polls in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- tarnished by violence, rigging and intimidation. Now it's Senegal's turn to be a leader and to put African democracy back on track.

This starts with President Wade. He has an opportunity to write his own legacy -- to demonstrate that his country and the institution of democracy is greater than any one man. Decades earlier, Wade was the opposition leader, railing against abuses of power and speaking about what was best for the nation of Senegal. He needs to rediscover this leader. By stepping down from February's election he would not be tarnishing himself but, rather, passing the torch of democracy and opening the doors to a new era for Senegal. This is President Wade's George Washington opportunity. He should take it.