DAKAR, Senegal, Feb. 24 -- The seaside highway, one of the Senegalese president's bold building initiatives, winds past the scruffy shop where Barry Mamadou, a 62-year-old tailor, and his two sons eke out a living sewing scraps of cloth into curtains.
It is a beautiful highway, Mamadou said, no doubt about it.
"But I can't eat the road," he said, explaining why, having twice voted for President Abdoulaye Wade, he is now siding with one of 14 opposition candidates in Sunday's presidential election.
Wade's projects include the new sea-hugging highway, a second major airport and a pan-African university. Yet in a country where half the population of 12 million is unemployed, some Senegalese say they would settle for a decent job and three meals a day.
"There seems to be a disconnect between ideas that on paper look good and what is actually happening on the ground," said Alex Segura-Ubiergo, the International Monetary Fund's representative in Senegal.
Wade, 80, who spent three decades in the opposition and ran four times for president before winning by a landslide in 2000, said his critics are missing the larger picture.
"I am a man in a hurry because Africans are not in a hurry, and the chasm that divides us from the West is big and is getting bigger. So we need to run faster to catch up. We can't fix the divide by going slowly," he said Thursday in an interview at the presidential palace.
The West sees this mostly Muslim country as an oasis of progress on a continent beset by authoritarian rule, corruption and grinding poverty. The government has never been overthrown in a coup, and many corporations have moved here. Wade has the advantage of incumbency and a fragmented opposition, but opinion polls are banned in election seasons, so predictions are difficult. If no one tops 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held.
But whatever the outcome, jobs are the leading issue.
Ibrahima Seck, 31, an engineering graduate, was a machinist at a chemical plant that recently shut down. Now he hawks knockoff perfume on the streets of the seaside capital.
Each perfume bottle nets him $2, and days can go by without a sale. His goal: to save about $1,000 for a ticket on a perilous 900-mile voyage by wooden boat to Spain's Canary Islands and a better life in Europe.
The surge of West Africans trying to reach Western Europe on sometimes perilous journeys is among the biggest stains on Wade's last seven years in office. Hundreds have died, yet at least 31,000 people undertook the voyage last year from West Africa.
"What the old man promised us, he didn't do," Seck said of Wade. "I need a real job, not a nice road. Not an airport. As soon as I save enough money, I will take the boat, even if it means losing my life."
Wade points to an annual growth rate of almost 5 percent, compared with 1 percent during the 40 years of socialist rule before he won office, and to job-creating initiatives such as raising crops whose oil can be used for biofuels.
But infrastructure has deteriorated. Electricity cuts are far more frequent because power plants are aging and oil prices are rising.
While inflation overall has remained low, the price of some basic commodities has spiked. The cost of a 13-pound canister of cooking gas, for example, rose 57 percent last year.
Wade's government has also been criticized by human rights groups for jailing opponents, including, for a time, his former prime minister, Idrissa Seck, now one of the candidates running against him. Another contender in Sunday's race is 68-year-old Moustapha Niasse, a veteran opposition leader who was Wade's first prime minister.