Senegal: A Response to the New York Times Regarding Abdoulaye Wade

This is a guest post from Adam Steinfield, a Dakar-based journalist. Adam takes on important issues regarding the use of evidence in journalism. He argues that the New York Times has mischaracterized the role of ex-President Abdoulaye Wade on the Senegalese political scene, and proposes an alternative understanding of Wade’s role and status. – Alex

There have been numerous academic studies done on how the Western media cover Africa.* While reporting varies from nation to nation, there are some overlapping trends. Western journalists tend to cover Africa in a sensationalized manner. Atypical stories are chosen to represent Africa as a whole with the majority of coverage focusing on negative, crises-driven news. A recent example of this is the New York Times piece, “In Spirit and in Form, Ousted Titan Keeps a Hold Over Senegal,” which suggests that political corruption runs rampant in Sénégal and that their recent democratic transition of power was hollow.

The piece deals with the on-going presence of ex-President Abdoulaye Wade in Sénégalese politics. Wade was voted out of office in late March while trying to run for a controversial third term in a fairly heated election. Now Wade continues to make headlines as an outspoken figure on the political scene and the Times article posits that praising Sénégal for a peaceful transition of power may be a bit premature. Some sinister suggestions are made that Wade is actually still running things from behind the scenes.

From a journalistic standpoint, there is not much offered in the way of proof. Vague references to Wade’s autobiography and the fact that his press secretary continues to sign his releases “President” are the only sources offered in the first four paragraphs. By this point, the article has already made several assertions on Wade’s position in the power structure, as well as on Wade and his successor Macky Sall’s state of mind.

The article’s argument is centered around two main points. First, Wade remains front and center in the minds of the people. The article supports this by quoting newspaper headlines, claiming people still refer to him as “Master Wade” without providing any proof, and offering anecdotal evidence that he still enjoys the support of the influential and wealthy marabouts (Sénégalese religious figures).

The second point deals with money. Wade’s government acquired over 400 new cars while in office and allegedly distributed many of them in return for political fealty or favors. All of this occurred while Wade was President, but the implication is that Wade still possesses a great deal of resources that allow him to influence proceedings. The article also outlines President Sall’s response to this, which was to revive an anti-corruption agency to track down the vehicles and other misappropriated resources.

Most of the article’s concerns toward Wade are easily answered. Instead of unsupported suspicions of Wade secretly pulling the strings, one could simply look at his very legitimate role in the current political system. Wade is currently the Secretary-General of the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais, which happens to be the largest opposition party in the government at the moment. In most democratic countries the leader of the opposition receives a significant amount of press coverage and support from the citizenry. Wade’s resources and ties with the marabouts make him slightly more dangerous than the average opposition figure I suppose, but if all that alleged power couldn’t save him from a landslide loss in the election, I have trouble seeing what it will do for him now. Especially since the anti-corruption group appears to be making some headway.

None of this is to say that Wade has no more designs on power. The problem is that the article fails to provide any specific instance or evidence of Wade actually retaining or gaining newfound power since the election. The piece falls right into the same old coverage of Africa by playing up the negative while ignoring more positive stories. There is certainly a time and a place for stories on political corruption in Africa, and even in Sénégal specifically. However, due to the ubiquity of the frame of political corruption on the continent, journalists should make doubly sure the frame fits before applying it.

I do think the Times has made an effort to offer well-rounded reporting on Sénégal. For the most part their election coverage was even-handed and their recent piece on wrestling in Sénégal (laamb) offered an interesting look at an important part of Sénégalese culture. There are plenty of other stories to write about as well; from Dakar’s recent fashion week, to the battle between Sall’s government and foreign fishing industries over fishing licenses, or the regional initiative to build a “Great Green Wall” across the Sahel. This time though, the Times sensationalized Wade’s headline grabbing by suggesting the transition of power was null. In doing so, they fell into the same rote characterization of politics in Africa that journalists have been using for a long time.

* See, for example, Narinder Aggarwala, “Third World News Agency.” Paper presented at the conference on “The Third World and Press Freedom,” The Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, New York, May 12-13, 1977.

6 thoughts on “Senegal: A Response to the New York Times Regarding Abdoulaye Wade

  1. After reading the NYTimes piece you discuss, I can’t say I agree with your statement that “the Times article posits that praising Sénégal for a peaceful transition of power may be a bit premature” and that it suggests “Wade is actually still running things from behind the scenes”. You yourself don’t provide any quote from the NYTimes confirming such bias. The only sentence that could hint to what you’re describing is the following: “the world hailed Senegal for managing a rare African electoral transition, but, as it turns out, the page is not so easily turned.”

    But it would be taking it out of context and misrepresenting the whole article to infer from this sentence that the journalist believes Wade is running the show behind the scene. It does however points out – and rightfully so in my opinion – that Wade’s role in Senegalese politics might not be over yet. One simple clue – that, granted, the journalist fails to mention – is that, contrary to his predecessors, Wade chose to stay in Senegal as an active participant to political life. Senghor retired to France, and Abdou Diouf took himself out of the Senegalese political arena by taking on the role of Secretary-General of La Francophonie. Wade appears to still have fight left in him, as his recent declarations about the Senegalese people finding out what kind of wounded animal he is seem to indicate.

    Obviously, as you point out, the real question is what kind of power does he still really yield? I certainly concede that the author of the NYTimes might be taking the media coverage on Wade a little too literally & seriously as well as the signs of respect/authority he is still greeted with. The level of posturing involved in the Senegalese political game seems to escape the author, same goes for the large amount of tabloid-like coverage on political figures or the fact that Wade is one of the finnest news spinner. Plus his old age will always get him some audience, as until he dies he’ll remain Le Vieux. But on the other hand, that is precisely why Wade is not just another political opposition leader for Macky Sall, as you say. He did lose the election, but he still knows the system inside out and it is not absurd to think that a lot of people owe him after being the president for 12 years.

    This points get buried in the story among the recap of Sall’s move on anti-corruption, but it is there through the proxy of Mamadou Diouf’s comment: “Wade has resources (…) As long as he has resources, he will be at the center of the game”. Now I’m in no position to determine how much resource he still has and what kind of political clientèle he can still rely on, but I do think it is a fair and relevant question to ask how much of a pain Wade is gonna be for Sall.

    There’s been a lot of buzz about bad reporting on Africa recently, especially in the American press, and for the most part I agree with the critics. But I don’t think this article qualifies as an example of the gross misrepresentations that have some times plagued reports on African countries. If anything, I think it captures fairly well the atmosphere of a transition: the fact that Wade conceded the election democratically doesn’t mean it is going to be smooth sailing for Sall and that Wade won’t fight for his political survival. Having conceded the election gracefully might even give Wade an edge at first, enabling him to pose as a moral figure – which isn’t without irony!

  2. Well, if you are looking for another specific quote beyond the one you’ve already picked out, how about the title? “Ousted Titan Keeps Hold Over Senegal” is a pretty strong assertion to kick things off with when your best evidence are a few newspaper headlines. Or how about “Mr. Wade continues to loom over his small but influential country.” As I point out in my response, I don’t think Wade is done in Senegalese politics as either a figure head or a power player. Frankly, as you say, I don’t really know what kind of power Wade yields, but I think the author started off with pretty strong language and then failed to provide the evidence to support it. If his sole intention with the article was to state that Wade is still active in Senegalese politics, then he could have done that in three sentences.

    “Wade, the ex-President, is the head of the largest opposition party in Senegal. He still has strong ties with influential segments of the population, a large amount of financial resources and no apparent desire to leave politics behind. As a result he is still a significant figure in Senegalese politics.”

    I would have had no problem with that as a press-release, but anything beyond that should either have some breaking news included or be posted in the editorial section. The key is that the author is not just implying Wade is still active, or even dangerous. The article implies that he is succeeding, in an admittedly vague way, in retaining or gaining new power since the election. It then completely fails to provide support for that. Considering Senegal’s democratic institutions just allowed them to vote out a 12-year incumbent I’d like a little more proof that they can be subverted so easily.

    On top of that, the article omits Wade’s actual role in Senegalese politics as the opposition. As I’m certain Reince Preibus or Ed Miliband would tell you, the opposition is entitled to a certain amount of resources and media headlines on their quest to make things difficult for the party in office.

    Finally we get to the frame. This is not the most egregious use of the frame of political corruption. Still, it is an easy frame to fall back on and one journalists have relied on for a long time. I think in some cases it is valid and if this article were written a bit differently it might be valid here. I don’t have an inherent problem with the questions the article is attempting to answer and I’m not stating flat out the article is wrong in its conclusions. However, I do think it fails to prove its thesis and then falls back on that same old trope of political corruption in Africa to substantiate its claims. I think journalists should take a little extra care when using frames that have been greatly abused in the past.

    Thanks for the response!

  3. This is a bit ridiculous…first you write “There have been numerous academic studies done on how the Western media cover Africa” and then cite one paper from 1977 (obviously there have been many academic studies on this; your citations would have been better suited elsewhere, but as long as you are going to cite something for this, at least try to cite two, recently published works) before making your own “sensationalist” point.

    Your main argument is that the article “suggests that political corruption runs rampant in Sénégal and that their recent democratic transition of power was hollow.” But if you look at the recent scandals like the 400 cars, Karim Wade’s Fesman handling, the new revelations about the Renaissance statue and loads of other stuff being reported on a daily basis, you’ll see that political corruption does run rampant in Senegal (as it does in nearly every other country in the world). As for the suggestion the transition is hollow, you are simply misreading the article (and participating in a little aggrandizing yourself) because nowhere does it state that.

    The article’s main point is that Wade currently remains at the center of the political arena in Senegal, which is completely true. It is not because he is head of the PDS, because the PDS itself is basically nothing without Wade and has crumbled since he left office. It is because Wade personally controls resources accumulated from 12 years of corruption in political power and is still using those resources to maintain some grasp on that power. In nearly every major media in Senegal, corruption under Wade is the major topic and Macky’s government’s actions are a distant second. If it sensationalist to say that, then I’m not sure what news you read.

    • I feel like you have mischaracterized my piece a bit. I do not think it is sensationalist to say there is political corruption in Senegal (if you are going to say it I’d prefer a few more sources, but that is a different argument), nor do I think that writing about Wade’s long history of corruption is a journalistic failing. That is not the main thrust of the article, nor what my response is critiquing.

      My argument is that the original piece makes strong insinuations “that their (Senegal’s) recent democratic transition of power was hollow” because the ex-President continues to retain significant power to influence proceedings. In my previous response I pulled out two direct quotes, in addition to the one pulled out in the response above me, in order to make that point once it became apparent everyone did not share my reading of it. No, it does not straight out say Wade continues to run Senegal (except in the title of the darn thing), but it does clearly insinuate it. I think its also important to distinguish between ongoing political power beyond that of the head of the largest opposition party (which the article claims Wade possesses) and being at the center of the political discussion (which Wade is because of the ongoing corruption investigation).

      I do not deny that political corruption exists in Senegal. I never did. However, all of those scandals that are being reported on a daily basis are fallout from actions Wade took as President! They are not instances of Wade continuing to influence events since the election. I’m sure Wade continues to confuse his well-being with that of the PDS, but the PDS is not Senegal and control over one is not control over the other.

  4. As far as I can see, the article is indeed some kind of editorial/column, hence with a lighter tone. At least that’s what I make of the “Dakar Journal” above the header, as other articles on Senegal from the same author don’t have it, like this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/world/africa/president-concedes-race-in-senegal.html
    That’s why the header doesn’t shock me: it’s strong yes, but so is the character, and that’s what the article is depicting. And I don’t see the topic of political corruption being mobilized as an old trope in this article: it was a major aspect of Sall’s campaign, he is now acting on it, and the first political figures to be auditioned are Wade’s aides – it seems perfectly fitting.

    But even if we’d agree on this header and your allegation that the article portrays Wade as not only active or dangerous but still retaining/gaining power, what made me react to your post in the first place is your opening paragraph. You consider that those weaknesses are reason enough to put this article with the lot that has been so heavily criticized recently. That, I disagree with. It might not be among the best coverage on Africa, granted, but it certainly doesn’t belong with the worst of it either, where factual and conceptual mistakes are the norm – ethnic conflicts everywhere, artificial borders always responsible, to name just a couple – are the norm. As an example, I’d me more worried about all the press on Mali being the new Afghanistan right now. I just think we should save our indignation for more deserving targets, as unfortunately there’s plenty to go around.

    Anyway, I’m a little jealous of you for being in Dakar at such an interesting time. I lived & worked there for a couple of years and will return next year for my research, but I would have loved to be in Senegal at this juncture. Will keep an eye out for your articles on Senegal!

    • I don’t think the article does a capable enough job providing sources or evidence for Wade’s corruption, but it was never my intent to dispute that Wade was corrupt. My problem is with the insinuation that Wade is still in power.

      Again, I don’t think this is the worst example of Western coverage of Africa, but I do think it is an example of falling back onto a commonly used frame because it is easy. The article offers marginal proof that Wade is still a topic of political discussion. It offers no proof that he continues to wield any sort of power since the election. Whether the article’s assertions are correct or not, the lack of proof make that frame irresponsible. Due to the frame’s history, you should be extra careful before applying it and make sure you have some support. Otherwise you do fall into that lot that have been so heavily criticized recently.

      I’ve been upset with some of the press coverage on Mali as well, but I must confess I don’t have the same knowledge or sources to write indignant blog posts as I do here in Senegal. And thanks for the comments. Its been wonderful living in Dakar. I’ve really come to love it here. I have to leave soon and I haven’t yet figured out a way to get back.

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