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.

Senegal: Toward Legislative Elections July 1

Senegal, as in 2007, has staggered its elections: presidential elections in late winter/early spring, legislative elections in summer. In March, Senegalese elected a new president, Macky Sall; on July 1, they will head to the polls again to elect the 150-member National Assembly. A big difference between 2012 and 2007 is that last time, the opposition – having lost to former President Abdoulaye Wade, who won re-election in the first round that year – boycotted the legislative elections. Wade’s coalition (led by his  Parti Democratique Senegalais or PDS) took 131 seats. In this election, campaigning will be more vigorous, pitting Sall’s coalition against the “new opposition” – i.e., the PDS.

Campaigning has begun. One of the main issues so far has been the new administration’s investigations into alleged corruption under Wade. The probe includes audits of senior officials and major projects during the 2000-2012 period. It represents an attempt to fulfill campaign promises, promote transparency, and draw investors, but critics from the PDS side have charged that it is one-sided and politically motivated.

Campaigning for the legislative elections began yesterday. AFP writes that Sall’s coalition (which appears to have held together so far) is expected to win this “first popularity test,” but also discusses how the PDS is framing the corruption issue:

PDS officials have accused the new administration of using the audits to “intimidate and harrass” members of the party ahead of the elections.

They say it is a smokescreen to hide the new administration’s inability to meet its campaign pledges.

Condemning the seizures, Wade himself said: “If our vehicles are not returned, there will be no elections.”

Former justice minister El Hadji Amadou Sall said: “Macky Sall should himself be audited.”

“We have seen in his inheritance declaration that the assets are worth around $6m. In 2000, he was a tenant. He now has buildings even in the United States,” said the ex-minister.

The PDS has been particularly incensed by the new administration’s confiscation of dozens of vehicles (French). Wade’s side says the vehicles belong to the PDS, but the administration says purchases Wade made while in office belong to the state (more here).

One notable aspect of the PDS’ position now is how much Wade himself has remained involved. Wade decided to stay in Senegal following his defeat, unlike his two predecessors, who both retired to France. Symbolically, it is a powerful move, but Wade wants to be more than just a symbol. He is not running for any seat in these elections, but he is still very active in politics – one article (French) discusses the “war council” he has assembled to fight Sall.

The corruption probe seems like it will be a long process – one that will last beyond the legislative elections. But the election results will give some idea of how Senegalese are feeling about the new administration, how they feel about the corruption investigations, and how much the PDS has been able to bounce back from Wade’s loss. The larger political struggle over the corruption investigations, particularly as it partly coincides with election season, shows just how difficult it is – in any country – for a regime to investigate its predecessor.

Senegal: A New Chapter in the Saga of Hissene Habre?

Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habré has been living in legal limbo in Senegal since 1990. The administration of former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade from 2000-2012 proved reluctant to either try Habré inside Senegal or allow his extradition to Belgium, and dragged its feet on taking action. Now Habré is the problem of newly elected President Macky Sall, whose administration may be moving more decisively to end the saga.


Senegal has begun preparations to try Chad’s former dictator Hissene Habre for war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture after being accused of dragging its feet for years.
The justice ministry said a working group had met Friday to debate the practical aspects of staging the trial in line with Senegal’s international commitments and with the support of the African Union.
The group comprises representatives of the judiciary, the prison system, the foreign ministry and human rights groups, the justice ministry said Saturday in a statement.

The change of administration seems to have been one factor in prompting this legal action. Another appears to be renewed pressure from abroad. AFP adds:

Belgium finally took Senegal to the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest court, which heard the case in March but has yet to rule on it.

At the hearing in The Hague Senegal denied it was dodging its legal obligations, insisting that it planned to put Habre on trial.

We will see now whether the Sall administration goes through with the trial.

I never understood Wade’s reluctance to move against Habré. Wade claimed at times that Senegal lacked the funds. Perhaps Wade, had he won a third term, would have finally gone forward with a trial, especially given the increasing pressure from Belgium. But perhaps the change of administration makes all the difference. It is possible that Sall, of a different generation than either Habré (b. 1942) or Wade (b. circa 1926), is more willing to prosecute a former African head of state. It is also possible that Sall sees little to gain from protecting Habré, and simply wants to deal with a case that has been a longstanding source of dispute between Senegal, the African Union, and Europe.

A Corruption Probe in Senegal

Senegal’s new President Macky Sall took office in April. Part of his platform involves fighting corruption, and police have begun to question high-ranking officials from the administration of Sall’s predecessor President Abdoulaye Wade.

Police have so far questioned former ministers Farba Senghor and Samuel Sarr, who each held a variety of positions in Mr. Wade’s cabinet. They have also questioned Pape Diop, the current president of Senegal’s Senate.

Local media reported that police have also requested to question Karim Wade, son of the former president, who also served in various ministerial roles.

One source (French) reports that everyone who held a high post under Wade will face questioning, and another (French) lists the names of people who are expected to undergo questioning this week.

For his part, Sall (French) has distanced himself somewhat from the process, saying, “Ce n’est pas moi qui désigne ceux qui doivent aller répondre aux interpellations” [“It’s not me who names those who must respond to questioning.”] Sall further says that those who have done no wrong have nothing to fear. The administration and the press are stressing that the investigations are still in their early stages.

At least one member of Wade’s circle has reacted to the investigations with threats. Ousmane Ngom, a former presidential adviser and cabinet minister, has reportedly told his supporters to occupy government buildings if arrests occur (French). Ngom and others are also pointing a finger at Sall, saying that the President, who also served at one time under Wade, should be held to account as well.

Senegal: The Affair of Sheikh Bethio Thioune

Last week, Senegalese authorities arrested the religious leader Sheikh Bethio Thioune and eleven of his disciples in connection with the deaths of two men at one of Thioune’s homes. Thioune is being held in Thies, and his disciples have staged protests there; the events in dispute occurred around Mbour. Reuters writes that the case “may strain the relationship between Islamic orders and the country’s justice system,” but I think there is room for more nuance than that statement contains.

Thioune is a member of the Mouride Sufi brotherhood, one of the two main brotherhoods in Senegal. He has attracted a good deal of attention and notoriety for his explicit support of former President Abdoulaye Wade in 2007 and 2012.

Thioune’s large following and his outspokenness within Senegalese politics may give an inflated sense of his status within the Mouridiyya; crucially, he is not part of the family of the order’s founder, Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba. In 2006-2007, when I was in Senegal, older friends gently mocked me for attending some of Thioune’s meetings, and made it clear that they considered him neither a scholar nor a serious religious personage. Thioune’s gatherings had a reputation for a party-like atmosphere, where youth (even drunk partygoers returning from downtown clubs in Dakar) could find a meal, a good time, and even a mate – Thioune was known for marrying off youths on the spot. My sense is that Thioune’s reputation has not improved in the last five years, and that many within the Mouridiyya would prefer that he not be the face of their brotherhood. Nevertheless, he has a devoted and large following.

The events that led to Thioune’s arrest are murky, and sorting through the competing and heavily biased accounts online is difficult. One account (French) depicts the two deceased men as followers who were excommunicated by the Sheikh and made “pariahs” by his disciples because their adulation for Thioune swelled to the point that they took the Sheikh for God Himself. Another account (French) depicts the Sheikh’s followers as divided into two camps on the question of his divinity, with the “moderates” (those who believe Thioune is not divine) having pursued and clashed with “extremists” (those who believe Thioune is divine) who came to venerate the Sheikh. An eyewitness account (French, more here) from the side of the deceased makes no reference to the issue of divinity, but rather says that their group of disciples came to see the Sheikh, were told that he was unavailable, and were then attacked as they sang praise songs.

While Thioune is in prison, his family is trying to calm the situation. Thioune’s son Khadim has visited the family of one of the deceased men to offer his and his father’s condolences (French). Yet demonstrations by disciples in Thies show the potential for tensions between Thioune’s movement and the authorities to escalate.

Does Thioune’s arrest have any relation to Wade’s loss? In other words, has Thioune lost a protector and become vulnerable now that a different president holds office? Senegal’s new President Macky Sall has pledged, through a spokesman, not to intervene in the case (French). The facts are hard to determine, but some of Thioune’s disciples view the arrest as political. The Chief of the Sheikh’s “Inner Guard,” Cheikh Bamba Faye, has told the press (French) that he sees in the arrest a “settling of political scores.” Such perceptions among Thioune’s disciples could lead to further conflict. “The country,” Faye said, “risks catching fire.” This may be exaggerated, but in any case it points to the fact that relations between Sall and pro-Wade religious leaders (again, it is worth distinguishing here between Thioune and the senior Mouride leadership) could deteriorate.

Senegalese Politicians and French Educations

On Monday, Macky Sall was inaugurated as Senegal’s fourth president, just over a week after defeating President Abdoulaye Wade in the second round of elections. President Sall has begun assembling his team, beginning with the appointment of former banker Abdoul Mbaye as prime minister. Reuters (at last link) stresses Mbaye’s role as a “technocrat” “without any party affiliation.” I was struck by something else:

Mbaye, who studied in Senegal and France’s top business schools, previously worked at West Africa’s BCEAO central bank and has been credited with turning around several ailing private banks in the West African state.

Where people have studied always interests me. I wrote – before the coup in Mali – about the top four contenders for the (now derailed?) presidential elections in that country, and how all of them had studied in France. What this means is open to question. Commenters pondered whether for Mali, the trend of politicians studying in France was a lagging indicator – whether it holds among older politicians, but might not prove true for younger ones.

In Senegal, a generational transfer of power has not disrupted the trend of presidents having French educations. Sall (bio in French) studied in Dakar and at the French Institute of Petrol in Paris. In this, he follows his predecessors – Leopold Senghor, who studied at the ecole normale superieure and the University of Paris; Abdou Diouf, who studied at the Sorbonne; and Wade, who studied at the lycee Condorcet. Sall, unlike the other three, was born after independence.

I am not trying to exaggerate the importance of a trend among what is, in the case of Senegalese presidents, quite a small sample, only four men (I have not yet put together a file on the educational histories of prime ministers, though Sall served also as PM, meaning between him and Mbaye we have at least two French-educated PMs). Nor am I trying to say that this trend reveals an insidious neocolonialism. And some things are changing. Indeed, Wade, setting an important precedent in my view, has said he will retire within Senegal and not in France, breaking with the choices of Presidents Senghor and Diouf. On the other hand, I think it is worth asking what light the educational question sheds on overall relations between former colony and former metropole, and what role French education plays in the formation of today’s political elite in Senegal.

Quick Thoughts on Senegal’s Elections

Yesterday Senegal held the second round of its presidential elections. Two-term President Abdoulaye Wade was seeking a third term, a move which – combined with widespread anger at his perceived economic failures and autocratic tendencies – called a significant urban protest movement into being last year. In the first round in February of this year, Wade won a plurality (35%) but not the majority needed to avoid a run-off. Between then and yesterday the opposition coalesced around runner-up Macky Sall, who is currently mayor of Fatick but whose resume includes time as prime minister and president of the National Assembly. Last night, after voting ended, Wade conceded to Sall, indicating that the latter’s victory must have been massive. Results are not yet available; I will update when they are. According to Wikipedia, Sall will take office on April 1.

My feeling is that a change of leadership is a good thing for Senegal in and of itself. It will lower the political temperature of the country and allow for a re-thinking of its trajectory. News articles and analyses over the past month have stressed the relationship between Wade and Sall – the latter “owes his political career to Abdoulaye Wade” in the BBC‘s formulation – and some have implied that Sall’s style of governing will not differ strongly from that of (the early?) Wade. Even if there is continuity in policymaking, I think that had Wade remained in office, there would have been serious protests and general uncertainty concerning the future of the country.

With that said, Sall will not have an easy job. One task is to define it. The contours of the Senegalese presidency were thrown into question by the changes and maneuvers Wade made as he sought to remain in power, and by wavering over term lengths and limits that goes back decades. Sall has campaigned in part on limiting the power of the presidency, for example ensuring that presidents can only serve, at most, two five-year terms. Other problems Sall will confront concern the economy – electricity generation, job creation, poverty, etc. Some of the protest fervor last year and this year focused on Wade the man, but it also focused on economic and infrastructure issues. Indeed, protests over electricity shortages occurred well before the “June 23rd” movement came into being. Sall will face massive pressure to make progress on solving these issues, progress that is meaningful to ordinary people, within his first term.

Senegal’s election has meaning beyond the country’s borders, but I think that meaning is both bigger and smaller than some people say. French President Nicolas Sarkozy calls the outcome “good news for Africa,” which prompts two questions: First, why just for Africa? And second, although I agree with Sarkozy that it is good news, will what happens in Senegal affect what happens elsewhere on the continent? Opposition victories in African presidential elections are major events. But the last one that I am aware of, that of Michael Sata in Zambia’s September 2011 vote, does not seem to have played any significant part in shaping what happened in Senegal yesterday. Events in each country have a lot to do with that country’s internal dynamics and the specific external forces that influence them. One country’s transition can inspire activists in another, but inspiration only goes so far without the conditions and the strategies that make change possible in a given place.

In that vein, we can compare Senegal and its neighbor Mali, where a recent coup has left the country in confusion, but only to a certain extent. They are both African countries that were supposed to hold presidential elections this year; one did and one didn’t. The contrast is striking – but so is the contrast between the pasts and presents of the two countries. This is not the first time that civilians have been in power in Senegal while soldiers rule Mali. Nor does Senegal, despite periodic violence in its southern Casamance region, face a conflict like the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. My point is, we should not over-generalize based on cases. I do not believe the coup in Mali heralds a wave of coups across Africa, nor do I believe that Senegal is ground zero for a continent-wide democratic movement. That is in no way meant to take away from the triumph of the Senegalese people; in fact, I think to treat it on its own terms, rather than as some sort of weather vane for Africa, gives it more dignity and importance.