Senegal investigation sparks fear of violence

Scrutiny of corruption allegations immersing son of former president stokes fears of violent retribution.

File photo of Karim Wade and Sindiely Wade, children of Senegal''s President Abdoulaye Wade, during presidential elections in Dakar
Karim Wade, son of Senegal's former president, is being investigated for alleged corruption [Reuters]

Dakar, Senegal – Tensions in this West African country are rising, with fears of an outbreak of political violence as a corruption probe continues to dog the son of a former president.

Karim Wade is the 44-year-old son of Senegal’s former president, Abdoulaye Wade, who ruled the country from 2000 until his loss in violence-marred polls in March, in which 15 people were killed.

Senegal’s new government had demanded that Wade return from France, where he and his father had moved after the election defeat.

Wade appeared at the national police headquarters twice last month to answer questions about the alleged misuse of government funds he oversaw as a minister during his father’s presidency, as well as to account for about $15 million he holds in international bank accounts.

If charged, Wade will face trial before the newly reinstated Anti-Corruption Court, which was suspended by his father. He has been forbidden to leave the country until the investigation wraps up.

Six other former government officials are also being investigated, including four former ministers in the Wade administration. Former officials face five to ten years’ imprisonment if convicted on corruption charges, according to Senegalese law.

Karim Wade’s supporters say the allegations of financial impropriety are baseless and politically motivated.

Senegalese President Macky Sall, left, in October [AFP]

“Everyone always talks about Karim, Karim, Karim, but he hasn’t done anything [wrong],” said Ibrahima, a Dakar resident who supported Wade senior in his failed re-election bid. “It’s only because he’s the son of the previous president [that he’s under investigation].” 

Ibrahima, like several people interviewed for this story, was unwilling to give his last name, fearing government reprisal. 

President Macky Sall has said millions of dollars in government funds went missing during the Wades’ rule, and he has asked other countries, including the United States and Britain, to help track down and return the money.

Lewis Lukens, the US ambassador to Senegal, confirmed last weekend that investigators in the United States would help Senegalese officials recover any embezzled funds held in US bank accounts. 

Wade supporters, meanwhile, have accused Sall of using the corruption inquiry to keep the public’s mind off his failed election promises.

“Today, the government of Macky Sall is looking for a diversion from his failures,” said Modou Diagne Fadda, secretary general of Wade’s party, Le Parti Democratique Senegalais (PDS). “Everyone remembers his promise to reduce the cost of living in Senegal.”

Since Abdoulaye Wade left office, many Senegalese have complained of price hikes for basic commodities. According to the National Statistics Agency, the cost of essential goods – including water, electricity, food and gas – has risen 1.5 per cent over the past three months, and pressure is mounting on the new government.

“The price of rice has increased. The price of oil has increased. The price of gas has increased,” complained Amadou, another Wade supporter, who also refused to give his surname. 

‘Mr fifteen per cent’

Karim Wade has been accused of unscrupulous business dealings after his father installed him as the Minister of State for International Cooperation, Land Use, Air Transport and Infrastructure – a position locally referred to as the “Minister of Heaven and Earth”.

According to a March 2009 communiqué from the US Embassy in Dakar titled “Senegal’s Karim Wade – Heir Apparent?” released by Wikileaks, he was known as “Mr Ten Per Cent” in diplomatic circles – a moniker that had changed to “Mr fifteen per cent” by 2007.

“It is widely believed that Karim has embezzled a significant amount of funds,” the cable said.  

A French presidential adviser referred to Wade as “corrupt and dishonest”, according to another US embassy cable dated September 2009.  

The former government’s plan to sell $1.2 billion in shares of telecom company SONATEL – Senegal’s most profitable company – was also noted by the US government in 2008.

“There is consensus among observers of the government’s actions that the primary purpose of this divestiture is to help Karim Wade and his associates launder huge sums of cash that they have collected in recent years through ‘contributions’, ‘donations’, kickbacks, and the sale of illegally acquired assets,” another cable said, citing “senior Senegalese and IMF officials”. 

‘Political witch hunt’

Despite the allegations, Wade continues to garner significant support in the country.

“If you’re going to audit Karim Wade, you must do the same for Macky Sall,” said Cheikh, the president of a Facebook group supporting the former “super minister”, as he was called. He, too, did not want his last name published.

“They’re all thieves,” added M Faye, a young Senegalese actor, referring to both current and previous government officials.

Born and educated mostly in France, Wade was relatively unknown in Senegal before his father came to power in 2000, and he does not speak the local language, Wolof. 

  Inside Story – Is Senegal sliding into chaos?

Wade is “unpopular among a lot of people,” said Leonardo Villalón, a professor at the University of Florida who studies Senegalese politics.

Loyalists of the Wade family, however, are attempting to use the corruption inquiry as a rallying cry against Sall’s government, he said.

“They have an interest in playing up this issue,” Villalón said.

Repeated calls to the Justice Ministry seeking comment were not returned.  

In an effort to shore up broader support, Wade’s former party called for a large anti-government protest to be held on Thursday, December 6, to decry everything from the cost of commodities to his court summons.

There are concerns the corruption inquiry and related protests will lead to renewed political violence in Senegal.

When former president Abdoulaye Wade announced he was returning to Dakar from Paris upon hearing of his son’s court summons, many feared his visit would spark a political standoff with Sall.

The threat was serious enough for President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire to personally intervene, convincing the elder Wade to stay in France – for the time being.

Potential for violence

“This, of course, is a delicate political issue,” Villalón said of the corruption inquiry. “There is the potential for conflict, obviously.”

However, Villalón said he did not believe the investigations would destabilise Senegal, a historically peaceful country of 12.5 million people.

That said, more than 20 young members of the Alliance Pour la Republique – President Sall’s party – appeared at the gendarmerie last week, where Wade faced ten hours of questioning, while his supporters held vigil. After pro-government slogans were shouted, a scuffle between the two groups ensued.

People ran for cover as rocks were thrown by opposing camps. Police soon restored order after removing the pro-government group from the area. 

“We will fight against this dictatorship, this new kind of dictatorship that masks itself as a democracy … We’ve had enough.

– Bachir Diawara, former official

“If they come back, we’ll kill them,” a Le Parti Democratique Senegalais (PDS) member told this reporter.

PDS supporters say the allegations against Wade and the other ministers are politically motivated.

“We do not respect the Anti-Corruption Court. For us, it is illegal, goes against the constitution, and does not respect human rights,” said Modou Diagne Fadda, adding the questioning of Wade was akin to “a political witch hunt”.

Bachir Diawara, a former member of Wade’s ministerial cabinet, agreed at a rally last month.

“We will fight against this dictatorship, this new kind of dictatorship that masks itself as a democracy … We’ve had enough,” Diawara said. 

Source: Al Jazeera