Two years ago, Abdoulaye Wade, after 12 of years in power as Senegal’s President, lost his post in an election against his former Prime Minister, Macky Sall. Wade decamped to the wealthy Versailles suburb in Paris (his wife is French and he lived there during his long exile from Leopold Senghor’s regime). Last week he returned to Senegal. Given, the circumstances under which he left and subsequent events since his departure — dissatisfaction because of rising inequality, sustained unemployment, increasing corruption and lack of transparency, an electoral defeat after dragging the country into a period of pre-election unrest, the arrest of his son Karim Wade and other government officials for corruption, and decreasing popularity of his Senegalese Democratic party (PDS) — his controversial return to Dakar, is a triumph for him. It is also a wakeup call for Sall, given the level of media coverage and the number of PDS supporters who were out in full force.
The 2012 Presidential election season was the most controversial, hotly contested and violent in Senegal’s democratic history. In the lead up to the elections, then 85-year-old Wade proposed constitutional changes that would have ensured his success in the next elections by reducing the number of votes needed to win an election from 51 percent to 25 percent. He also sought to create the post of vice president for which many claim he intended to nominate his son thereby creating a path of succession to presidency. Citizens took to the streets en masse organized by the Y’en a Marre collective and M23, a coalition of civil society organizations, to say enough is enough. Wade eventually backed down and withdrew the amendment but he continued his controversial run for a third term. Ultimately, Wade was defeated and conceded after a second round runoff election.
After Wade’s departure, his son, Karim Wade, and other former government officials were arrested on corruption charges. The younger Wade is accused of illicit enrichment for illegally amassing a US$1.4 billion fortune and has been imprisoned for over a year. His trial is set to begin in June. In a recent interview with the French newspaper, Le Monde, Wade claimed his son’s arrest was politically motivated with the goal of removing Karim as a future presidential opponent. Wade’s visit to Senegal did not come without controversy. PDS supporters who wanted to hold a welcome rally from the airport into town were denied a permit. Officially they were told the planned march would disrupt traffic and that the rally might be infiltrated by individuals with bad intentions.
Mayoro Faye, the communications officer of the PDS steering committee, claims the ban indicates democratic backsliding. Fadel Barro, Coordinator of Y’en a Marre also noted that “the right to gather and protest is enshrined in the fundamental law of the country.” No one would have expected the PDS party and Y’en a Marre to be on the same side of any debate involving Wade, yet this shows that Senegalese citizens are able to look past the current situation in their attempt to safeguard democracy and citizen rights in their country.
At the end of the day, Wade supporters defied the ban and were at the airport and at his residence to welcome the former president. His peaceful and somewhat celebrated return is a welcome image on a continent that has often seen presidents flee their countries and unable to return. Yet, a lingering question that remains is, why has Abdoulaye Wade chosen to return now and why did he receive such a seemingly warm welcome when he left the country very much the villain?
Wade’s return after two years appears strategic as the government plans to move forward with the corruption trial in June against his son. His party also heads to local elections in June. While it is possible that Wade continues to enjoy popular support in Senegal, given the debate by local analysts, it is more likely that the country is witnessing the classic; the enemy of my enemy is my friend situation. Wade is also now back in his very comfortable position in the opposition, a space he occupied under both Presidents Leopold Senghor and Abdou Diouf.
Macky Sall is quite unpopular right now due to frustration with the government’s inability to lower unemployment or address the rising cost of living. This however is an unfair critique. Since coming into office two years ago the government has lowered taxes on wages, passed a rent reduction bill that forces landlords to reduce rent by up to 20 percent or face jail time, implemented free health insurance for everyone under 5, and launched the Programme national de bourses de sécurité familiale/ National Scholarship Program Family Safety (Pnbf) which provides quarterly grants to some of Senegal’s poorest families.
It seems that Sall should learn from his predecessor how to use the media more strategically. If he were able to better communicate his achievements to the Senegalese public perhaps it would have been more difficult for former president Wade to capitalize on the population’s frustration.