ANALYSIS: Hubris may snare Senegal's wily "Hare" Wade
Thu Feb 2, 2012 2:40pm GMT
By Mark John and Diadie Ba
DAKAR (Reuters) - "I will tread on no corpses to get to the presidential
palace," Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade once declared from the opposition benches
in a famous pledge to win power by democratic means.
But 12 years after he gained the presidency of the West African nation
through the ballot box at his fifth attempt, riots over the octogenarian
leader's bid for re-election in an upcoming February 26 vote have already
caused at least four deaths.
The bloodshed risks tarnishing both Wade's legacy as one of the continent's
most prominent senior leaders and Senegal's enviable image as a stable
African state that has not suffered either a damaging coup or civil war
since its independence.
Rivals say his renewed candidacy flagrantly breaches rules limiting
presidents to two terms and they have vowed to make the predominantly Muslim
former French colony, which is a popular with foreign tourists,
"ungovernable" unless he backs down.
But the president, whose neoclassical palace overlooking the Atlantic Ocean
is now protected by tear gas-equipped riot police, is determined to have a
few more years' tenancy.
The bald-headed ruler, whose diminutive stature belies a super-sized
political ego, does not see why street protests should force him out.
"His road to power was long, hard and often lonely," said political
commentator Babacar Justin Ndiaye of Wade's 26 years of opposition which, in
a twist of irony, included jail spells for inciting anti-government protests
of the sort he now faces.
"That gave him an unshakeable belief in his own legitimacy. He thinks he can
do no wrong," Ndiaye added of Wade, who openly mocks any comparison with the
"Arab Spring" uprisings of 2011 that ousted incumbents in other Muslim
states further north.
This apparently unmoveable self-belief has fueled a political career
extraordinary even by the standards of a continent all too used to
While his birth date is disputed, Wade's official age of 85 makes him a peer
of founding fathers of African independence such as Tanzania's Julius
Nyerere or Guinea's Ahmed Sekou Toure. Along with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe,
he is the only one of that generation in power today.
The controversy over his candidacy has transfixed Senegal and drowned out
debate over the unemployment, poverty and desperation that are the lot of
many of its 12 million people.
It has also earned Wade opprobrium abroad. The United States has urged him
to go gracefully, while France has complained about the invalidation of the
bids of rivals by the Constitutional Council, whose five judges Wade picked.
Admirers and critics call him "The Hare" - an animal which in Senegal
symbolises cunning as the fox does in Europe. If Wade wins the election as
he predicts, he would be at least 92 years old if he completes his
But the prize Wade covets is not so much another full term as the right to
have a say in who comes next. The risk for him is that in trying to shape
posterity, he ruins his own legacy.
While both father and son strenuously deny it, critics say Wade's last
ambition is to see his 43-year-old son Karim Wade take over from him in a
A merchant banker who is fluent in English but struggles in the local Wolof
language, Wade Jr's political debut in 2009 municipal elections in Dakar
ended in humiliation as rival Socialists gained control of the capital city.
While that silenced talk of Karim running for president this year, his
father handed him a "superministry" portfolio whose duties range from
re-launching the national airline to overhauling the decrepit power grid.
Abdoulaye Wade insists his son is a financier of genius. Critics see a
transparent attempt to ease him into line for the presidency in the same way
Gabon's late leader Omar Bongo positioned his son Ali to secure power in
For some, Wade's move last June to break ranks with other African leaders
backing Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and declare support for Western-backed
rebels during a visit to their Benghazi stronghold was a bid to win foreign
blessing for the succession scheme.
Days later, he unveiled plans to limit the Senegalese election to a single
round and create a "double-ticket" ballot shared with a vice-presidential
running mate - a move many saw as a ruse to get his son into the presidency
by the back door.
But if Wade thought his Libyan trip had curried favour with Paris and
Washington, he was wrong. Neither capital offered any word of support as
angry street protests promptly forced him to withdraw both the proposals.
"Going to Libya like that, at his age, was no fun," said analyst Ndiaye.
"But he was snared by his own ambition - to put his son in power."
While that interpretation is widely shared and has credence among
Dakar-based diplomats, it is rejected outright by Wade's inner circle and
others who know him well.
Wade biographer Marcel Mendy sees his candidacy as a gambit to win time
until his beloved Democratic Party of Senegal (PDS) has found a
new-generation presidential hopeful after the exodus of a series of party
heavyweights who rowed with the president.
"Wade knows better than anyone that the PDS would lose if he doesn't stand,"
said Mendy. "It is a candidacy by default."
MONEY AND JAIL
Sitting at his desk in an annex to the presidential palace, Wade's campaign
manager and long-time ally El Hadji Amadou Sall re-tells Wade's favourite
story of the moment when he revealed to his father an ambition to enter
"His father asked him two questions: 'Have you got money? And are you ready
to go jail?' When Wade replied 'yes' to both questions, he said simply:
'Right. Off you go then'."
It was a moment of paternal prescience that would prepare the son both for
the bruising encounters ahead and for the hole that Senegal's patronage
politics would burn in his pocket.
A grant scholar at the Concordet lycee in Paris whose alumni include Jean
Cocteau and Toulouse-Lautrec, Wade went on to pick up a wad of diplomas
around French universities during the 1950s before returning to Dakar to
teach and finally practise law.
Consultancy work for the African Development Bank and others gave Wade the
financial wherewithal to step into politics. As a short-lived and maverick
member of the ruling Socialists, he made his name highlighting the plight of
farmers during the drought that swept through West Africa in the early
But Wade was stifled in a party dominated by Senegal's founding president,
the poet-intellectual Leopold Sedar Senghor. He needed to strike out on his
own - but with strict limits on political parties still in place, the
question was how.
Finally, Wade asked Senghor for permission to launch a mainstream, liberal
party. In an era when incumbents throughout Africa were watching their backs
for Marxist coup-plotters, Wade's choice of the latter reassured the ageing
"At the time a lot of people were flirting with the ideas of the left, but
Wade was convinced they wouldn't work in Africa. He is a nationalist," said
The Democratic Party of Senegal (PDS) Wade launched in 1974 was to be his
political warhorse for the next four decades.
"CASH DISPENSER UP HIS SLEEVE"
Initially styling the PDS as a coalition-minded group rather than an
out-and-out opposition party, Wade lulled Senghor into a sense of security -
only to stand against him in the 1978 vote.
It was the shocked Senghor who first dubbed Wade "The Hare".
While it was the first of what would be four presidential defeats, it
heralded the emergence of a politician with both the charisma and resources
to worry the entrenched ruling elite.
Amath Dansokho, secretary-general of the left-wing Party of Independence and
Labour (PIT) who over the decades has been both friend and foe to Wade,
describes a "political virtuoso" at work during one early campaign tour
"When he arrived in some villages, old men would weep as if Mohammed had
descended from the skies," he recalled.
"And the money: it was like he had a cash dispenser up his sleeve, dishing
out 50,000 CFA francs in villages whose total worldly goods added up to
5,000 CFA," Dansokho said of "gifts" which are still today features of
Wade was gradually stacking up a number of achievements to his name: he had
been a main mover behind Senegal's transition to multi-party politics and
had campaigned with success for an easing of restrictions on civil and
But the late 1980s and the 1990s were lean years for Wade, who - fulfilling
his father's prophecy - saw short spells in prison accused of inciting riots
after disputed elections which his supporters were convinced he had really
By 1998 he had even left Senegal for brief exile in France. But two years
later, Wade's moment finally came.
Persuaded by Dansokho and others to fight the 2000 election against
Senghor's successor Abdou Diouf, whose government was struggling against
rising unpopularity, Wade flew back o Dakar to streets lined with hundreds
of thousands of supporters.
"It was then that Diouf knew it was over," Dansokho told Reuters in the
living room of the Dakar apartment where a small group of backers helped
Wade draft his campaign manifesto.
"AFRICAN RENAISSANCE" MAN
After beating Diouf with a comfortable 58 percent victory that ousted the
Socialist Party from power for the first time since 1960, it took Wade a
while to adjust to his new role.
In cabinet, his prickly, domineering character led to run-ins with allies:
Wade has gone one through prime minister every two years. Three of them -
Moustapha Niasse, Idrissa Seck and Macky Sall - are now standing against him
"He is an ideas factory and his style is direct and without frills. He has
the pragmatism of the private sector," said Amadou Sall, acknowledging
A diehard Keynsian, Wade has pumped cash into a Western-standard motorway
and gleaming new airport which, when completed, he hopes will turn Senegal
in a regional trade hub.
While his advanced age occasionally shows, palace workers say he is rarely
out of the office before 9.30 p.m. In a late-night January 9 interview with
Reuters he repeatedly scolded advisers for trying to wrap up the meeting
"I don't have to list my achievements because they are there for all to
see," he said. "For me it's always been about work."
His admirers say Wade has done more in 12 years than the Socialists did in
40 - and even some rivals are apt to agree.
But whether it has been enough is another matter.
According to the U.N. Development Programme's measure of poverty, two-thirds
of Senegalese still face deprivations in health, education and living
With formal employment rare, urban youth hawk phone credit cards by the
roadside and college graduates stack shelves in supermarkets to eke out a
living and send money "back to the village" - shorthand for their even
poorer rural relations.
Wade has missed a goal of attaining food self-sufficiency, while a simmering
separatist conflict in the postcard-beautiful southern Casamance region -
which Wade vowed in 2000 to solve in 100 days - has hamstrung the tourist
As daily power outages in the crumbling energy sector plunged the country
into darkness, Dakar locals were agog when Wade unveiled in 2010 a monument
to "African Renaissance" slightly bigger than New York's Statue of Liberty.
Described in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable as a "titanic, grandiose edifice
of a style reminiscent of the Stalinesque behemoths of the halcyon days of
the Soviet Union", some Senegalese joke that the statue of man, woman and
child is none other than Wade, his wife and his son Karim.
THE LAST BARRACUDA
Far from going away, the accusations of corruption which dogged the
Socialists have got louder during the Wade years - and even earned him a
warning from the United States that failure to tackle graft could jeopardise
The North Korean-built "Renaissance" statue itself has been in the line of
fire. Wade has taken flak for shaving off a cut of tourist revenues for his
private charity, and has batted away allegations of shady real estate
dealings linked to it.
His rule has given birth to a new class of Senegalese - the nouveau riche
"cornichards" spotted zipping in powerful sports utility vehicles along the
ocean-side corniche which Wade built from his palace to the airport.
It is this division of Senegalese society between the massed ranks of the
losers and a privileged clique of winners which is now firing the protests
against Wade's bid for a third term.
Whatever his intentions - and Wade has shown in the past he can change his
mind at a stroke - he has created confusion in a fragmented opposition camp
of no fewer than 13 challengers.
If he wins, that victory may come at a cost of turning foreign allies away
from him. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said this week his
candidacy could endanger Senegal's democracy and stability.
By calling it a day, Wade would have pulled off Senegal's first democratic
handover of power and then been able to join the small but prestigious band
of African leaders who have quit of their own accord.
As it is, he is skirting dangerously close to the pariah camp occupied by
the likes of Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to step down last
year cost his country four months of bloody conflict. International and
domestic observers will be scrutinising Senegal's vote for any trace of
But for now, Wade is in his element. The blue-and-white scarf of the PDS
around his neck, the president was on the campaign trail this week - exuding
confidence and goading his rivals with the taunt: "I am the last barracuda
among the little fish."
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Thu Feb 02 2012 - 15:36:37 EST