In Spirit and in Form, Ousted Titan Keeps a Hold Over Senegal


DAKAR, Senegal — He suffered a crushing electoral defeat less than three months ago, rejected by nearly two-thirds of the electorate. Some of his top political lieutenants have abandoned him. And he recently turned 86 — at least according to him — after a lifetime in Senegalese politics.

Yet like some lingering odd dream, Abdoulaye Wade, the former Senegalese president, is still front and center in the national political scene. Mr. Wade continues to dominate newspaper headlines day after day, threatening, rebuking, defending himself and his entourage. In March, the world hailed Senegal for managing a rare African electoral transition, but, as it turns out, the page is not so easily turned.

In the shadow play of West African politics, the spirit and form of Mr. Wade — a larger-than-life figure from the independence era, whose autobiography, published in France, is a lengthy catalog of self-praise and accomplishments, real and imaginary — persist, even in the absence of real power. Like the giant Soviet-style bronze statue he built, taller than the Statue of Liberty, atop an extinct volcano here in the capital, Mr. Wade continues to loom over his small but influential country.

A bus drove past old campaign posters for former President Abdoulaye Wade in Dakar, Senegal, on Monday. The signs say in Wolof, “Our feats are there for all to see.”
A bus drove past old campaign posters for former President Abdoulaye Wade in Dakar, Senegal, on Monday. The signs say in Wolof, “Our feats are there for all to see.”

So his press secretary still sends out releases signed “President.” Mr. Wade, a lawyer, is still summoning journalists to listen to him berate the new government (though no longer to the presidential palace). And the much younger politician who trounced him — not half so voluble or colorful — still feels called on to answer to him.

“Wade, President of the News,” blared a headline in L’Observateur on Tuesday. “Wade Calms Things Down,” read another in Quotidien on Wednesday. On Monday, his picture was all over that paper’s front page: “Wade, in the Driver’s Seat of Confusion,” a headline said. The week before, the headline was “Wade Declares a State of Resistance.”

Political power in Senegal, analysts say, is not just a question of electoral success. If you have incarnated power for a long time — Mr. Wade was president for 12 years, and dominated the political opposition for nearly 30 years before — it does not simply slip away because somebody else now sits at the center of the blaring motorcade. The Senegalese, used to thinking of Mr. Wade — “Master Wade,” as he is called here, giving him the French lawyer’s honorific — as the essence of power, have not dropped that habit overnight.

And one of the very reasons that Mr. Wade (pronounced wahd) does not fade from the news, analysts say, is also a principal reason for his hold over the people’s imagination, as well as over influential segments of the society, like the marabouts, or holy men. The pugnacious former president and his circle appear to have accumulated considerable resources while in office. They used these assets to consolidate their grip on power, and to support relatively lavish lives.

But that rankles in a country toward the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. So a special anticorruption agency has been revived by President Macky Sall, the stolid onetime protégé who defeated Mr. Wade in the March presidential election. Dozens of mysterious and apparently do-nothing government agencies under Mr. Wade — the National Agency for the High Authority of the Desert, for instance — have been abolished.

With legislative elections scheduled for July 1, a string of top Wade aides, including his former energy minister, the interior minister and others, have been summoned by the anticorruption police. Fear has settled in among members of Mr. Wade’s circle.

Mr. Sall’s government says it is on the trail of stolen assets secreted abroad. And then there is the fleet of vehicles accumulated by the Senegalese presidency during Mr. Wade’s tenure, many distributed to village chiefs or marabouts as favors. Mr. Sall says they belong to the state and has confiscated them.

“The village chiefs are agents of the state. They work for the state,” said Serigne Mbacké Ndiaye, Mr. Wade’s spokesman, defending the vehicle distribution. He said more than 400 cars were at issue.

“This is nothing but a campaign of denigration,” Mr. Ndiaye said. “The current government is simply trying to scare us, humiliate us and intimidate us. But we’re not scared.”

He called on Mr. Sall, 50, himself to explain how he had accumulated a not-inconsiderable real estate portfolio after a career of government service.

To some analysts, the cars are symbols of Mr. Wade’s power.

“Wade has resources,” said Mamadou Diouf, the head of African studies at Columbia University and a Senegal expert. “The number of cars the state owns — it’s really pointing at the centrality of resources in the political system. As long as he is distributing resources, he will be at the center of the game.”

And the former president’s propensity for impetuous declarations, in a country where the culture of talking and disputation is ancient, ensures his place in the national discussion for some time to come. “If he doesn’t give us back our cars, we’ll go into the street, and there won’t be elections,” Mr. Wade told local reporters.

When he left the whitewashed presidential palace for the last time in early April, there were as many boos as cheers. Mr. Sall had gained 65.8 percent of the vote the week before — a defeat so sizable Mr. Wade conceded barely two hours after the polls closed. For months before, young Senegalese had taken to the streets, demanding his departure.

Mr. Ndiaye, the spokesman, insisted nonetheless, “Abdoulaye Wade is still in the heart of the Senegalese people.”

*Culled from New York Times. A version of this article appeared in print on June 19, 2012, on page A5 of the New York edition with the headline: In Spirit and in Form, Ousted Titan Keeps A Hold Over Senegal.


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