A (More) Sober Senegalese Government

President Sall seems focused on ending corruption, but is it just a political façade?
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Senegal's newly-elected president Macky Sall salutes supporters after his inauguration in Dakar on April 2, 2012. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

One year has passed since Macky Sall defeated Senegal's ageing incumbent president, Abdoulaye Wade, in a hotly contested election marred by violence. Since he took office, Sall has led in a style distinctly different from that of his predecessor -- one based largely around rooting out the remnants of Wade-era government kickbacks.

Wade, who took office in 2000, was prone to grand gestures and large-scale projects, most memorably a colossal, $27 million bronze statue of an African man, woman and child emerging from a mountain. The African Renaissance Monument, which stands taller than the Statue of Liberty, dominates the skyline of the country's capital Dakar.

"People had a saying that with Abdoulaye Wade you don't count in millions, you count in billions. Hardly a month would pass before so many millions [of the local currency] went to a particular person for absolutely no justifiable reason."

Meanwhile, Sall has focused on bolstering Senegal's agricultural base with a plan to invest nearly $4 billion in the country's most rural districts over the next several years.

The Democracy Report

Whereas Wade ran for a controversial third term at the age of 86 despite the constitution's two-mandate limit, Sall has vowed to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years.

Perhaps most notably, Sall has placed a significant emphasis on government transparency. "I think where we've seen a real shift is with Sall's focus on good governance," said Lewis Lukens, the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. "It's such a stark change from the previous government."

Indeed, Wade's presidency was marred by increasingly serious corruption allegations. In 2007, USAID published a carefully worded assessment on corruption in Senegal. In the report, authors noted that "The president has concentrated a great deal of discretionary power in agencies attached to the office of the president, which have been able to avoid competitive bidding on major public works and infrastructure projects." In 2009, Wade's government famously admitted to give an outgoing IMF official a suitcase stuffed with nearly $200,000, a "farewell gift" for services rendered. Wade's Prime Minister initially dismissed the incident (the money was later returned), reportedly saying the sum "can't even buy you an apartment in Paris."

"People had a saying that with Abdoulaye Wade you don't count in millions, you count in billions," said Ousmane Sene, the director of the Dakar-based West African Research Center. "Hardly a month would pass before so many millions [of the local currency] went to a particular person for absolutely no justifiable reason other than they were a personal acquaintance."

Since taking office last April, Sall's battle against corruption has largely focused on members of the previous government, most notably Wade's son Karim, who served as a high-ranking minister and a special advisor to his father. After months of investigation, a recently inaugurated corruption court has demanded that Karim Wade explain how he has amassed a $1.3 billion fortune, complete with at least three luxury Parisian apartments, a private jet, and a villa in St. Tropez.

Some observers, however, worry that Sall's focus is too narrow. "He's been largely targeting corruption close to Wade," explained Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based security analyst. Thus far, corruption inquiries have focused almost exclusively around members of the Parti Democratique Senegalaise (PDS), Wade's party.

One year into Sall's presidency, Lebovich said, it remains unclear whether he is invested in "an effort to crack down, or whether he's using corruption investigations to eliminate the last vestiges of Wade's power."

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Elise Knutsen is a freelance writer in Senegal.

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