Two Trials in Senegal May Have Implications for Elites Across Africa

A man reads from a newstand in Dakar, Senegal, 18 September, 2013 (Flickr/Graham Holliday)

In Senegal, two important trials are moving forward. In different ways, these legal proceedings call attention to sharp contrasts and lingering conflicts between the present government and the previous one. Current President Macky Sall, midway through his first term, may chart new territory in holding ruling elites accountable in Africa. At the same time, critics accuse him of playing politics with the trials, particularly the one centered on his predecessor’s son. Meanwhile, the trials may have little resonance among ordinary Senegalese citizens.

The first trial is for former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré. Habré took power in a 1982 military coup and ruled Chad until 1990, when a rebellion toppled him. Habré was exiled to Senegal. For years, victims of his regime have sought to bring him to trial for crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch, which works with these accusers, provides a wealth of information on the case here.

Habré faces court cases in Belgium and Chad, but the main legal action is in Senegal. In 2012-2013, responding to pressure from the African Union, the Senegalese legal system created the Extraordinary African Chambers, whose mandate is to apportion responsibility for crimes against humanity in Chad in the 1980s. This month saw a major development in the case: The Chambers decided that Habré must stand trial. This decision has continent-wide significance. As the BBC comments: “His trial will mean the first use of universal jurisdiction in Africa.” In other words, a conviction for Habré could open the door to other convictions of former African heads of state living in Africa.

It has taken a quarter century to bring Habré to trial, and many international observers blamed former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade (served 2000-2012), current President Sall’s predecessor, for part of the delay. In 2011, after years of pressure and negotiations, Wade stated that Habré would not be tried in Senegal. Wade broke off negotiations with the African Union over the trial. When Sall took office in 2012, he and his allies in the National Assembly moved quickly—under pressure from the International Criminal Court and the African Union—to create the Extraordinary African Chambers and accelerate proceedings against Habré.

Senegalese elections have consequences—not just internationally, but domestically. Alongside the trial against Habré, there is a second trial, for Abdoulaye Wade’s son Karim. The younger Wade was a cabinet minister in his father’s government. It was widely believed that the family had ambitions to make him president. Karim Wade proved unpopular among Senegalese voters, however. In 2009, he lost his bid for a municipal government seat, amid broader defeats for his father’s coalition. The specter of the son’s succession also contributed to protests movements against a third term for his father in 2012, and ultimately contributed to Wade’s defeat by Macky Sall.

Karim Wade was arrested in 2013 on corruption charges (involving as much as 1.4 billion USD). The proceedings against Wade are part of a larger investigation of alleged corruption in the Wade administration, a probe Sall’s government opened shortly after he took office. The trial has unfolded over the past two years. This month, the prosecutor announced that he was seeking penalties including seven years’ imprisonment, the suspension of Wade’s right to seek political office, a 430 million USD fine, “and the confiscation of Wade’s assets.” The trial may conclude soon.

Wade, his father, and his allies have denounced the trial as politically motivated. In 2014, at his first court appearance, Wade said he was a “political prisoner.” Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party continues to deplore the trial as a political maneuver. Their camp accuses Sall of “dictatorship” and warns that Senegal is entering a “zone of turbulence.”

With such rhetoric circulating, the trial of Wade raises the core dilemmas surrounding efforts to hold former officeholders accountable—not just in Africa, but around the world. How does an administration investigate and prosecute members of the previous administration without seeming partisan and self-interested—and without generating paralyzing conflict?

The case against Wade is so important in part because it seems credible. For example, authorities in Monaco have cooperated with the prosecution, providing information about Wade’s massive deposits in banks there. Further evidence has come to light about deposits in France. Given the seriousness of the prosecution’s case, outside observers should not dismiss the case as a mere effort to neutralize political rivals—a pattern that has appeared elsewhere in Africa. Nevertheless, Sall and the government’s prosecutors are moving on tricky ground. Any implication of partisanship on the administration’s part could decisively undermine the legitimacy of the case, at home and abroad.

As prominent elites face trial, how is the Senegalese public reacting? Ordinary Senegalese appear focused on other issues—core economic and livelihood issues, such as jobs and electricity. There are periodic indications that many Senegalese (a sizeable minority, at the very least) are dissatisfied with Sall’s performance in these areas. In 2014, the Guardian reported that despite Sall’s interventions to lower food prices, expand health care, and boost electricity, many Senegalese remained “impatient at the slow pace of change.” Trials, even for figures accused of stealing public monies, may not resonate with unemployed youth, small business owners facing electricity blackouts, or the rural poor. Sall is stepping up efforts to expand prosperity, for example with a new rail link to the southern Casamance region, but the causes of discontent—the same forces that helped bring Sall to power—cannot be resolved overnight.

The trials of Habré and Wade will have implications for elites across Africa. The former’s trial may mark a new, albeit halting, effort to use African judicial systems to hold former heads of state accountable for human rights abuses. The latter’s trial may signal a new effort to crack down on corruption. At the same time, however, the trials may have little impact on ordinary Senegalese and their day-to-day struggles.