Senegal’s “Mister 15%” Goes to Jail

Karim Wade, the son of Senegal's former president, is emblematic of how Abdoulaye Wade's family made the state their personal property.

Karim Wade, left, and his father,President Abdoulaye Wade. (Image via AFP Africa).

Monday 23 March 2015 was set to be the day of reckoning in Senegal. The presiding judge of the Court for Repression of Illicit Enrichment (CREI) delivered the verdict on the trial of Karim Wade, the son of former Senegal’s president Abdoulaye Wade, charged with illegally amassing a fortune of US$240 million, embezzlement, and corruption. His sentence: 6 years in prison and US$228 million in fines.

It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago, Senegal euphorically elected Abdoulaye Wade as president, ending the 40-year rule of the Parti Socialiste. The year 2000 consecrated the end of the patrimonial post-independence Senegalese state; it marked the dawn of a new social contract between the people and the state. But Abdoulaye Wade’s monumentally misplaced priorities, his compulsive attempts at altering the constitution, and his folie de grandeur plunged Senegal into a dozen years of malaise. Add to that mix his corruption scandals, like handing a suitcase full of cash to a departing IMF representative. The presidential palace was like one giant ATM.

And then there was Karim Wade, a hair in the Senegalese soup.

Karim Wade was nowhere to be seen in Senegalese streets during the struggles that helped elect his father. He was a banker in London, we’re told, who decided to come home to lend his talent to his father’s administration in 2000. Rumor has it that’s when he acquired his Senegalese passport.

From the informal position of adviser to his daddy-president, Karim Wade started eying the prize. He entered the political arena when he ran in local mayoral elections in Dakar in 2009. But he lost miserably. In fact, he didn’t even the win the neighborhood polling station where he cast his vote. Lesson not learned.

Abdoulaye Wade has always believed that he was a genius – have you heard of the Wade Formula? Therefore, his son Karim must be one too. So Karim Wade entered the government as a minister, and at some point held the ridiculous title of Minister of State, Minister of International Cooperation, of Air Transport, of Infrastructures, and of Energy. As his father said at the time, “only Karim is able to handle 4 government positions merged into one.” Speaking ironically, the Senegalese people nicknamed Karim Wade the “Minister of Heaven and Earth.”

While Karim toured the world aboard his leased private jet, rubbing shoulders with heads of states and wealthy sheikhs in the Gulf, the Senegalese people grew frustrated at the father’s attempt to groom the son as the next president. The blow came in 2011 when Wade proposed a change of the constitution that would lower the threshold required to win the presidential elections on the first round from 51 to only 25%, and introduced a presidential ticket system. The populations besieged the National Assembly the day that the members of the parliament were set to pass the legislation, and Wade eventually abandoned the proposal.

Wade’s attempt at leaving his legacy – literally – on Senegalese political history would have succeeded had it not been foiled by the fact that 65% of Senegalese voters dragged him out of office in 2012 replacing him with his former protégé, Macky Sall. That’s an enormous margin of loss for an incumbent president. Welcome to Senegal.

When Macky Sall became president in 2012, he reactivated the CREI – a special court aimed at fighting illicit enrichment of the elites, embezzlement and corruption. Karim Wade then had to justify the origins of his assets (valued at $240 million). Many of these assets were traced to bank accounts in Monaco and Singapore, and offshore companies in Panama and the British Virgin Islands. Karim Wade maintains that all his assets are gifts from his father and other friends. What we know for sure is that in a Wikileaked diplomatic cable, then-US Ambassador to Senegal Marcia Bernicat referred to Karim Wade as “Mister 15%”, hinting at his share in all big contracts in Senegal. 

His wealth is not the only problem. Ambassador Bernicat added, “Karim Wade is a master at being concurrently out of the spotlight and ever-present. Ministers are scared of him, business people are cowed by him, and major policy decisions are vetted by him. He is, by all accounts, charming and smart … But, his influence is pervasive, and, in our view, largely insalubrious.”

Karim Wade’s lawyers claim that he is a political prisoner, the CREI being the political arm of President Macky Sall in an attempt to disqualify a potential adversary for the 2017 presidential elections. But there is no plausible scenario in which a majority of Senegalese voters would cast their votes for him. That doesn’t stop Abdoulaye Wade from his desperate attempts at setting his son free. Last week, three days before the verdict was set to be delivered, Abdoulaye Wade and his party, the PDS, nominated Karim Wade as their candidate for the 2017 presidential elections. 

Running for office from a prison cell might be the next episode in this political drama. Or not.  After all, Abdoulaye Wade may be the only one thinking that Karim is a viable candidate. What matters for the Senegalese people is: What’s next?

Soon after the verdict, the Minister of Justice announced that the CREI will continue its work, pursuing the investigations and prosecuting all those who have illegally amassed fortunes. Such a course of action would not only restore faith in state institutions, but also ease the worries of those who think that Karim Wade should not be the only one having to face justice. Moreover, those currently serving in the administration should be paying attention.

In the meantime, Wade and his party will continue to press for Karim Wade’s release, although it is unlikely that they will succeed. It remains to be seen whether the PDS will pick another candidate for the 2017 or boycott the elections. Either way, as Abdoulaye Wade leads the “liberation movement” to set Prince Karim free, the people are only hoping that the CREI will liberate them from corrupt and inept political entrepreneurs.

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