Trend Assessment: Senegal’s government tries to catch a big fish

The campaign ahead of legislative elections in July is intensifying following the arrest of the capital city Dakar’s popular mayor on suspicion of embezzlement of public funds. His supporters claim that it is a politically motivated move intended to obstruct his presidential aspirations ahead of a presidential election in 2019. In addition, the accusations against the city’s leader have galvanised opposition parties and civil-society groups, including an apolitical movement which was instrumental in the election of the incumbent president in 2012. As civil-society organisations (CSOs) rally behind the mayor, the ruling coalition could face an uphill struggle in legislative elections in July.

Yong fisherman spreads net at Ngor beach in Dakar. Photo copyright: Salvador Aznar/ Shutterstock.com

INDICATORS

  • 7 March: Khalifa Sall, the mayor of Dakar, is arrested and charged with embezzling public funds
  • 7 April: The popular movement ‘Y’en a marre’ organises a march in Dakar with several thousand participants
  • 13 April: Moody’s ratings agency upgrades Senegal’s rating

What are the stakes?

On 7 March, a Dakar high court formally charged its mayor, Khalifa Sall, and seven other local government officials with fraud and embezzlement of public funds. The co-defendants include the administrative and financial director (DAF)of Dakar city hall, Mbaye Touré, the manager of the financial division and the budget chief, Amadou Moctar Diop, as well as two tax collectors. The prosecutor alleges that the suspects embezzled EUR2.7 million between 2011 and 2015. Specifically, Sall stands accused of having used funds from the city council without the proper justifications. Central to the case is the caisse d’avance (imprest account) with a monthly budget of XOF30 million (about USD48,900). The account is designed to allow the council to make cash payments for ‘urgent’ costs without having to go through all administrative steps to unlock the funds.

According to the prosecutor, Serigne Bassirou Guèye, the mayor’s co-workers presented fraudulent invoices between 2011 and 2015. Guèye said that the Groupement d’Intérêt économique (or GIE) – a consortium that can contain charities and private enterprises which is commonly found in francophone countries – made two monthly transfers of XOF15m (USD24,500) between 2011 and 2015 for purchases of rice and millet. The value of the transactions corresponds to the monthly budget of the imprest account. Guèye added that all the transactions were conducted at the request of the DAF to cover the XOF30m which were taken each month and re-transmitted to the mayor. However, French-language magazine Jeune Afrique says in an article from 16 March that the stock-keeper of the town hall denies having seen any rice or millet arrive at the municipal warehouse.

Sall and his co-defendants deny wrongdoing. While they admitted that the procedures for the account are not very ‘orthodox’, they also stressed that these practices have been in place since 1920. Addressing journalists before he was taken into custody in the Plateau commune of Dakar, Sall claimed that the authorities are well-aware of how the account works, contending that the funds used are ‘political’, meaning that they are used for multiple purposes. These could range from providing financial assistance to poor residents by paying for ceremonies or urgent maintenance work. One anonymous witness stressed that because they are ‘political funds’, a certain degree of opacity is needed to allow them to be unlocked at short notice.

The Salls – a love (and hate?) affair

This is not the first time that the central government and Dakar city hall have had a falling-out, with the president and the mayor at the heart of the problem. Early in Khalifa Sall’s first term in 2009, a conflict erupted between the local and central government of former president Abdoulaye Wade over waste management in the capital. This probably prompted the Dakarois mayor to join forces with the incumbent president Sall in 2012 to oust Wade. In 2012, the parties of the two Salls – the P.S. and the Alliance pour la république (Alliance for the republic, APR) – joined the Benno Book Yakaar (BBY) coalition to unseat then-president Wade.

Their relation has soured since then, perhaps due to Khalifa Sall’s growing international profile. He is probably best-known for his attempts to improve the lives of poor urban populations in Dakar and improve local governance, and he chairs several international organisations working in relation to local government. He is credited for having almost achieved the launch of the first municipal bond note in west Africa last year. However, two days before the official bond was due to be introduced in February 2015, the finance ministry backtracked on a previous non-objection notification from 2014, effectively collapsing the project. Specifically, the government was concerned about Dakar’s levels of indebtedness and the potential liabilities to the state. This was in contrast to the appraisal which international credit ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service gave to Dakar’s asset and debt management. Its assessment was backed by Bloomfield Investment, a credit rating agency based in Côte d’Ivoire, which also gave Dakar an investment-grade rating, indicating that the municipal finances were in a good state.

Initial reactions and growing anti-government sentiment

Immediately following the announcement of Sall’s arrest on 7 March, his supporters demonstrated in several parts of Dakar, particularly in the Grand Yoff and Patte d’Oie communes, as well as outside the city hall in the Plateau commune. Police used tear gas to disperse the protesters, who had erected roadblocks with burning tyres later in the evening following the announcement. Many of his supporters accuse the government of conducting a witch hunt aimed at smearing the mayor and to obstruct his presidential aspirations for 2019; Mayor Sall increasingly appears to be one of the main candidates who could seriously challenge President Macky Sall at the polls then. If the mayor is convicted, he is obliged to step down and will become ineligible for public office. That would effectively bar him from running in 2019.

However, initial reactions from supporters, CSOs and opposition parties suggest that the accusations against the mayor have, instead, had the opposite effect. Civil society has been very vocal, both in Senegal and internationally. The Association internationale des maires francophones (AIMF), an organisation of Francophone mayors that is chaired by Sall, has expressed sympathy with the mayor and said it could support his defence financially after sending a delegation to Senegal to assess the case. The mayor of the French capital Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who is president of the AIMF also expressed sympathy with Sall. In addition, Sall has received moral support from the spokesperson and general Kalif of the powerful Tidiane Sufi Islamic order in the cultural centre of Tivaouane, Serigne Abdoul Aziz Sy. According to local media, the religious leader had called up the president to demand the mayor’s release. Sufi organisations in Senegal carry significant moral weight, and therefore play an important role in domestic politics and social life.

More importantly, perhaps, the protest movement, ‘Y’en a marre’ (‘Enough is enough’), has begun mobilising people across party lines against what its members see as ‘drifts’ by the incumbent government. The group is an apolitical movement that became critical in rejecting plans by former president Abdoulaye Wade to change the constitution in 2011 and some months later, helped the incumbent president to secure his election victory in March 2012. On 7 April this year, Y’en a marre organised a march at the Place de la Nation square (formerly known as Place de l’Obélisque) in the Fass neighbourhood of central Dakar. Although the organisers had vowed to get one million people with no particular political affiliation – they had instructed participants to come dressed in black T-shirts and wave the Senegalese flag – onto the streets, only a few thousand sympathisers turned out, which was enough to paralyse several streets in the capital. Furthermore, the choice of location at Place de la Nation is symbolic as this was the place where Y’en a marre organised many of its activities to protest against Wade in 2011; in Senegalese political mentality the square is akin to Tahrir square in Egypt’s capital, Cairo, or Avenue Bourguiba in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, during the Arab Spring of 2011.

Opposition parties have also become galvanised. Several key opposition figures took part in the march or called on supporters to join, including the Parti démocratique sénégalais (Senegalese democratic party, PDS) and the Rewmi party; the PDS is led by former president Wade, and the Rewmi party is led by Idrissa Seck, a long-time politician and former prime minister. Furthermore, several opposition parties have begun holding talks about a grand alliance to challenge the current government. These include a faction of the Socialist Party (P.S.) that is loyal to mayor Sall, the PDS, Rewmi, Le Grand parti (The Grand Party), and Alliance pour la citoyenneté et le travail (Alliance for the citizenry and labour). Should a wide coalition materialise, the political jousting is likely to be tight in the capital and suburbs, where close to a score of seats will be contested on 30 July, according to Jeune Afrique.

ASSESSMENT

The final verdict is due on 27 April, although it is likely to be delayed as several hearings have been delayed. Regardless, the case against Sall appears to have galvanised parties within the opposition as well as in the ruling BBY coalition, and it is very possible that a new alliance will be formed ahead of the 30 July poll. What is clear is that the grand BBY coalition is reaching its term.

Should Y’en a marre take a more central role, it is likely to result in intensified mobilisation of civil society, which will result in significant disruptions to urban mobility, particularly in and around Place de la Nation, outside the Rebeuss detention centre and the city hall in Plateau, where the central business district and port are located. Any such marches are likely be well-attended, and will likely disrupt businesses continuity in the CBD and possibly hamper operations at Dakar port, which is located opposite City Hall. Businesses operating in Plateau should closely monitor for updates about civil unrest as well as the case itself over the three-month outlook, as it has the potential of increasing the protest risk.

In the medium-term, the charges against Sall and his co-workers at the city council come amid a period…

Read the full article