Senegal: The heir apparent, Karim Wade

Abdoulaye and Viviane Wade
Abdoulaye and Viviane Wade, surrounded by their children, Sindiély and Karim

Senegal’s former President Abdoulaye Wade has chosen his son, Karim Wade as the new strongman of the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS).

The decision goes against the advice of many of the party’s senior leaders. Will the party survive?

58-year-old Karim Wade has been appointed deputy general secretary of the PDS in charge of “organizing, modernizing and developing political strategies”. It’s seen as a major promotion for the man who’s sarcastically referred to as the “Crown Prince”. He has lived in exile in Qatar since 2016.

Internal backlash

Wade’s surprise appointment has drawn battle lines within the party. Three senior politicians have refused to join the new national secretariat:

  • Amadou Sall, member of the PDS Steering Committee
  • Babacar Gaye, former PDS spokesperson
  • Cheikh Tidiane Seck, head of the National Federation of Liberal Executives (FNCL)

The party’s former number two, Oumar Sarr fell out of favour after ignoring his boss’ advice to avoid taking part in Macky Sall’s national dialogue at the end of May.

The four politicians, who set up the ‘Alliance Suqali Soppi’, held a press conference on 23 August in Dakar to explain their decision. They claim to be part of the PDS, swearing respect and loyalty to “brother national secretary general”, Abdoulaye Wade. But their comments are far more critical of his son.

  • They accuse Karim Wade of “failing” the party by not returning to Senegal, as he had promised. They say he’s “chosen the comfort of Doha over the hopes of a people in search of deliverance”.
  • “We have always defended Karim Wade’s candidacy. But, contrary to what we hoped, he never came [back]. This is a major political fact, which changes the situation and deserves to be assessed. However, all those who claimed it were ousted. This is not how a party should work,” according to Amadou Sall, who avoids mentioning Abdoulaye Wade’s name.

Growing influence

Abdoulaye Wade’s lawyer, and his fellow rebels, believe his son is manipulating him to get the party back.

  • According to them, Karim Wade “took advantage” of his father to obtain “a reshuffle of the national secretariat, which literally excluded the main legitimate officials without any internal debate”.
  • “The son dictates everything to the father, who is under his influence. All major decisions are made in Doha,” said a party figure.

More anonymous criticisms have resurfaced in the aftermath of the last presidential election. They also accuse Karim, nicknamed the “Minister of Heaven and Earth”, of controlling his father.

  • “All this is totally false… The ‘Old Man’ does not let anyone dictate anything to him. He is always the boss, who decides and makes decisions. Not Karim,” replied a source close to the Wade clan.
  • For example, several PDS officials, such as Bara Gaye, the new Deputy Secretary General in charge of relations with political parties, say they were personally called to Abdoulaye Wade’s home in Dakar to discuss the party’s changes.

Target 2024

In the Wade family, Oumar Sarr and his fellow rebels are accused of “trying to take over the PDS and sell it to Macky Sall”.

  • “They failed miserably, no one followed them. The PDS is thousands of activists, not a handful of frustrated people in Dakar,” said a loyal supporter of the former president.

The renewed tensions around Karim’s role is nothing more than a storm in a teacup, according to “loyalists”. They don’t dispute the mid-August reshuffle.

  • “Since its creation, the PDS – like all major parties – has experienced many upheavals. It is the train of history: at each station, some people get on, others get off,” according to a supporter of Karim.

However, like the TER Dakar-Diamniadio railway, the PDS remains under construction.

The PDS has been unable to avoid an internal debate, and changes at its head. The yellow-and-blue party ran a failed presidential election, did not present any candidates for the first time since its founding, and is crisis after Oumar Sarr participated in the national dialogue.

Officially, the reorganization of the party’s National Executive Secretariat is in response to the need to modernize the PDS; to adapt it to the new political scene; and prepare it for a return to power in 2024. The new organizational chart also opens up the party to young people and women. The party also claims it has adopted a more collective approach to governance – an admission of Wade’s dominant influence over the party until now.

There are now 11 Deputy Secretary Generals, running various areas of the party. Karim only appears in third place on the party’s list, after his father and Bara Gaye, but there’s little doubt that the former prisoner is the captain of the new team.

For his supporters, Karim is the party’s only logical choice after running as a candidate for the last presidential election.

  • “He has the affection of the activists and the support of many Senegalese outside the party. Apart from his father, no other PDS official has such a popularity rating among the population,” says Bachir Diawara, his former chief of staff.

Karim’s notoriety grew after he was sentenced to prison (2013 to 2016). His supporters were highly critical of the trial, allowing Karim to cultivate his image as an ‘oppressed opponent’.

  • “He also worked hard to get the party back on its feet after the 2012 defeat. Today, he is the undisputed leader. Only he can lead us to regain power,” says Toussaint Manga, a Member of Parliament who is loyal to Karim.

Karim’s supporters face a major hurdle: Their mentor has been absent from Senegal for more than three years, and he never kept his promise to return before the election.

  • “This situation was imposed on us by Macky Sall, who expelled him to Qatar. If it were up to him, he would never have left,” says Mayoro Faye, the party’s communications officer.

Although the president has officially pardoned Karim, he’s still subject to a fine of nearly €200m. If he returns to Dakar without paying the fine, he will be sent to prison.

  • “We do not want an amnesty for the facts of which he is accused, but a review of his trial,” explains his lawyer, Seydou Diagne. He also points out that the United Nations Human Rights Committee had asked Senegal to “review” its conviction at the end of 2018.

A rare sight

Karim Wade’s absence is all the more noticeable because of his silence since moving to Doha. His views are expressed only through a few rare communiqués. There are no recent interviews, or pictures of him in the press. It’s enough to feed all kinds of rumours.

  • “It is a deliberate communication strategy. He controls his agenda and is in no hurry,” says one of his close friends.

According to Karim’s relatives, the 7,000 kilometres that separate Doha from Dakar don’t affect his “daily” involvement in the affairs of the PDS. They believe he devotes a good part of his day to handling phone calls and video conferences, and replying to WhatsApp messages from liberal leaders in Senegal.

  • “He is very present despite the distance,” says one of his lieutenants.

Karim lives in a Doha residence provided by Amir Tamim ben Hamad al-Thani. He also takes care of his three daughters, and accompanies them on their extracurricular activities. Their mother, Karine, died of cancer in 2009.

  • “He’s making up for lost time,” according to a family member.

Will he be able to catch up with his compatriots? He obviously intends to do so and does not hide his presidential ambitions. All that remains is to keep control of the PDS, to rebuild it as an electoral machine and, above all, to return to Senegal.

“He’ll come back eventually,” exclaims one of his supporters. He’s not going to stay in Qatar forever. “Probably not, but how much longer?” No one in his inner circle dares to give an answer anymore.

The faithful

The party’s new organizational chart, unveiled in mid-August, is largely in favour of Karim Wade.

  • Abdoulaye Racine Kane, his former Chief of Staff, is the party’s new treasurer.
  • Toussaint Manga, a Member of Parliament who is loyal to him, became Deputy Secretary General in charge of Youth.
  • Mayoro Faye, national secretary in charge of communication, will also be his deputy.

Two members of his father’s old guard were also pleased to see his takeover.

  • MP Woré Sarr, Deputy Secretary General in charge of women
  • Doudou Wade, nephew of Abdoulaye Wade, appointed Deputy Secretary General in charge of conflicts.

Members of other ‘Karimist movements’ are also joining the PDS, after years of supporting him from outside the party.