Presidential Families & Co. in Senegal: A State of Capture in the Making?


Senegal is often referred to as an example of democracy in Africa. The country holds regular free and fair elections, has a vibrant civil society and a population protective of its democratic achievements. On the back of numerous anti-corruption efforts, Senegal fares comparatively well in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (67/180). However, according to a study by the Senegalese National Office to Fight Fraud and Corruption, 95.3 percent of the general public and 61.7 percent of professionals attest to the presence of corruption in their immediate environment. Although the country has had its fair share of grand corruption scandals, the term “state capture” has not yet found its way into the Senegalese vocabulary.

Demonstrators gather during a protest against President Macky Sall after a possible corruption case was discovered by a BBC investigation. c Xaume Olleros/ Getty Images

To shed light on how corruption has evolved in the country, and what needs to be done to prevent worse, Perspectives spoke to social anthropologist Dr El Hadji Malick Sy Camara. For additional context, the team at the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Senegal office offer their thoughts and reflections in the form of an epilogue.

Perspectives: The year 2000 is widely considered the year of alternance, of great political change in Senegal’s history. Has everything really changed since then?

Camara: The year 2000 marked the first peaceful political transition in Senegal’s history when Abdoulaye Wade defeated incumbent president Abdou Diouf in a presidential election that was generally regarded as free and fair. Arriving in office with a seal of good governance, President Wade instructed the state inspector-general to conduct audits into the dealings of the Diouf regime. These led to the imprisonment of many political figures who had long been denounced by the public. However, the hopeful new beginning did last long.

Wade’s cabinet was soon inflated with additional ministers and a plethora of ministerial advisers – appointed not to move the country forward but to reward members of his biological and political families. Two years into office, Wade appointed his son, Karim Wade, as the personal advisor to the president of the republic responsible for the implementation of major projects such as the Blaise Diagne International Airport and, in 2004, as president of the National Agency for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – the structure in charge of organising the Summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to be held in 2008. By giving him these responsibilities, Wade wanted to groom and provide his son with visibility on the national and international stage in order to convince the public of his capabilities. Despite his increasing unpopularity with the electorate and the electoral defeat of his party in Dakar’s local government elections in March 2009, Wade went on to appoint Karim as minister of state for international cooperation, regional development, air transport, and infrastructure in May 2009 – a position that earned him the nickname of “minister of heaven and earth”.

The father-president, who was never short of public praise for his son who, in his eyes, had proven his skills – “I tell your mother, you worked well” – did not forget his daughter, Sindiely, either. He appointed [her] to help organise the 2010 World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures (Fesman). The state had become a family affair: a patrimony in the hands of father, son and daughter.

What damage did President Wade inflict with this nepotism?

The full scale of the damage caused by son and daughter was only revealed years later when Wade’s successor, President Macky Sall, ensured that Karim was put on trial for corruption, which led to a sentence of six years of imprisonment and a fine of USD228 million in 2015. Karim stood accused of fraudulently amassing assets worth USD240 million. As for the management of Fesman, the state inspector-general’s report accused Sindiely Wade of having personally embezzled as much as USD750 000, with millions more squandered by mismanagement. The auditors requested that Wade’s daughter be prosecuted for embezzlement. However, she has never been heard or prosecuted in court investigations.

The Wade era introduced a new category of politician: “the entrepreneur politician”. In order to consolidate his political power and guarantee his survival, he has to monopolise state resources. He develops his economic resources through his political resources and vice versa. The entrepreneur politician therefore needs political corruption and favours from the state to live. This not only includes preferential treatment of aligned private-sector entities in the awarding of state contracts but also changes in economic policy and regulation that favour a particular actor.

So in some ways, the state is a fiction in Africa, to the extent that everyone exploits their public position to extract rents. The state is captured by those who act on its behalf but operate it for their own benefit. These state agents, in turn, are often captured by their families and benefactors. Although Senegal is often cited as an example of democracy, it clearly is not immune to this type of realities.

The 2012 elections marked another important turning point in Senegal’s democratic transition. Has the new government put an end to entrepreneur politicians?

In 2012, Senegal experienced its second democratic transition when opposition leader Macky Sall was elected president, preventing Wade from serving for an unconstitutional third term. Though Sall sang from the same hymn sheet as Wade did before obtaining office, the change in power hardly led to anything new with regards to the political favouritism the Senegalese public were getting accustomed to. After talking of the “sober and virtuous governance” of “the country before the party”, Sall soon condoned the dodgy dealings of his political opponents by putting auditing files “under his elbow”, and using them as a Damocles sword to force opponents to join the ruling Alliance for the Republic (APR).

Those Senegalese who thought the country had at least turned the page on the omnipresent “ruling family” in the affairs of the state were soon disappointed. After making his brother-in-law, Mansour Faye, the minister of hydraulics and sanitation in 2014, President Sall appointed his younger brother, Aliou Sall, to the Deposits and Consignments Fund, a public-sector financial institution, in September 2017. The latter nomination triggered a huge public backlash, leading Sall to publicly declare to never appoint his brother to a state function again. However, Aliou only resigned from his position in June 2019, after being named in a BBC report that alleged he was secretly paid USD250 000 in 2014 by a gas company that sold its shares in Senegalese gas fields to BP. Aliou Sall denies the claims, calling them part of a political campaign to get rid of him.

Mansour Faye’s career has continued to flourish. With the establishment of the new government in April 2019, he seized the jackpot with the ministry of community development, social and territorial equity. This is a key ministry that exercises technical supervision over the Social Security Agency; the National Health Insurance Agency; the Community Development Emergency Programme; the Emergency Programme for the Modernisation of Border Roads and Territories as well as the Programme of Modernisation of Cities.

Meanwhile, the public is increasingly growing weary again. This is how the rapper Kilifeu of the Y’en a Marre (We are fed up) movement – which helped to mobilise the youth to oust Wade in the 2012 election – expresses it: “Our position of yesterday is still the one of today. We should have closed this chapter under the Wade administration. We denounced this practice then and the wound has not yet healed.”

The interference of the first lady in state affairs is another dark spot on President Macky Sall’s time as president. Although the first lady has never officially held any position in the political party of her husband, it is not uncommon to hear people say, “We call Marième Faye Sall for solving our problems”.

In 2014, during a handover ceremony, Mbagnick Ndiaye, the outgoing minister of sports, declared publicly that several ministers owe their appointment to the first lady: “Without Marième Faye Sall, Matar Ba [his successor] and I would not be ministers.” The public admission sent shivers through the president’s political camp as, for the first time, someone had dared to say aloud what many Senegalese had long whispered.

The first lady is also said to have prevented Mame Mbaye Niang, minister of youth and citizen construction, from resigning after a charge of embezzlement against him. Following a report of the general inspectorate of finance of the ministry of economy, finance and planning into the Programme for the Development of Community Agricultural Domains (PRODAC), which Mame Mbaye Niang was in charge of, he submitted his resignation but reconsidered his decision following an intervention by the first lady.

To what extent is the media able to uncover these issues and alert concerned citizens and civil society?

The media has for a long time been entangled in the activities of government and the ruling party, whoever it happens to be. This absence of a clear distinction between the public sector and private media has led many Senegalese to qualify, rightly so, Radio Television Senegal (RTS) and the daily newspaper Le Soleil as “state media”.

The press is, in many ways, a kingmaker, but it is also used as a bargaining tool with the ruling party. There is a logic of predation behind the ways in which registered media owners ally themselves with those currently in power. Major media players have been appointed to government positions: this includes Youssou N’Dour, president of the Futurs-Médias group, who first served as minister of culture and now as a ministerial advisor, and El Hadji Ndiaye, president of 2STV, a private television channel, who has been appointed as president of the Council of Administration of the Société de Télédiffusion du Sénégal (TDS- SA).

Unsurprisingly, during the presidential campaign of February 2019, the press organs whose presidents were appointed provided biased information. They ran a lot of infomercials in favour of the candidate Macky Sall. Moreover, their alliance with the party in power allows this partisan press to evade their tax obligations with the complicity of the president.


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What other “red flags” do you see on the political scene?

It is in this logic of reciprocity that we must understand and analyse the presidency of Macky Sall, his party mates and political allies.

To create greater transparency, a section of civil society has already proposed to launch public calls for applications for director positions in state-owned entities like the national lottery or the post office. Going into the last election, President Sall threatened to dismiss the directors of state-owned entities and members of his party who would not win in their constituency. Such a statement is nothing more than a thinly veiled threat that he only wants people appointed to positions of responsibility who are party activists before they are citizens. So, in reality, to be appointed a director or minister is to take advantage of the largesse of state power. As a result, any activist who owes his nomination to his party membership must in turn contribute to the financing of political activities. This is why directors of state-owned entities with skeletons in their closet are brought to justice only when their party is no longer in power.

Worryingly, under Macky Sall we are witnessing, for the first time, the appointment of a politician to head the Finance Ministry and the General Tax Authority. This sensitive position has so far always been sheltered from politicians.

It is therefore urgent to lay the foundations for a revolution of active citizenship towards an emerging Senegal where being elected comes with a heavy responsibility and is not just a political reward. A Senegal where the state is no longer captured, where one is elected or appointed to serve the people and not to serve yourself.


Selly: Since independence, Senegal has shown a desire to combat the misuse of state funds for private gain. It began with the ratification of most international legal instruments against corruption within the framework of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the United Nations, and carried on with the incorporation of anti-corruption provisions into Law 61-33 (1961) on the general status of public servants. Structures dedicated, inter alia, to the fight against corruption were set up, too, demonstrating the commitment of public authorities to fight corruption. This is the exemplified, in particular, in the former National Commission to Combat Non-transparency, Corruption and Misappropriation, the existence of commissioned audits that have helped to bring senior officials to book, and the development of a National Good Governance Programme.

Claudia: Yes, anti-corruption efforts have multiplied – but are they really effective? To me, it seems quite obvious that Senegalese politics is riddled by corruption: petty as well as grand corruption. The question is, however, whether we can we speak of “state capture”. If we start by asking whether there are (more or less) clandestine networks of public and private actors who accumulate unchecked powers – the answer would be “yes”. As Camara explains, these networks are more often than not related to family ties.

But when we ask whether the networks at play effectively subvert the constitutional state and social contract, the answer becomes much trickier. In a way, we can argue that all forms of grand corruption, if practised over a long period of time, are undermining the social contract. The accumulation of unchecked power runs counter to the constitutional principles of Senegal, to say the least. But are we not still far from observing the capturing of entire institutions, including tailor-made legal frameworks for particular business interests? Do you see a danger of this type of state capture in Senegal?

Selly: It is not easy to change laws in Senegal. If you look at the pace of reforms, you see that the Senegalese constitutional and legal framework is quite stable. But that does not mean that governments do not find other ways to capture institutions. It is probably much subtler. Also, when we look at the South African example, changes in law were not required for private interests to command policy and public procurement. I am afraid we are not immune to this in Senegal, either.

GnaGna: Take, for example, the creation of new agencies that are linked to state politics, such as youth employment. We see a mushrooming of secondary agencies, although we already have other bodies that should be responsible for the work they do. If I look at it from a very cynical perspective, they seem to be a means not of creating jobs for young people but positions and means of economic gains for networks of political “friends”. So there are other ways than changing the constitutional or legal framework to cater to the economic interests of specific groups.

Claudia: So do you think we actually might not win much by simply adopting a term that is en vogue because of the South African experience? Rather, we need to analyse the Senegalese DNA of corruption and manipulation of the institutional structure in their own right?

Selly: I think we are not yet there to really talk about state capture. That is true. But I increasingly see the need for this type of discussion. We, as Senegalese intellectuals and civil society, should not take too much comfort from the fact that we are better off than other African countries when it comes to democracy, checks and balances, or civil society mobilisation. We should be aware of the risks of state capture and learn from countries like South Africa. Civil society needs to engage much more with the private sector, for example, and put pressure on the government when it comes to dubious linkages between public and private interests. These linkages might one day go well beyond simple corruption. Whatever we want to call it, then, we need to be aware of its risks.

Claudia: One of the most talked-about risks of state capture in Senegal is the involvement of international – mostly, but not exclusively, French – corporations with the Senegalese state. With regard to former governments, personal ties between Senegalese politicians and European business people, based on shared biographies – for example, in the French education system – might have been pertinent. But Sall continues to underline the fact that he has never lived in Europe, and is a “true product of Senegal”. Does that change anything?

GnaGna: Honestly, I don’t think so. Look at the Timis Corporation scandal. The deal that Timis Corporation could explore the Senegalese offshore oil-and-gas reserves was signed under Wade. Heavy criticism around this dubious deal, and the recommendation to withdraw the licenses from Timis by a commission that Macky Sall himself has established when he came to power, has not made Sall cancel the deal. Timis could keep the licences and sell them for a fortune to British Petroleum. Thus, as it now becomes increasingly clear, Sall might have had – but that is to be judged by the experts – a strong interest in keeping the deal intact, although he might not have had any prior ties, to neither Timis nor BP.

Claudia: What I find striking in Senegal is the parallel existence of a very strong democratic culture, regular free and fair elections, a democratic consciousness within the population, a vibrant civil society on the one hand, and the dynamics of corruption and embezzlement that Camara describes on the other.

Selly: Yes, there is a very strong democratic culture and vibrant civil society that is very well aware of the negative impact of nepotistic politics and the risk of a degeneration of “the state as a family affair” into a proper capture. However, Senegal is still in the process of consolidating democracy. We already had quite strong checks and balances under the presidencies of Léopold Senghor [1960–80] and Abdou Diouf [1981–2000], although there was corruption back then already. But when Wade came to power in 2000, he introduced a form of nepotism and obvious corruption that was unprecedented in its dimension, and revolting. He gradually manipulated institutions in a way that we really feared the end of democracy was near.

GnaGna: But the Senegalese population is, in a way, very aware and politically literate when it comes to anything that would seriously endanger our democratic achievements. There is a strong sense of democracy and vigilance within the population. And there is a limit to everything when you ask the Senegalese people. Enough is enough. When Wade tried his bid for a third term in 2012, which was considered a violation of our constitution, people took to the streets in masses. The fact that the current president, Macky Sall, won the elections of 2012 is first and foremost due to the fact that people were fed up with the Wade system of governance. That vigilance of the population with regard to the misuse of political power for private gain is still intact. When the BBC revealed corruption allegations against Aliou Sall, the outrage was enormous and Sall finally resigned from his post.

Claudia: However, it was a foreign broadcaster, the BBC, who revealed the case. Not the Senegalese media. Why is that?

Selly: That is true. The Senegalese media has become quite soft in recent years. It seems that, in every important media outlet, there is somebody who is either too close to the presidency personally or has too many privileges to really criticise.

GnaGna: That is a symptom of a larger problem. You see, the current government is very special. Sall was heavily supported by civil society and independent media during his campaign against Wade in 2012. Many of the current civil-society leaders and independent media bosses have been his allies back then. That does not necessarily mean that they are not able or willing to criticise today. If you look at movements like Y’en a Marre, who have been the driving forces behind the mobilisation for Sall in 2012, they are openly disappointed with Sall’s current politics. But still, the fact that Sall is somehow the embodiment of civil society’s success against a full-fledged nepotism-in-the-making took the wind out of the sails of civil society. Sall knows very well how to deal with and manipulate civil-society actors for his own interests. Even though it is true that civil society in Senegal is much more outspoken and free to act than in many other African countries, they could still play a much stronger role of watchdogs than they do today.

Selly: Another problem is that outrage more often than not is directed against a certain individual. Wade overstretched the people’s tolerance, so he had to go. Aliou Sall also became the face of an alleged corruption scandal that was considered so outrageous that he had to resign. But there are people and networks behind these individuals. When we content ourselves with exchanging or even “sacrificing” individuals, we will never combat the core of the problem.

Claudia: From what I hear from you, I think what we might actually win from using the “state capture” concept is to understand grand corruption as a political project rather than an individual or collective act of greed. To me, it comes as no surprise that certain practices and even specific dubious deals, such as the allotment of oil-and-gas exploration licenses, are being taken over from one government to the next – even though the governments and presidents themselves are opposed to each other.

If we have a better political analysis of the context in which grand corruption occurs, we might not only be able to understand why anti-corruption measures and activism have so far not yielded the results we would hope for but also to allow Senegalese civil society to make better use of the outrage surrounding corruption scandals, like the one we are witnessing today, in their fight for true democracy. It would also shed a different light on discussions around presidential terms and their circumvention.

When we look at the concerted action of civil society and social movements against a third term for ex-President Wade in 2012, those two factors really came together in a very obvious way: grand corruption and a total disrespect of fundamental democratic values of the Senegalese people. Back in 2012, it really was not about Wade only. It was about an entire system of governance that only served a handful of people to the detriment of the general population. To uphold this spirit today, we might in fact need an analysis that can reveal how extracting rents from the state and the consolidation and concentration of unchecked – thus undemocratic – political powers are going hand in hand.

El Hadji Malick Sy Camara is a teacher-researcher in the sociology department of Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar and associate researcher with the Health and Transitions in Africa team at the Virtual University of Senegal. His main research interests are democracy, health, religion and public space.

Claudia Simons is the acting director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Senegal office in Dakar.

Dr Selly Bâ is the coordinator of the Democracy Programme.

GnaGna Koné is responsible for the office’s public relations.