The Associated Press
DAKAR, Senegal — Several months before a Senegalese court was due to rule on one of the most divisive issues facing the nation, the country's aging president took extra care to ensure that his interpretation of the law would prevail not only in Senegal, but also in Washington.
In October, the office of President Abdoulaye Wade contracted a lobbying group in Atlanta. For a price tag of at least $200,000, the law firm agreed to research and draft a "white paper" showing that the 85-year-old was legally entitled to seek a third term in office, even though the Senegalese constitution was revised to impose a maximum of two.
The legality of Wade's candidacy in this year's election is deeply disputed and has become a source of conflict in this normally quiet nation on Africa's western shoulder. On Friday, when the court ruled in Wade's favor, riots spread from the capital to the interior as mobs set fire to tires and hurled rocks at police. Four people have been killed in the violence, including a police officer who was stoned to death with cinderblocks.
In the days leading up to the court's decision, the United States had been uncharacteristically blunt in telling Wade he should step down. Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs William Fitzgerald called Wade's candidacy "regrettable" and said that it would be a good time for him to retire in an interview with French radio RFI.
As recently as Monday, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns said that Wade's insistence on running again "undermines the spirit of democracy," while State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said, "Our message to him remains the same. That the statesmanly like thing to do would be to cede to the next generation."
The international response to the court ruling which is making it possible for Wade to run again was much more muted, however.
As riots began last Friday after the court's ruling, the U.S. Embassy in Senegal issued a statement calling for calm, and urging the population to "respect the court's decision." The country's former colonial ruler, France, called on the court to clearly and impartially explain their decision, but stopped short of criticizing the ruling.
Some Senegalese are wondering if the lobbying effort made a dent, causing the international community to tacitly support the court's ruling because of its complicated legal nature. Within hours of the Embassy statement coming out, it was being discussed on radio talk shows and Senegalese took to Twitter to criticize the U.S. position.
"We don't see it as contradictory," said the U.S. Embassy in Senegal in an email to The Associated Press. "Senegal has a legal framework, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Fitzgerald on the RFI interview said that it's not for us to decide on Wade's candidacy, but for the constitutional council. We have always said that we have no intention of interfering in the process, and indeed, we did not interfere in the process."
It is unclear if the "white paper" succeeded in changing opinion among policymakers, but experts agree that the effort could only have helped Wade, especially since the issue of the constitutionality of his third-term bid is highly technical.
Wade's lobbying effort was led by the former attorney general of Georgia and his firm of 475 attorneys and policy advisers. The president's office paid Atlanta-based McKenna Long & Alridge a $100,000 retainer, a $50,000 research fee, and $50,000 per month starting in October, according to the company's public disclosure with the United States Department of Justice.
The correspondence between Wade and the lobbying firm included in the disclosure makes clear that the purpose of the "white paper" is to sway public opinion in Washington, as well as back home.
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