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.
"I will lead a team of lawyers and professionals at McKenna Long & Alridge who have been assembled to research and analyze your authority to seek a third term under the Senegalese constitution, and develop and implement an agreed upon protocol for sharing these findings with appropriate officials and interested parties in the United States and in the Republic of Senegal," wrote Baker, the recently retired attorney general of Georgia in the Oct. 10 letter to Wade.
Although the law in Senegal was changed in 2001 to impose term limits, Wade argues that since he was elected in 2000 under the previous constitution, the new restriction should not apply to him. Wade's spokesman says that because the issue is complicated, the office of the president wanted a U.S. law firm to help them explain it to the world.
"Why would we seek an American law firm? It's not to convince anyone outside Senegal, since you know that the arbiter of this debate is the constitutional council," said presidential spokesman Serigne Mbacke Ndiaye. "But in the world in which we live, you need to be able to explain your position to both the population and the international community. And so we thought that a law firm based in America is better positioned to explain this to Americans. And if this law firm was not convinced of the correctness of our position, they would not have taken on this task."
"It's smart on the part of Wade. This is a technical issue. It's a legal issue," said George Ajjan, who has worked as a political strategist for Republicans in New Jersey and who is in Senegal pitching consulting services to the candidates running against Wade.
African heads of state have been hiring lobbyists since the 1970s to press their cases in Washington. Ajjan said the real problem is not that Wade hired lobbyists, but that none of the 13 opposition candidates running against him thought to do the same.
"It's not like the main opposition candidates are poor," said Ajjan pointing to leading opposition figure Moustapha Niasse, who is a former prime minister and a businessman who made his fortune in oil and gas. "And they have a lot of sympathy in Washington. ... Everyone is saying that Wade should step down. They could have made an effort to get their side heard."
If in the past, coups in Africa were carried out by military force, these days leaders have succeeded in prolonging their time in office through much more nuanced means — by passing laws, and stacking the judiciary with supporters. The constitutional court in Senegal, for example, consists of five judges, all of whom were appointed by Wade.
Add to this a high-powered lobbying effort, and the water gets even more muddy.
"It saddens, but doesn't surprise me that it has come to this," said Peter Pham, the Africa director at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. "After more than a decade in office, Abdoulaye Wade is apparently so desperate to cling on to power that he has to hire a foreign law firm to conjure up legal 'facts' that the plain language and intent of the Senegalese constitution and the relevant amendment's legislative history would not otherwise support."
After 11 years in power marked by numerous corruption scandals as well as the spiraling cost of basic goods, Wade is facing stiff resistance. There is growing concern over his age. He is officially 85, but many believe he is at least five years older because children are often registered late in Senegal to give them more time at home to work in the fields.
And then there is the question of his son. Since being elected, Wade has given an increasing share of power to Karim Wade who now controls the lion's share of the country's budget, and diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks reveal that the U.S. Embassy is concerned that he is preparing a "dynastic succession."
It's brought Senegal, viewed by many as a model of stability, to a crossroads. Wade himself spent 25 years as the country's top opposition leader, criticizing the authoritarian bent of the former Socialist administration.
Former U.S. Ambassador Herman J. Cohen, who served in Dakar from 1977 to 1980, remembers Wade as an idealist who dreamed of transforming his country. Cohen says that he is saddened by what he sees now.
"I am surprised. When I met him he was idealistic. He wanted to do good for Senegal, and maybe when he got into office he realized that the whole system was so corrupt, that maybe it's just better to take care of No. 1."