29 September 2008

Senegal: Country And France in Legal Battle Over Ferry Disaster

Nairobi — As many Senegalese have been doing for the past six years now, Mrs Mame Madior Boye who was the Prime Minister in 2002 vividly remembers a day in September that year, marked by some as the "darkest nightmare" in the nation's recent history.

This year, more than ever before, Mrs Boye has even more reason to remember the tragic day when the Joola ferry sank in the Atlantic Ocean, killing 1,863 people in a matter of minutes. Only 65 passengers survived the disaster.

The whole country was shocked and citizens mourned for months. This year the tragedy resurfaced painfully again, with some international implications, and against a background or a feeling of unfair international relations.

The tragedy has now turned into a legal battle between France and Senegal.

At the time the Joola sank, this old and always over loaded ferry was considered the "safest" way to travel to the troubled southern province of Casamance, where a rebellion has been going on for years.

Travelling by road was risky. Flying was rarely available and when it was possible, airfares were expensive for the majority. So everyone, rich and poor, would board the Joola for a trip that would last more than 15 hours.

On September 26, 2002, the ferry sailed off from the port of the southern city of Ziguinchor bound for Dakar. It was to be its last journey. The Senegalese government admitted responsibility for the tragedy, but no senior official was prosecuted. And, the boat's captain, perished with the victims.

However, this year, on September 12 - that is only a few days before the sad anniversary - nine top government officials who were in senior government positions at the time of the disaster, including the ex-prime minister Mrs Boye and a former army chief of staff, General Babacar Gaye were indicted in France by a French judge, Jean-Wilfired Noel.

For the French judge these ministers and high ranking officials have each a personal responsibility in the affair.

The French magistrate, who visited Senegal when he started investigating the case, was welcomed by his Senegalese counterparts.

They had never thought the result of his work will lead to the indictment of their compatriots, let alone their former colleague Mrs Boye. Before her appointment, Mame Madior Boye, a magistrate in her own right, was generally considered as an honest civil servant and a woman of integrity.

Refused to react publicly

Many here think her only fault is to have been there because the Senegalese president wanted to appoint a female Prime Minister! Now she has to face the international justice system. However, she has not betrayed her reputation of silent personality, and refused to react publicly to the indictment.

The decision of the French judge follows a long battle by the relatives of the few French victims who died in the 2002 maritime disaster.

Unsatisfied with the way the Senegalese judiciary handled the matter, these relatives have filed a case in their own country against the Senegalese authorities, leading to the indictment.

The indictment has caused an unprecedented uproar in Dakar and prompted the use of tough and undiplomatic language from the Senegalese authorities.

For the first time since independence, top Senegalese government officials were heard claiming publicly the need to "reciprocate" and to handle their relations with France, the country's former colonial master, on an "equal" basis.

Meanwhile the nine Senegalese former government officials are under the threat of an international arrest warrant and cannot travel anymore.

They are facing charges of murder and negligence, for their responsibility in the death of the 30 European victims of the Joola disaster.

The decision has angered the Senegalese authorities.

As soon as it was made public on September 12, the Senegalese justice minister rejected the decision of the French judge, telling reporters it was "baseless".

"We totally disapprove the decision, because the arrest warrants have been issued on a baseless ground", an angry Madické Niang said only a few hours after the French decision was made public.

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