4 October 2012

Senegal: In Search of Justice for Victims of the African Titanic


On 26 September 2002, the Senegalese government-owned ferry Le Joola capsized off the coast of The Gambia, resulting in an estimated 2,000 deaths. Thought to be the second worst civilian maritime disaster, families of the victims are still seeking justice.

Mr President, the victims of the sinking of the Joola will never forget you.

It is said that at the dusk of their life, every mortal sees their most important deeds pass before their eyes. Today, at the dusk of your political life, I wish for you to visualise the images of your finished and unfinished so-called big projects as they unfold before your eyes. Most importantly, today, on 26 September 2012, I wish for you to reflect on the trauma that you inflicted on us as a result of the sinking of the Joola ferry, also known as the African Titanic.

Your Excellency, by all means enjoy your retirement, but for once, please spare a moment to think about the victims, direct and indirect, of this disaster. Put yourself in our shoes for once, since throughout the 12 years you ruled Senegal, we have had to hear your thoughts on just about everything. Now that you have more time to reflect on your successes and failures, please devote some time to thinking about us, even if this may be for the last time.

Your courage and tenacity have contributed to making Senegalese democracy what it is today. These are achievements that cannot be taken away from you.

Mr President, you were nearly considered a messiah by your people.

I still remember the time when your photograph was the only poster in many houses in Casamance in the south of the country. This was the same part of the country from which the ferry departed before sinking on the night of 26 September 2002. In those days, you were the leader we had been waiting for. You were that important man who spent the night in the living room of our uncle the late Souleye Tchukkuli Bassène from the village of Kamobeul during one of your electoral campaigns. The village of Kamobeul is located in the former kingdom where our uncle and former Member of Parliament, the Late Marcel Bassène comes from. I am sure this name rings a bell.

I remember in the '90s, when militants from your political party, the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS) used to be persecuted simply because they were fighting for a change in power. I can still hear your voice in 1998, after the events of 5 May during which police forces opened fire on us at a students' demonstration at Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis. Your voice still rings fresh in my ears, when, as the main opposition leader, you said that 'next time they shoot at our children, they will have to shoot at me first'. You were one of the first people to visit the wounded students in the hospital in Saint Louis. In those days, you represented the only hope for the country's youth and for a people yearning for justice in our country.

I also recall that between 1999 and 2000, whenever I could spare some money from my meagre student scholarship, I used to buy your political party's journal the SOPI (meaning 'Change in Power'), every time I saw your picture on the front page, thereby contributing in a small way to funding your rise to power. Sometimes, I remember with a nostalgic smile, my younger brother used to shave his head clean, to resemble the political leader he admired most. That was you, Mister President. My younger brother, along with many other passengers, disappeared two years after we elected you, in the African Titanic disaster for which many hold you primarily responsible.

History will remember that despite your standing for the students' cause in 1998 when you were in the opposition, many students and demonstrators died as the result of your bullets, even though at the beginning of your term, the use of teargas was forbidden. Everyone still wonders where the free telephone line that you installed for victims of violence to call and report cases of human rights abuse went.

African history will remember the young people who were fighting to preserve the achievements of the Senegalese democracy for which you fought during your 26 years in opposition. However, upon coming to power and for the following 12 years in office, those same supporters of democracy died from your bullets, and under the wheels of the police 'dragon' trucks.

On 15 April 2012, the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Although over 700 people were rescued from the Titanic, just over 1,500 passengers lost their lives. What will you do to mark the 10th anniversary of the African Titanic, a disaster in which official reports put the number of lives claimed at 1,863 and unofficial estimates consider this to be at least 2,000, with only 64 survivors?

Do I dare to think that you have consigned it to oblivion. It would certainly appear to be the case, considering that the judicial enquiry was stopped and the case permanently closed less than two years after the disaster. We hope that your successor, President Macky Sall, who came to represent you during one of the anniversaries, will not follow your denialist approach and attempt to smother our quest for justice forever.

Your Excellency, we still remember that it was in the region of Ziguinchor, more precisely in the city of Oussouye, that you achieved your first significant victory as a leader of the opposition against the regime of the Socialist Party. We will forever remember that it was in our region that the tree of change in power, which we usually refer to as 'Alternance', first grew its strongest roots. But Your Excellency, instead of being our main defence attorney in your capacity as a lawyer, you became our most cruel executioner with the sinking of the Joola ferry.

We will also remember with great regret, Mister President, that before the sinking, you and your consorts decided to bring the ferry back into service after having been decommissioned for more than one year. When it was brought back into service only one of the two required engines was operational. We will never forget that your ministers, who travelled with the ferry during its first outward journey, chose to take the plane on their way back to Dakar when they realised that the ferry was unsafe.

We will also remember that 2000 of our people were packed together like sardines in a tin and drowned in the same boat that your ministers abandoned before declaring that it was fully compliant with safety regulations.

We will remember, alongside the writer Almamy Mamadou Wane, that the rescue teams only arrived the day after the sinking at 6pm despite being notified about it at midnight on the previous day. The ship sank at 11pm the night before. We also remember that the minister for fisheries of your government at the time is said to have received the information about the sinking of the ferry that same night, but refused to act. We still remember that the next morning the chief of staff of the army refused to release the only plane available for rescue operations, preferring to use it to travel to Saint Louis to attend a ceremony for the appointment of a senior army commander.

Mr President, if the ferry 'was not made for the sea but only for rivers and lakes' as you said just after the sinking, then why re-launch it with only one working engine and one year after it was taken out of service for repairs?

Africa and the whole world remembers that, being the pan-Africanist you are, you assured us that the 'the culprits will be punished'. But Africa will remember for a long time that instead of being our defence attorney, you denied us our right to justice; and in so doing, Mr President, you have institutionalised the bad habits that your minister of culture at the time denounced, namely the Maslaa 'Covering up' and the Garawul 'Carelessness'.

Mr President, we still remember that you fought against and destroyed the 'Collective of the families of the victims' of the disaster who demanded that justice be done, and that in order to have full control of the families of the victims of the sinking, you established your 'Association for the families of the victims'. This was the very organisation that tried to get money from the very families whose rights they were supposed to fight for.

Mr President, future generations will be told that we entrusted you with our lives, but that you had other priorities. We will tell them that instead of buying a new engine for 250 million CFA francs, you chose to spend much more money from the people's resources to build your 'Third Millennium Door' and refurbish your presidential plane for 17 billion as uncovered by the writer and investigative journalist Abdoul Latif Coulibaly. They will be told that, years later, you did not hesitate to spend more billions to build what you called the 'African Renaissance Monument'. Are monuments more important than our lives?

Were you thinking during your time in power, Mr President, that the 2000 people drowned by you and your consorts in the Joola ferry did not deserve justice? What is your riposte to those who accuse you of being primarily responsible for this sinking by ordering the ferry to be placed back in service during one of your cabinet meetings, even though it was in very poor condition? Are you telling us that all these children, these parents, these pregnant women, these young and old people died for nothing? Are you telling us that you are not bothered by cases like that of my sister Marthe Raïssa Sagna who also drowned in the disaster, those of our cousins and many other victims who were buried hurriedly to avoid further decomposition of their bodies? Do the cases like my younger brother Jean Jacques Sagna, your admirer, who disappeared at the same time as many other victims of this sinking and who will never have a grave not disturb you at all? Of course, you do not know them and as a consequence, you cannot miss them. You are not one of those parents who saw their hopes and in some case, their only hope disappear forever. For you, the victims are no doubt the 'others' as described by Frantz Fanon. The suffering of parents who lost their children in this sinking is not yours; therefore their thirst for justice will never be yours. Your children did not die in this sinking.

Mr President, maybe you saw us as animals with voting cards, only useful to vote for you when you are going through electoral difficulties; or maybe you thought that we were more useful to help you make money by travelling in overloaded ferries. But you should remember, Mr President, that we are human beings, and fully fledged Senegalese citizens. Therefore, we deserve justice on this massacre for which history will remember you as being primarily and largely responsible.

Mr President, I still don't understand how, after having shattered us, you had the courage to ask us to organise a cultural ceremony as if to celebrate an achievement, instead of declaring 15 days national mourning as you did for our late first President Léopold Sédar Senghor.

We still remember those politicised anniversaries that nobody wants to attend anymore to listen to the demagogic speeches of all the ministers who came to represent you in the last ten years. We hope that our new leader President Macky Sall, will be more respectful in this issue. Otherwise, he will be regarded as one who continues your policy of dehumanising our people.

Mr President, be aware that by denying us the right to refloat the Joola ferry and to organise finally a mourning worthy of our people as we, members of the families of the victims want, you have managed to turn us into living wreckages who on a daily basis, carry the heavy yoke of negative emotions; of anger, hatred and burning desire for justice and revenge.

Do you only know, Mr President, how it feels to hate to the point of feeling physical pain? Do you know how it feels to be secretly depressed but to almost always appear in public with a smile which does nothing but conceal a hidden desire for revenge fed by a burning thirst for justice? Do you ever think about those survivors, who after spending 18 hours in solitude in the sea before the delayed arrival of your rescue teams have to live every single day with flashes of images of the sinking in their mind? What about those children, those mothers and fathers, those sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews and all those friends whose souls have been drowned along with theirs in this most shameful sinking in human history? Where have all the professional or self-proclaimed psychiatrists who appeared from nowhere to support the survivors and the families of victims suddenly vanished to? Was their appearance a trick by your regime to pretend that you actually were concerned about us? Or maybe the real psychiatrists who were left to their own devices in this hell ended up realising that during your term, it was in their best interest to redirect their efforts to earn a living.

What about all those orphans, those you labelled the 'wards of the state' who your regime refused to take into care since their earliest childhood as you promised? Do you know what has become of them?

Mr President, your 12 years in power were one of the longest, and 2002 to 2012 was the longest decade of our lives. Mr President, please enjoy your retirement, but remember that we shall never forget you, you or your consorts.

Before you leave the political arena in which you were one of the main actors even before I was born, I wanted to write you this letter. In this year when the world is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, and on this 26th of September 2012, the 10th anniversary of the sinking of the Joola Ferry, the African Titanic, I thought I should share my thoughts of the day with you. Mr President, to quote your own words, you have always refused 'to walk on corpses to reach the Presidential Palace' preferring to favour transparency. It is a shame that while leaving that same palace, you turned your back on countless corpses of which many are buried in mass graves while others have disappeared without a grave.

I hope this letter reaches you sooner or later since I don't have your address. I also hope that it finds you well and that, now that you are not in power, you can spare some time to listen to one of the millions of voices that were expecting some justice and respect from you for our people, the victims of your decisions. While you celebrate the 'African Leadership Prize' you received on 23 September 2012, three days before the 10th anniversary of the African Titanic, we continue to suffer from the consequences of your leadership.

Your Excellency, I attach to this letter the list of references I consulted before writing it. Also included, is the book entitled 'Un procès d'intention à l'épreuve de la vérité' written under the coordination of Professor Iba Der Thiam. I must say that the passage on the sinking of the Joola ferry is not convincing and that it does nothing but confirm that the truth has not been told on this issue.

I am still hopeful to read something from you on the sinking of the Joola and of course on issues like the death of Mamadou Diop, a next-door neighbour of my sister's at the University of Dakar, to whom I was introduced in 2009, and who died during the pre-electoral demonstrations of 2012, when the Senegalese youth mobilised to demand that you step down from power.

But while expecting to hear the truth about this sinking, please kindly take into consideration, Mr President, the honest expression of my most distinguished negative feelings.


Coulibaly, Abdou Latif. 2003. Wade, un opposant au pouvoir : l'Alternance piégée? Dakar : Les Editions Sentinelles.

Diop, Souleymane Jules. 2007. Wade: l'avocat et le diable. Paris : l'Harmattan. Fanon, Fantz.1961 (2002). Les damnés de la terre. Paris: La Découverte.

Thiam, Iba Der. 2004. Un procès d'intention à l'épreuve de la vérité. Paris: l'Hemicycle.

Wane, Almamy Mamadou. 2003. Le Sénégal entre deux naufrages? Le Joola et l'alternance. Paris: l'Harmattan. http://www.kassoumay.com/index.html (Accessed on 15 Avril 2012).

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