Youssou N’Dour takes Senegal to the world

Politician discusses his transformation from rock star to tourism minister.

Youssou Ndour with other politicians Senegal
Youssou N'Dour (left) had wished to stand in Senegal's 2012 presidential election [EPA]

Doha, Qatar – Youssou N’Dour sits with delicate poise on a couch in the plush lobby of the St Regis hotel, in conversation with colleagues over domestic politics, as he waits for President Macky Sall to emerge from a meeting in an adjacent room. 

Dressed in a dark blue suit, black-square framed spectacles, the slightly graying man listens, interjects, and laughs naturally as members of the delegation, visiting Qatar last month to meet the emir, try to secure investment for a multibillion project in Dakar, share anecdotes of their stay in the desert capital, Doha. 

N’Dour has been Senegal’s tourism minister since April 2012, following the country’s eventful political transition from Adoulaye Wade to Macky Sall.

From a distance, he resembles a middle-aged politician and he certainly appears quite at ease in this setting; however, he’s also a famed rock star. 

Hailed as the “voice of protest” by Time magazine and as “one of the most beloved musicians on the continent” by Rolling Stone, he was described by the Guardian as “arguably the most important figure in world music”.

It is unsurprising then that N’Dour is considered Africa’s greatest living musical artist. 

It is understandable that the grammy-award winning musician, known for his silky voice and lauded mix of traditional mbalax with jazz and hip hop, says his decision to enter politics was not born of choice. 

Rewind 18 months and his native Senegal was heaving under pressure from high inflation rates and close to half the population jobless, while rumours abounded of a presidential plot to turn this celebrated democracy into a family business. 

The reports that former President Abdoulye Wade was grooming his son Karim to succeed him prompted ordinary citizens to take to the streets. At the forefront of the civil unrest that broke out in Senegal in early 2012, not unlike the revolutions that spread across North Africa and the Middle East the year previous, were disenfranchised youth, activists, rappers – and the M23 opposition movement.

They were unwilling to settle for a government flirting precariously with authoritarianism.

Police crackdown

At least six people were killed in clashes between protesters and police in what was described as an unprecedented security crackdown on dissent in the country.

“It was like I suddenly woke up and realised that I have this background and popularity and that I can make something out of it, I decided to use it to defend democracy, freedom and young people,” N’Dour told Al Jazeera.

Although he initially ran for the presidency, N’Dour was forced to relinquish any presidential ambition after he failed to receive the requisite number of signatures to approve his candidacy. He did, however, still take to the streets.

Between the tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and cries of citizens amassing every day for weeks at Independence Square in downtown Dakar, N’Dour could be seen upon the back of flat-back trucks, or standing out of his safety vehicle’s sun-roof, urging demonstrators to keep up their demands for fair elections, all the while reminding them of their duty to take their discontent to the ballot box.

Despite the simmering tensions, Senegal took to the polls peacefully, and the rest is history.

Macky Sall, the former campaign manager of Abdoulaye Wade, faced off against his former boss in a run-off vote, and recorded a famous victory on March 26, 2012.

At the time, leading Senegalese academic Ousmane Sene said that the electorate behaved “exactly as they were supposed to”. He, however, dismissed claims that Senegal’s democracy was a special case in Africa, at a time when neighbouring Mali was fast falling into chaos.

“We are not the exception, but we certainly have a different political experience.”

Alternate political history 

N’Dour’s decision to join politics falls within the cauldron of Senegal’s alternate political history, including a democratic experience that predates independence and, more importantly, as one of only two countries in West Africa – the other being Cape Verde – not to have experienced a coup since independence in 1960. Despite the political stability, Senegal’s economic transformation has been slow. The country has barely reached three percent growth for the better part of the past decade. As it stands, the Macky Sall government has aspirations to turn the country into “an emerging economy” by 2015, creating half a million jobs and adapting education and training centres to meet a shifting job market. 

As a distinguished artist, entrepreneur with a media empire, and an ambassador for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) since 2000, N’Dour resolved to stay in Senegal politics and put his music on hold – even after the fall of Wade.

“I thought that now that I had put my foot forward, it made sense to go the whole way… and make sure there is good governance, that there is freedom of the press and other things people were fighting for.

“Too many people protest, demonstrate and then go home and think it’s going to get better on its own,” he said.

Sall’s decision to invite N’Dour into the government was met with a curious mix of awe and criticism. N’Dour only completed middle school, and surely government needed educated leaders, journalists mused. At the same time, here was a self-made man, from a humble family of Griot praise singers who conquered the world, and now wanted to improve the country’s national image. Others say N’Dour’s trajectory to this position is almost linear, even unsurprising.

He has always been socially conscious, focusing on investing in the future while other stars of his generation were behaving badly, said Oumar Ndongo, lecturer in English literature and American studies at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar.

“When he was speaking to the crowds, you could sense he was genuine, speaking his mind, seriously engaged as an integrated political actor,” Ndongo told Al Jazeera. 

While it remains to be seen how effective N’Dour will actually prove to be in government, others say that the system might just be too broke for him to fix.

“The ministry of tourism is facing many budget problems. I’d say he is trying to do a good job, but I don’t know if he will be able to,” said Mamadou Thior, a political journalist at Dakar’s RTI state radio.

Polished product 

By joining government, and becoming part of the political infrastructure, N’Dour has inadvertently put his reputation as a symbol, as a mirror of society, at risk. By default, he can no longer claim to represent the disenfrenchised; he loses the right to say he is the voice of the people, others say.

“If this government fails, or if his ministry is found to be mired with mismanagement, it will be a black spot on such a successful life,” Aliou Sow, a former minister in Wade’s government, told Al Jazeera.

“Personally, I prefer N’Dour the poet, the artist. Not the politician.”

N’Dour acknowledges that he is not a polished political product.

He even drops “tatta-tee and tatta-taa” casually between narrating his vision for Senegal and Africa, as if discussing intonation at a studio session. He gestures, sits back and explains carefully, sits up and listens intently. Surely, the political arena of endless bureaucracy, system and structure will inevitably curb the man’s enthusiasm?

He laughs and nods, but doesn’t say yes.

“I think you have to sing, live your songs and transmit a message… I have just been adding my name, my personality and ideas to this government. I think artists need to be able to inspire Africa’s politicians,” he said.

That charm notwithstanding, critics in Senegal say the new government has not lived up to its billing. The ordinary man is growing impatient, Thior said.

N’Dour acknowledges the shortfalls of the new government, but characteristically, and like all decent politicians, blames the former government for the country’s ills. 

It is no lie that corruption peaked during Wade’s tenure, deterring international investment and deepening inequality in a country with limited natural resources. Despite Wade’s remarkable personal story as a leader who spent 27 years in the opposition until winning elections in 2000, he too, analysts said, succumbed to megalomania.

But with the old man gone, ordinary Senegalese people want action. 

“On one hand they realise it will take time to fix the country, but at the same time they are living under harsh conditions,” Thior said. 

N’Dour says solving the country’s problems involves energising the agricultural sector. A country that still cannot feed its own people is almost certain to have an unhappy electorate. Senegal does not produce enough food – and this leaves the country at the mercy of food price fluctuations.

“The divide between the urban and the countryside has to end,” he said. 

Senegal’s story in many ways illuminates Africa’s complexity: a model-democracy on the continent, but a nation still in the economic doldrums, compared with the gains of, for example, South Africa, or the rapid growth in recent years of Botswana and Ethiopia – with completely divergent political narratives. 

“A lot of people say that Africa is corrupt, is ridden with HIV/AIDS and conflict… but some African countries are actually doing really good,” N’Dour says, matter-of-fact.

That the continent is changing draws little doubt, and he is working on a new project named “The new Africa”. He doesn’t reveal any more, except promising it will involve some music. 

If you look at the continent, there are a lot of things to fix, much to do. And from a business point of view, there is so much to achieve, he said. But being born into a democracy will never be enough.

“You have to work very hard to make sure that democracy is working,” he said. “That’s all I am trying to do.” 

Additional reporting by Rajia Aboulkheir in Doha, Qatar.

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa

This article, originally published on June 14, was updated on June 15 to include comments from Aliou Sow, Abdullah Wade’s minister of local government and decentralisation between 2009 and 2012.

Source: Al Jazeera