Africa... States of Independence

An African renaissance in Senegal?

After 50 years of independence, the West African country is finally severing ties with its former colonial master.

Senegal, a country on the Western edge of Africa with a predominantly Muslim population, has a fully functioning democracy and has largely escaped the separatist violence that has hampered the progress of several of its neighbours.

But it is not without its problems. Its economy has recently faltered and there are suggestions that its cherished tradition of democracy is under threat, with the president allegedly grooming his son to succeed him.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Senegal’s independence from France, Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s president, made an announcement confirming what many knew already: The special link between Senegal and its former colonial master was over.

“I solemnly declare that Senegal is retaking, from this day, the 4th of April 2010, at zero hours, all the bases previously held, on our soil, by France, and intends to exercise its sovereignty there, which lies in principle in the present declaration,” he said.

The relationship between the two countries dates back to the 17th century, when Africans snatched from their towns and villages walked through the ‘door of no return’ on Goree Island and boarded slave ships heading for the New World.

France won control of the small outpost from the Dutch in 1677, taking over the trade in human misery. From the coast of Senegal, the French began an expansionist push into the interior, taking control of what would become their West African colonies.

A democratic legacy

They governed the new territory from Saint-Louis, one of the four communes established in what is now known as Senegal. But unlike most West Africans, the local residents of these communes were accorded a special privilege, French citizenship.

“President Abdoulaye Wade used to say that the Senegalese people learned to vote since the 18th century because this country has assimilated the rules of democracy for a long time,” Mamadou Bamba Ndiaye, the president’s spokesperson, says.

This democratic legacy provided the foundation upon which Senegal built its political stability. But it came at a price for the Senegalese – the re-writing of their own history. 
“At school we were not taught about African history, or [the] part of African history that was taught was saying that all our African heroes were barbarians, they were dictators, they were people who used to kill their own people,” Abdullah Bathily, a history professor and member of the opposition, says.

“In the meantime they would teach us that our ancestors are the Gauls, that the ancestors of the French are our ancestors. We were taught to say that, which was totally ridiculous.”

Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first president, was a product of this education. And although Senghor promoted African identity he remained steadfast in his support of the French empire. But neither he nor France could slow down the momentum of the nationalist movement that was sweeping the continent.

“I think he was pushed by the events. He thought that we, the African people, were not prepared for independence. Senghor was very much like a French man, upon whom independence was imposed,” Bathily says.

Senegal gained its autonomy on April 4, 1960.

“People were rejoicing, in Saint-Louis we as cadet boys we were marching in the streets with a lot of dignity saying that this country is ours now; we will no longer sing the song of a French colonial army,” Bathily says.

An independent streak

 The massive bronze statue has been presented as a symbol of African renaissance [EPA]

But far from severing ties with the former colonial master, Senghor, the newly-appointed president, forged even closer links with France. France provided political advisors and economic aid, French companies dominated commerce and industry, and the French military maintained a sizeable presence in the country. French became the official language and the newly-minted currency, the CFA Franc, was pegged to the French Franc.
During the last 10 years this has begun to change. The election of Wade in 2000 brought four decades of socialist rule to an end. An economist by profession, Wade’s priority was to open up the country’s markets and he began to look beyond Senegal’s former coloniser to do so. 

“France used to almost have the monopoly in import and export of goods but when President Abdoulaye Wade came into power, we were diversifying our partners, so Senegal is no longer France’s own. Still, our relationship with France keeps developing but in a more equal manner,” Ndiaye says.

And, as if to flaunt the nation’s independent streak, Wade recently made a grand gesture designed to re-assert Senegal’s sovereignty. A massive bronze statue showing an African man, his wife and child emerging from a mountain top was built in the capital, Dakar, to mark 50 years of independence.

“This statue has been opposed by all the sections of Senegalese society. By the Muslims, because from their religion they think that there should not be a human representation …. For the civil society organisation, for political leaders, they are against it on the basis that this monument is the symbol of misgovernance,” Bathily says.
At a cost of $27mn the statue was meant to evoke feelings of pride, but in an uncertain economic climate, that pride appears misplaced to many. The government, however, insists that the statue did not cost the Senegalese people anything.

The informal economy

The Senegalese government devotes 40 per cent of its budget to education, providing free schooling to children aged six to 16. But illiteracy rates are as high as 58 per cent.

Higher education has fared equally as badly. Dakar university was built to cater to 10,000 students, but today there are close to 60,000 enrolled.
“It’s difficult to find work here. I see people that go up to the Masters, they can’t find a job matching their diploma. They may find a small job but never a job that they have the grade in, I am talking in terms of salary,” says Laurent Diabisse, a student at Dakar university.

Moubarack Lo, an economic analyst, says that “less than three per cent of the population” receives a formal salary every month while the rest rely on “informal revenue”.

Annie Diouf makes her money informally. She works in Sendaga, Dakar’s largest market, selling fabrics. “I got started in this business, because earlier I worked for a company and with inflation and the global crisis companies started shutting down in Senegal and because I didn’t think I would find a job, I decided to work in the informal sector of the economy,” she says.

The work is hard and involves spending long hours in the sun and rain, often with little to show for it. With little faith in the government to improve their lot, Diouf and a few of her colleagues have taken matters into their own hands.

“We got organised, we put together a women’s association so we can stand by each other. We pool our profits together and give the money to one of the women on one day and she buys the material for her stall, the next day another woman goes out and does the same,” Diouf explains.
“The only sector that is thriving is the informal sector … because the Senegalese [are] very inventive in all sectors of the economy. The young people, men and women … do everything to make a living, they fight everyday,” Bathily says.
But they are fighting an uphill battle. Electricity outages are common, hospitals are crumbling, food prices have rocketed and fuel is scarce.

Corruption and constitutional change

In Dakar, the government has embarked on an ambitious infrastructure programme – building new roads and bridges. But in the ghettoes on the outskirts of the capital infrastructure is in total decay.
In the poor suburbs of Dakar unemployment is high. Most people who live there have to travel to the city centre to work, but with the roads in serious disrepair and a public transport system that is barely functioning the journey can take up to two hours.

But the biggest problem they face is the flooding caused by a virtually non-existant drainage system.

Even President Wade’s supporters are losing patience. “The city is under water and it’s true that President Abdoulaye Wade has put aside large sums and mobilised efforts to help the people and drain the water, he also started a relocation programme to move the residents to areas less prone to flooding. So his instructions were clear … But the problem is that this does not translate to action on the ground,” says Cheikh Diop, a resident of Medina Gounass.

One of the reasons given for this is that public funds may not always reach their intended targets. But Ndiaya insists that the government is tackling corruption. “Corruption is everywhere, in every country of the world. We cannot say that there is none in Senegal, but it’s not particularly bad. Already under Diouf’s presidency, we had set up a tribunal against illicit wealth; currently we have a national commission against corruption which is doing well and recently President Abdoulaye Wade has advised the set up of a financial tribunal in order to fight financial crimes.”
But the opposition claims that, far from dealing with the problem of corruption, the authorities are themselves implicated. “In terms of transparency in the management of the financial resources of a country Wade has broken all the records in terms of corruption,” Bathily says.

And there are worrying suggestions that Senegal’s proud democratic tradition is also being eroded. Rumours that Wade is grooming his son to take over from him have been circulating for some time.

“Wade had changed the constitution 18 times over the last 16 years …. So the son for the Senegalese now, has been put in a position to be his successor, but this is resented so much,” Bathily says.
But Ndiaye insists that the allegations are false. And despite all the issues that plague Senegal it is clear that the nationalist sentiment that brought the country independence 50 years ago remains alive and well. The optimism of its people is the nation’s greatest asset.

Contemplating 50 years of Senegal, Diabisse, the student at Dakar University, says: “It’s true that it is difficult living here but there is no other country like Senegal. We love Senegal. We are proud of it.”