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Neoliberalism Sucked Senegal Dry. Now Its Democracy Is at Stake.

Economic and social issues are at the core of the current crisis in Senegal.

Thousands of supporters of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko rally in Dakar, Senegal, on March 14, 2023.

After the arrest of the progressive-leaning opposition leader Ousmane Sonko in Senegal, protesters and dissatisfied segments of the political left have taken to the streets. In this exclusive Truthout interview, James Genova discusses the history and political culture of Senegal and talks about the root causes of the ongoing protests and the current crises unfolding in the country.

Genova is professor of African history at Ohio State University at Marion, where he has taught since 2004. In addition to numerous articles, Genova is the author of three books on Africa including, Colonial Ambivalence, Cultural Authenticity, and the Limitations of Mimicry in French-Ruled West Africa, 1914-1956 (2004); Cinema and Development in West Africa (2013); and most recently, Making New People: Politics, Cinema, and Liberation in Burkina Faso, 1983-1987 (2022).

After breaking down the history of Senegal’s political leadership in the modern era, Genova discusses the impacts of privatization, gentrification, and general austerity regionally and nationally. He also explores the ramifications of class politics across its administrative regions as well as the foreign policy of Senegal and its treatment in the media while offering a perspective of the global response to the emergency on the ground.

Daniel Falcone: Could you give an overview of the greater Senegalese political culture along with some historical context that explains where we are at this moment?

James Genova: Senegal is noted as one of the few African countries that has not experienced a military coup or major civil war in its 63 years since independence. However, this does not mean Senegal has been immune to many of the social and economic issues that have produced discontent and instability across Africa and in many parts of the Global South. For its first 40 years of independence Senegal was dominated by the Socialist Party — a moderate organization built around the personality and philosophy of the country’s first president, the poet Léopold Sédar Senghor. His vision of négritude (a distinctive African personality that produced an inherent inclination toward communal belonging and African unity) was a cultural version of the more overtly political pan-Africanism advocated by his Ghanaian contemporary Kwame Nkrumah.

On December 31, 1980, Sédar Senghor retired from the presidency (a rarity in African politics) and was succeeded by his prime minister, Abdou Diouf, who remained in office until 2000, when he was defeated in presidential elections by the longtime opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade at the head of a broad coalition whose main aspiration was “change” and the defeat of the Socialist Party. In 2001, Senegal amended its constitution to limit the president to two consecutive five-year terms after the completion of Wade’s seven-year term in 2007.

In the 2007 elections, the opposition (now including many of those who had supported Wade in 2000) boycotted the election and claimed it would not be free and fair. That was because, in 2006, Wade had one of his former top lieutenants, Idrissa Seck, arrested for treason after he broke with the president and indicated a run against him in 2007. This was unprecedented in Senegalese political history. Consequently, Wade easily won reelection to a five-year term. He then pushed through a revision to the constitution in 2008 that restored the presidential term to seven years after Wade’s current term ended in 2012. In 2011, Wade announced he would run again in 2012 — many in the country viewed this as a violation of the constitutional prohibition against a third term. This led to massive protests that continued throughout the summer of 2011.

This was the first time in Senegal’s history where the political stability of the country was called into question and it brought into public view many of the underlying major social and economic issues that afflicted a substantial portion of the country’s population, and which were only worsened by the policies pursued by Wade as well as Diouf in his last decade in office. The constitutional court ruled that Wade could run in 2012 since his first seven-year term “didn’t count” against the prohibition of a third term since he was ending his “first” five-year term and the clock was essentially reset with the 2008 revision. Nonetheless, Wade was defeated in 2012 by Macky Sall, his former prime minister, who was elected to a seven-year term. Sall’s main position was opposition to Wade and most of his economic and social programs were identical to his former boss.

In 2016, Sall pushed through another revision to the constitution that once more shortened the presidential term to five years but would only take effect after completion of his seven-year term in 2019. Moreover, Sall announced that his first term would not count against the prohibition against a third term, meaning that if he won in 2019 (which he did) he would be eligible to run for reelection in 2024.

The current crisis has been touched off by the arrest and trial of the main opposition figure Ousmane Sonko, who formed a left-leaning opposition group in 2014 when it became evident that Sall was more a continuation of the liberal economic policies of Wade and Diouf. Sonko placed third in the 2019 elections with more than 15 percent and was clearly the major threat to Sall going into 2024 with the trade unions, youth, political left and disaffected sectors of society behind him.

Mainstream press outlets are commenting on the uprisings in Senegal and trace them back to the treatment of the country’s political opposition. How do economic and social issues serve as root causes to the protests as well?

The economic and social issues are at the heart of Senegal’s current political crisis (which has been welling up since the 1990s and has intensified in the 21st century). While the country has one of the highest per capita gross domestic product of any African country and an unemployment rate at just under 4 percent (itself one of the lowest in Africa), endemic poverty, vast disparities in wealth and sharp contradictions between rural and urban areas have all contributed to a sense that the government is unresponsive to the people’s needs.

The wealthy in Senegal (many of them connected to external corporations and foreign countries) are vastly wealthy. Yet nearly half the country lives below the internationally recognized poverty line.

For example, part of the unrest in 2011 was around the massive energy shortages that produced daily blackouts (even in Dakar) for an hour or so a day and at times that summer could last a week or more. Then, young people took to the streets and found cultural leadership through rappers such as Y’en a Marre (Fed Up) who produced the anthems for street protests. The wealthy in Senegal (many of them connected to external corporations and foreign countries) are vastly wealthy. Yet nearly half the country lives below the internationally recognized poverty line. Wade sponsored a massive gentrification of Dakar, including building a new airport, that was designed to “cleanse” the city of poverty, homelessness, beggars, and others — making it palatable to Western and Middle Eastern tourists, who did come in large numbers.

Sall has continued the policies of privatization, reducing government payrolls, encouraging private international investment and borrowing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other foreign banks that Wade and Diouf pursued. This has left the Senegalese people to fend for themselves with very limited resources and without deriving much benefit from the development programs of their political leaders. High food prices, energy shortages, unemployment, poverty and lack of social protections have particularly hit the youth who feel disconnected from the country’s political establishment and unheard by their leaders.

How is the country divided politically by region, demographics and social class? Readers, I fear, may essentialize a place like Senegal and reduce it to a single story.

In terms of regional/demographic/class divergences in Senegalese politics, there are a few notable fault lines. The Casamance region in the country’s south has long been an outlier to Senegal’s political culture. A low-level insurgency has operated in the region since the 1980s but in recent years has only produced sporadic violent incidents. Otherwise, the major divisions are rural versus urban. Dakar (and environs) alone has roughly 3 million people out of the country’s 17 million population.

Almost all the country’s development money has gone to the cities with little change in the rural areas. However, in terms of politics, the cities are the epicenter. The population is crowded, young, under- or unemployed, and there is little developed infrastructure in the neighborhoods where most people live. While Islam is the religion of well over 90 percent of the country, it has not been a major overt factor in Senegal’s politics.

Senghor, (the country’s first president) was Catholic — a group which makes up 3 percent of the population. The major brotherhoods, especially the Mourides, do factor into electoral outcomes with their support being essential for victory. However, this influence has waned in the 21st century, and the country is very secular in its politics — especially in the cities. Social class mostly is between rich and poor, more than the classic definitions of capitalist, worker, peasant. Endemic poverty has driven waves of migration, mostly to France but also large numbers to the United States. It has also defined the lives of generations of Senegalese who have grown frustrated with the lack of economic and social progress.

Combined with the manipulation of Senegal’s political structure since 2001, successive presidents have sapped legitimacy from the state and produced a general disenchantment among the young that is dangerous for the maintenance of any semblance of democracy and political stability. The current crisis is a clear indication of the state’s fragility.

Can you comment on how foreign policy and global actors in a multipolar world factor into the politics of Senegal? What are your thoughts on media coverage of the situation in the West?

Certainly, foreign policy and global actors play a role in Senegal’s politics. Going back to the country’s independence in 1960, the role of France (the former colonial power) has loomed large. The connections between the country’s political establishment and France run deep — Senghor retired from the presidency and moved to France, where he was elected to the Académie Française. However, since the 1990s, the global impact of the shift to neoliberalism in the post-Cold War era has deeply structured Senegal’s economy and politics. Diouf, Wade and Sall all enacted liberalizing policies — selling off state assets, expanding the reach of the private sector, downsizing government, reducing benefits etc.

This has produced growing debt, rising foreign interest in and control over Senegal’s economy and increased prices for the average Senegalese, when there are not shortages. Food dependency has increased, energy shortages are endemic and public infrastructure (not related to the tourism industry) is neglected. Since the 21st century, the U.S. has attempted to gain greater influence in Senegal, much to the chagrin of France. China has also become a player, investing in the cultural infrastructure as well as providing funds for railroad development. Moreover, Morocco and Saudi Arabia are significant investors in the country with Iran occasionally attempting to be a player, largely without success to date.

In terms of media coverage — in the U.S. one almost never hears about Senegal (unless something dramatic happens that allows for a brief 15-second video of fires or tear gas). There is little coverage of the country, even though the U.S. has an ongoing collaboration with Senegal’s military in “counterterrorism training,” although terrorism is not a thing in Senegal. Outside the U.S. is a different story. French media and European media in general provide quite a bit of coverage of Senegal on a variety of issues almost continuously (as they do for the rest of Africa as well).

The BBC regularly has a show that focuses on Africa from economic, cultural and political perspectives, and Senegal gets its fair share of coverage. Senegal is a major cultural producer — film, literature, art, textiles, jewelry — so it does garner attention in a way that those issues do not in the U.S. Frankly, the U.S. is less than two dimensional in its coverage of Senegal and Africa more broadly. I often say that if you took a generalizing statement about Africa from the 19th century and put against common statements about Africa in the U.S. media, you could not tell there was a difference. There is virtually no understanding of Africa. (Look at the recent coverage of Sudan, which told us nothing about Sudan or why it matters what is happening there.)

What are your thoughts on how institutions, think tanks and human rights groups have responded to the Senegalese region and the political divisions that wreak havoc on the nation?

In terms of institutions and such, the biggest player (outside of governments) is the IMF, as is the case across the Global South. For the most part the IMF and other international players have pushed a formulaic liberalism that has been imposed around the world for the better part of 30 years now. This has not only caused economic and social distress in places like Senegal, but it has also most significantly sapped legitimacy from the state and state institutions, leaving people adrift without a clear focus on where to find or what might be the mechanisms for improvements in their lives.

People are cut loose, and the state comes to be viewed as an “enemy” to be avoided, countered and resisted, but certainly not respected or regarded as a potential cite for the redress of grievances. This makes it much harder to organize and sustain political movements, to effect change, and to provide a source of hope and optimism for the people. Human rights groups have not been major players in the Senegalese drama since that country has been one of the most stable and least troubled of African countries historically.

Frankly, the resources of most of those groups are stretched very thin, and this forces a focus on “big” events or areas of massive crisis, which usually does not apply to Senegal. In a way, this also opens a space for the kind of political manipulation we are seeing in Senegal, as presidents use the courts to eliminate their opposition and flout constitutional norms (even as they technically follow the constitution in flouting those norms) since “the whole world” will not be watching.

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