A Senegalese Spring?

by Tim Young, KF15, Senegal

Burning tyres: the view from my bedroom window

“Y en a marre!” the radio shouts as our 4X4 makes its way along narrow dusty roads to a borrower meeting some 40 kms from Thies. It is the 28th June, the day after the latest serious riots here in Senegal and the four of us bouncing around in the car listen intently. Last night I arrived home to find the roundabout outside my flat once again blocked by burning tyres, while large crowds watched peaceably from the side roads. The smell of burning rubber proved soporific, but the following day found me anxious to know what was going on.

In many ways the story of Senegal is a heartening one. Gaining independence from French rule in 1960, Senegal has enjoyed over 50 years of almost uninterrupted peace (*1), avoiding the coups and civil wars that have plagued its West African neighbours.  It has also enjoyed successive peaceful presidential transitions which have generally been agreed upon as being free and fair; including the election of the current president, Abdoulaye Wade in 1999.

It was fear of breaking this tradition that triggered the first set of riots on June 23rd. This was the date on which parliament was set to vote on a change to the constitution: to inaugurate the post of Vice President and reduce the number of votes needed to win the presidential election and avoid a run-off from 50% to 25%. The first amendment would be uncontentious were it not for the presence of Karim Wade, the President’s powerful and deeply unpopular son, in the current government. Thinking in the well-heeled cafes of Thies has it that Wade Senior would use the changes in the law to re-win the Presidency with a much reduced minority and then resign, shoe horning his Vice-President son into power.  Given that the unelected Karim currently owns four ministerial portfolios, including International Cooperation (Aid), Infrastructure, Air Transport and Energy, these fears are perhaps not unjustified.

Rioters broke the windows and stormed the offices of nationalised power company Senelec here in Thies

A few days after President Wade withdrew the bill in the face of popular discontent, the country was paralysed by almost universal 48 hour long power cuts. Sustained power cuts are a daily occurrence here, but normally after three or four hours the current returns and people can go about their business. With the power down and water in short supply in large areas of the country the people rioted again, storming the offices of the nationally owned power company, Senelec, and throwing stones at the houses of unpopular government ministers.  The silence from the Minister of Energy was deafening, until eight days later a two page open letter was released, petulantly complaining about “defamatory and outrageous attacks on a public figure” (*2). Fortunately the power, such as it is, has since been restored.

The Senegalese are about as easy going as it gets. The country, famous for its hospitality (“La Teranga”) is best suited for those who are quite happy to sit for at least three hours drinking tea with a  total stranger, and then to do it again a couple of hours later. So the public anger at the recent developments is not unremarkable. Although a long way from the revolutionary movements sweeping through its Islamic cousins north of the Sahara, the small scale limited violence here has drawn inevitable comparisons with the Arab Spring.

Comparisons don’t end there. In spite of the absence of civil wars and the benefits of democracy, Senegal has proved an economic disappointment. In the first 40 years of freedom the country hardly grew at all. It was only with the currency devaluation of 1994 and the implementation of various structural reforms that any consistent growth was achieved, and global shocks such as the Great Financial Crisis and the surge in world food prices have weighed heavily on Senegal’s relatively open economy.

Senegal comes 105th out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2010, with a score of 2.8 out of 10. Between 2004 and 2008 alone Senegal received some $4.49 bn of foreign aid (*3), but the infrastructure is shocking. There is not enough power, there is one train a day from Dakar to Thies (Senegal’s two largest cities), the roads are over-crowded (my latest 65km journey from Dakar to Thies, took three and a half hours) and the water is erratic. With an average annual per capita income of $1,759, a literacy rate of 40%, a life expectancy of 56 years (*4) and with over 50% of the population living below the poverty line  (*5); Senegal does not have enough to show for its years of peace.

La Teranga: its difficult to find fault with Senegal's hospitality (or its beer)

The limits of microfinance are plain to see. It’s great to see money moving around at the “bottom of the pyramid” and it’s great to see entrepreneurs adapting to their circumstances and making a success of their businesses. But how much more successful could they be if they could count on having power when they needed it, water on demand, and the ability to operate in an open economy free of corruption?

With elections planned for early 2012, Senegal doesn’t have long to wait for the promise of meaningful change. In the meantime, however, discontent and aspiration make the country combustible for the current regime.

Is this a Senegalese Spring? Not yet. But I hope it will be. The people here deserve better.

The Ile de Gorée: Over 200 years after the ending of the slave trade, Senegal still has a long way to go


*1 A Southern separatist movement in Senegal’s Casamance Province undertook a low level, sporadic insurgency between 1982 and 2004 when a peace agreement was officially signed. Occasional attacks continue to this day.

*2 Source: http://www.seneweb.com/news/Societe/karim-wade-ecrit-une-lettre-ouverte-aux-senegalais_n_47549.html

*3 Source : OECD : http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?usercontext=sourceoecd#

*4 Source: Kiva website (all statistics)

*5 Source: The World Bank (data from 2005)


Tim Young is a Kiva Fellow working with UIMCEC, one of Kiva’s field partners in Senegal. Tim is currently based in Thies, Senegal’s second city, helping UIMCEC with their Kiva programme there. Want to get involved and support a Thiesoise entrepeneur? Join UIMCEC’s lending team today at http://www.kiva.org/team/tafftaff or get involved with other Kiva entrepeneurs the world over at http://www.kiva.org/

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