Senegal has long been understood as the bastion of democracy in western-most Africa. The region has seen prolonged conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia, post-election violence and disorder in Cote d’Ivoire and Tuareg rebellions in Mali. As socio-economic disputes in Senegal turn to public tumult, indolent journalists looking for a candidate for the ‘sub-Saharan Spring’ are turning their attention to the country. The current desire to mark all popular uprisings across the world against the ‘Arab’ model reveals little of the nuances and complexities of the uprisings themselves, and viewing events in Senegal through the ‘Arab Spring’ lens is distracting.
The outburst of fury seen on the streets of Dakar at the start of February was sparked by the latest attempt by the 85-year-old President Wade to cement his power. Since his election in 2000, there have been concerns over his age and if he serves two more seven-year terms, which he says he is legally allowed to serve, he will be 99 years old. His resolution to run for a third presidential term is part of a plan to cement the rule of his PDS party. Repressive tactics such as downsizing the districts in which the party did not have a majority and using public money to fund his campaigns has been widely reported. So, the current protests show an intensifying of a growing discontent.
Popular discontent has been brewing in Senegal over the last few years, coalescing around the M23 movement which has evolved from sporadic pockets of protest into a cross-cutting umbrella movement uniting Socialist Party members, young rappers, women’s organisations and aspiring local politicians who see the growing unrest as an opportunity for an elite rotation at the top. The M23 movement includes the Y’en A Marre (French slang for “we’re fed up”) hip-hop collective, which came together after the Green Thursday uprising of June 23rd 2011 in reaction to the creation of the vice-president role for President Wade’s son, Karim. The M23 movement has been the nucleus of a variety of disputes in regard to Wade’s rule, organising mass meetings in a square in the heart of a working class area of Dakar, Place de L’Obelisque (continuing the theme of ‘squares’ as the epicentre of 21st century struggles).
The prospects for change in the upcoming elections are uncertain and a spokesman for the M23 movement has declared that the movement will make Senegal “ungovernable” if Wade is re-elected as president. The violent response to the protests in Dakar mean that any prolonged struggle on the streets of Senegal could quickly sour the country’s international image, and the police response to recent protests at the start of this month with tear gas and water cannons sets a vicious precedent. Any chance for a dignified exit for Wade has quickly been shut off.
However, the M23 movement still remains divided and perhaps does not have time before the elections to develop into a fully-fledged political force, meaning that post-election disorder and violence may be the only political avenue for a movement that is a precariously stitched-together alliance.
Wade’s manoeuvring underlines the changing nature of political rule in Africa. It has become more accustomed to see African leaders (sometimes depicted as ‘Big Men’) pursuing their goals through military methods, but now subtler tactics are witnessed. Tinkering with constitutions and eroding the independence of political institutions is now the order of the day. In many ways, the international environment has allowed this to become a successful tactic. The discomforting failure of UN interventions in Somalia and the failure to act in Rwanda, sends a message that the UN is happy to spend excessive amounts of money on African elections in order to avoid actual intervention on the ground. Coupled with the neo-liberal rhetoric of ‘good governance’ coming from the IMF and World Bank, African leaders now have to ‘walk the democratic walk and talk the democratic talk’ to ward off outside actors peering in. The international community is then cautious to question African governments who are seemingly committed to elections.
And this has obvious implications for the prospects of resistance. As political ‘struggle’ moves from the realm of military confrontation or rebellion to a legal-political jousting in the form of constitutional discrepancies and dispute, the foundations of resistance are not so clear. And due to the broad alliance of actors in the M23 movement, confrontation with the State is increasingly difficult, as the only avenue for change is through the channels of government.
Following the uprising, M23 protestors have taken to the streets on the 23rd of every month. But what the movement enjoys in measure, it lacks in political direction. The involvement of opposition politicians in the movement means that much of the political energy is diverted into sectarian opposition politics, rather than tackling the real issues facing Senegal. Senegal’s religious leaders have removed themselves from the protests calling on the people to respect the decision of the Constitutional Court with the leader of the Niassene Leona Muslim Brotherhood, saying: “Power is not worth this. It is not worth the death of even one of our sons. You have given us 11 good years. You cannot do anything short of what Senghor or Abdou Diouf have achieved. For the sake of peace, Wade, we beg you to retract yourself.”
The split between religious affiliation and the grubby business of opposition politics means that the real driving force of the M23 movement is stuck in an existential limbo. It has been the volatile fury of the Senegalese youth, articulated through the hip-hop collective “we are fed up”, that has driven the movement and sustained it over a long period of time. The issues of corruption, rising prices and high unemployment run much deeper than the dispute over President Wade, but they are in danger of being overlooked or misrepresented as a consequence of the facile parallels drawn with similar but essentially distinct events in the Arab world. The confrontation with a long-standing despot seems to fit the ‘Arab model’, and it thus becomes the focus of attention for outside observers as it makes for hyperbolic headlines harking the grand old ideal of ‘freedom’; yet stark issues of socio-economic decline underpin the protests in Senegal today.