On June 23, 2011, I arrived for a morning of research in Senegal's national archives, in the coastal African country's capital of Dakar. The archives reside in an administrative building in the heart of the government district on Avenue du Président Léopold Sédar Senghor, across the street from the presidential palace and around the corner from the National Assembly.
The night before, there were disturbances in parts of the capital and rumors of demonstrations elsewhere in Senegal. In Dakar's central plaza, the Place de l'Indépendance, confrontations between youths and police left a few vehicles charred and a dozen protesters arrested. The evening news paid scant attention to the events, but that morning there was an increased police presence and nervous onlookers milled about on street corners.
Since my arrival in Senegal almost two weeks before, I had learned that President Abdoulaye Wade, estimated to be at least 85 years old and already in office for 11 years, had asked the National Assembly to approve two major revisions to the constitution. This was an atypical event in Senegal, a country noted for political stability and constitutional order.
One amendment would create the post of vice president, who would succeed the president in the event of incapacitation or death. This would imitate the U.S. system but depart from Senegalese political tradition, which follows the French pattern of a presidential republic, wherein the president of the senate takes charge but must hold elections within 30 days.
The second amendment would lower the requirement for victory in the first round of presidential elections from 50% plus one to 25% of the popular vote. This would ensure that Wade could avoid a run-off in 2012 and return for a third term.
He was expected to nominate his son, Karim, as his running mate. To many Senegalese in opposition parties, this smelled like a monarchy in the making.
The morning of June 23, demonstrators gathered legally outside the National Assembly as I settled down to work. Soon the person in charge of the archive reading room announced, "There is a general strike and we are closing."
Everything in downtown Dakar had changed. The guards were visibly agitated, shooting glances at everyone who walked by. The streets, too, were alive. I could hear loud chanting and shouting.
Toyota pick-ups raced about, soldiers and police hanging precariously off the sides and prominently displaying their automatic weapons. Government forces on foot moved in large groups with teargas guns, truncheons, and full riot gear. Everyone moved toward the National Assembly.
Upon arriving at the Place de l'Indépendance, I realized that I was caught up in something unprecedented in Senegalese history. A few thousand protesters faced off against the security forces, chanting, "Touche pas ma constitution! (Don't touch my constitution!)" and "Non à la monarchie! (No to monarchy!)." They also pumped their fists in the air and shouted, "Y'En A Marre! (We're Fed Up!)". Some wore black t-shirts with "Y'En A Marre" emblazoned across the front.
Y'En A Marre is a mass oppositional movement that, according to a New York Times interview, formed in a casual conversation between a local reporter and some popular rap artists in a Dakar apartment in January 2011.
The journalist, Fadel Barro, recalls telling Senegalese rappers Fou Malade and Thiat, "Guys, everyone knows you. But you're not doing anything to change the country." They decided then and there to form a collective aimed at mobilizing young people's interest in Senegalese politics.
Frequent and worsening power outages sharpened their displeasure with Senegal's ongoing economic problems. Senegal imports all of its energy and is thus acutely impacted by the fluctuations of world market prices for oil. Its currency, the CFA Franc, is pegged at a fixed rate to the Euro, leaving Senegal's economy vulnerable to events beyond its control.
The nation's food supply is mostly imported too—a result of colonial-era policies that shifted Senegalese agriculture from a variety of staple crops to a small number of cash crops, particularly peanuts. Thus, changes in international prices for basic foodstuffs like rice, wheat, and corn directly affect the Senegalese people's ability to eat.