In the summer of 2011, the streets of Dakar, Senegal filled with a mass of demonstrators "fed up" with the political machinations of President Abdoulaye Wade. Led by popular rappers, the oppositional collective "Y'En A Marre" became spokespeople for a generation at the end of their rope. As Senegal approaches critical elections in February 2012, historian James Genova offers an eyewitness account of these political upheavals, placing the current turmoil in its broader historical and African context.
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.
A guard at my hotel on June 23 echoed these Y-En A Marre concerns. "Wade is trying to change the constitution. It's a monarchy he wants. This is against Senegalese traditions; it is against our country's customs. It is totally anti-democratic and the people have had enough."
"This has never happened in my country before," he continued. "We are having a revolution. It's small, but it is starting. [Y'En A Marre] want change and their patience has come to an end. Prices are too high, the power fails all the time, and there are shortages of everything. Now Wade wants to be our king, but we don't want a king. We want our country back."
Returning to my room, I tuned into the state-TV station, RTS1, which had a couple of anchors at the National Assembly interviewing people. All appeared tranquil. I turned to WALF-TV, an independent channel, and the tone changed dramatically. "Edition Spéciale" scrolled boldly across the bottom of the screen; the network was reporting from the street.
Clouds of teargas obscured most scenes, but cameras caught burning vehicles, bloodied protesters, security forces running down streets with guns drawn, and armored personnel carriers spraying water, pepper spray, and teargas. The crowds were dispersing.
But the protests had gone national. Regime opponents erected barricades blocking the major arteries of the country and some cities appeared to be falling into the hands of protesters as government forces tried to beat back the tide of popular anger. By the end of the day, hundreds had been taken to the hospital and over 1,000 were arrested.
A new movement calling itself the M23—the Movement of June 23—was born that day.
Senegal Fifty Years After Independence
Y'En A Marre is the product of decades of economic stagnation and neo-liberal reforms imposed from outside and embraced by corrupt beneficiaries. Political nepotism has turned the Senegalese state into a private family business.
Wade came to the presidency after 40 years of government by the Socialist Party under two presidents (Léopold Senghor, 1960-1980, and Abdou Diouf, 1981-2000). The longtime opposition leader, Wade was elected President at the head of a broad coalition called Sopi, or Change. He promised a renaissance for Senegal through construction, economic diversification, and political openness.
In the 1990s, international lending agencies pressured Senegal to liberalize its economy. The government privatized its assets, loosened price and wage controls, and lifted protections for domestic industries. Although the changes were hailed as positive by the outside world, the Senegalese themselves experienced increased unemployment, shortages, and a rapidly widening gap between the very few haves and the many have-nots.
Following this first round of "reforms," the country's economy contracted by more than 2%. What counted for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European banks, and the World Bank was that Senegal's inflation rate dropped to around 5% annually from 1995 to 2007.
That was great news for those with money, but terrible for the millions who had little income or lost their jobs as a result of the reforms.
It was partly in reaction to these programs that Wade secured election and bounced the Socialist Party from power. His coalition brought most of the opposition together simply to oust those who had held power since Senegal's independence from France.
Senegal had been hailed as a model of political stability in a troubled region. Even though the Socialist Party (in various guises) had held power since 1960, most of the country's elections were deemed transparent and nonviolent.
In fact, Senghor and his successor, Diouf, adeptly absorbed opposition movements as they appeared, eventually folding them into the Socialist Party. The result was a tradition of constitutional order where a sort of machine politics—based on the ruling party with the support of key Islamic religious brotherhoods and outside benefactors (especially France)—gave Senegal the appearance of political tranquility.
Political transitions in the era after colonialism were peaceful and orderly. When Senghor decided to retire at the end of 1980, he allowed his prime minister to succeed him. That was remarkable for Africa, which as a continent rarely sees incumbent leaders "retire" from office.
Even the transition in 2000 occurred in an orderly and predictable pattern. Diouf's popularity had been declining for some time and eventually the Mouride Brotherhood, the most powerful Islamic Sufi order in the country, pulled its endorsement of the Socialist Party.
2000: A New Beginning?
Wade easily defeated Diouf in the 2000 elections and the incumbent stepped down, handing power to Wade without incident. Once in office, however, the differences among Wade's coalition partners quickly surfaced.
Wade pursued neo-liberal reforms even more aggressively than his predecessor while depending increasingly on international loans and gifts.
His administration eliminated price controls for food and energy, causing their costs to spike. Senegal's economy is highly dependent on the export of groundnuts, but the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 effectively meant that Senegal could no longer protect its domestic production from outside competitors.
The end of the Cold War and France's economic difficulties also meant that international aid to countries such as Senegal began to plummet in the 1990s.
The vacuum in international lending was filled by new sources such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and China. Those countries had different economic and political agendas. Notably, Morocco and Saudi Arabia put money into Islamic schools while China invested in land, potential energy resources, and payoffs to the government to secure construction and development contracts.
Wade directed much of this new money into private hands or into self-aggrandizing building programs.
He pushed for the reconstruction of downtown Dakar, catering to the tourist industry. He sponsored the building of new luxury hotels, high-end retail shops, and monumental architecture like the African Renaissance Monument (from which Wade claimed the right to 35% of all tourist profits).
In foreign policy, Wade tried to move Senegal further out of the French orbit and toward the U.S. President George W. Bush made a celebrated visit to the country in July 2003 in the wake of the Iraq invasion.
Wade also ordered the closure of France's large military base in Dakar, a welcome gesture toward escaping the colonial past. But it also eliminated a major source of employment in some of the capital's poorest neighborhoods and potentially frees Wade's hand in consolidating power without the worry of French intervention.
While the economic problems mounted and Wade's popularity began to sink, the president decided to tinker with the constitution. In 2001 he amended it to limit the presidency to two terms and reduced each term's length to five years. This seemed to portend an end to one-man rule for decades at a time, and was generally welcomed.
However, as his political and economic reforms didn't meet expectations, his coalition frayed and Wade became more heavy-handed.
Leading opposition figures, including his former prime minister Idrissa Seck, were arrested on charges of plotting Wade's overthrow or on no charge at all. The press was increasingly muzzled, despite promises of more openness. The constitutional changes from 2001 grandfathered Wade into the new system, exempting his first seven-year term from the two-term limit. Thus, as elections neared in 2007, Wade sought reelection to a first five-year term.
The opposition complained bitterly about Wade's power-mongering, nepotism, and failed economic reforms. They suspected his Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) would rig the election. When the vote was tallied, it gave Wade a clean first-round victory with about 56% of the total vote.
With his own party holding about 70% of all seats in the National Assembly, Wade again had the constitution changed in 2008 to return the length of the presidency to seven years, although his current five-year term due to expire in 2012 would not be lengthened. The Senate was abolished, then re-created with most of its members hand-picked by Wade.
The 2008 Economic Collapse
When the global economic crisis hit in 2008, dramatically escalating food and energy prices devastated Senegal's economy.
Senegal confronted an unprecedented crisis with an impotent and corrupt government. Evidence of corruption came in 2009 when Wade gave a departing IMF official a goodbye present that turned out to be a bag of money equivalent to about 200,000 U.S. dollars.
The numbers starkly illustrate Senegal's economic predicament.
Per capita GDP is estimated at $1,900, which is 190th in the world. Even that figure doesn't tell the real story as most of Senegal's wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top ten percent of the population. Much of the population of 12 million lives on meager incomes or international aid.
Officially, 54% of Senegalese live below the international poverty line ($2 a day or $730 a year). Remarkably, this figure is considered a positive embellishment by the government.
Figures on the number of homeless and indigent and for migrant labor are not available, but anyone walking even the gentrified streets of downtown Dakar can see them by the hundreds. On Avenue Georges Pompidou, a major market street, raw sewage flows like a river. Merchants place bricks and wooden planks so foot traffic can reach their stalls, but this doesn't cover the stench.
By 2009, political disturbances were common. The power cuts got worse, food prices rose, and unemployment reached an official rate of 50%, though widely believed much higher.
All the while, Wade's vanity projects in downtown Dakar continued. Throughout Wade's tenure in office evidence of the mounting despair of his people over the future was presented in the desperate efforts of thousands of Senegal's citizens to flee the country and make the perilous journey to Europe.
A Rap Revolution
Then there was the chance encounter among popular rap artists and the journalist Fadel Barro in January 2011.
The rappers Thiat, Fou Malade, and others in Y'En A Marre became the spokespeople for a generation at the end of their rope. Song lyrics directly targeted the source of the people's discontent. In one rap Fou Malade sings plainly, "In politics, nothing but hypocrites, robbers of cash. Government, why do you always lie, always?"
By then the Arab Spring was in full swing. Western media offered 24-hour broadcasts of gatherings in Cairo's Tahrir Square, confrontations in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, and protests in Jordan, Iraq, and Morocco.
The rappers in the Y'En A Marre collective called for a peaceful protest in Dakar's Place de l'Obélisque on March 19, 2011. They announced this would be a non-partisan gathering aimed at promoting political involvement among the country's young people.
In their call to action Y'En A Marre states, "The time has passed for moaning in your living room or futile complaining about the power cuts. We refuse to accept the systematic rationing imposed in our homes to supply electricity. We're sick and tired of it. Enough is enough." Hundreds turned up to voice their disgruntlement at a peaceful event, along with a rather outsized detail of security forces.
In the weeks that followed Y'En A Marre launched a voter registration drive in anticipation of the 2012 elections. They asked people not to pledge allegiance to any of the established political parties. Their goal was to sign up over 1 million new, mostly young voters who simply wanted change and could act as an independent voting bloc holding all the parties' feet to the fire.
As the protest movement burgeoned in Senegal, events escalated elsewhere in the region, and for many similar reasons. By March 2011, riots, strikes, and disturbances had convulsed Burkina Faso. Protests escalated in Morocco that produced promises of constitutional change but failed to placate that country's frustrated population. Al Qaeda violence spread in the Sahara, plaguing Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Nigeria. The Arab Spring turned increasingly violent after the departure of Tunisia's and Egypt's presidents. Libya descended into civil war that included armed intervention by NATO on the side of regime opponents.
All the while, the global economic crisis that undergirded much of the anguish and despair expressed by the world's people persisted and threatened to deepen once again.
It was at that critical juncture that President Wade decided to tinker again with Senegal's constitution. Senegal's peaceful, even pacifist, youth protest movement confronted the prospect that even if it successfully registered a million new voters and they all voted for change, it would still not amount to anything. The implications made many feel hopeless.
Wade perhaps anticipated the degree of potential opposition to his scheme and gave the National Assembly only one week to vote up or down on the reforms. The result was expected to be perfunctory. After all, the PDS held enough votes by itself to pass the changes. Wade's son and heir apparent Karim actually introduced the new measures to the legislature.
Yet small disturbances occurred on the eve of the National Assembly debate and rumors circulated that the government was going to arrest Y'En A Marre rappers.
On June 23, as debate continued inside the National Assembly, reports filtered in from throughout the country of uprisings in Kaolack, Rufisque, Casamance, Thiès, and Pikene. By mid-afternoon, some delegates took the rostrum and began to speak out against the constitutional changes. One after another elected official implored their colleagues not to support Wade's proposals. Remarkably, some were from Wade's own PDS.
Mayhem ruled the streets. The battle scenes included burning vehicles, improvised barricades, and even the dramatic gesture of a prominent opposition politician chaining himself to the gates of the presidential palace. Senegal teetered on the precipice of full-scale insurrection.
Early in the evening, Wade rescinded the amendment creating the post of vice president. Still the protests continued.
Then the National Assembly announced it was going into recess, flustering the commentators on RTS1. Wild rumors circulated. Was there a coup? Where did the military stand? Would Wade resign? Or would the protests be crushed and martial law declared? Nobody had any good information.
On WALF-TV, religious leaders started phoning in to plead for the constitutional changes to be dropped. Support from religious groups had been crucial to Wade's 2000 victory and he appeared to be losing their blessing.
Following those interventions the government announced that President Wade had withdrawn his proposed amendments.
I could hear the cheers from my vantage point of the hotel courtyard. Cars sped by with horns blaring. Pedestrians streamed back from the direction of the presidential palace looking a little worse for wear, but nonetheless jubilant. The staff at the hotel restaurant engaged in vigorous debate about the day's events.
"This is new for us," the man who sells masks across the street told me. "We've never seen anything like this in Senegal. What the president tried to do was wrong. We don't want a monarch; we just want to live with dignity."
He said he didn't trust anything government officials said. He still worried about a crackdown, but felt the mass outpouring on the streets might prevent it. His artist friend said, "We showed that the people can take control in this country. We can do things. I don't think we can be stopped now."
In the Wake of June 23
Of course, one day of revolution does change everything.
Wade agreed to release those imprisoned during the protests without charges hoping to present himself as a magnanimous ruler. Yet, in the coming days the power outages got worse. In fact, the lights went out in large parts of the capital for nearly three days that week leading to another round of protests that ended with the electric company's headquarters and offices in many cities torched.
One month after the momentous events of June, Y'En A Marre and opposition parties called for another protest to demand that Wade resign immediately. Thiat was briefly arrested on charges of insulting the president. At the rally he reportedly said, "An old man can still be useful to a country when he is striving for the right path. But an old man of 90 years who goes back on his word—or who lies—should not stay in a country."
In the months since, protests have continued sporadically and Y'En A Marre has grown stronger. Wade remains defiant and still intends to stand for reelection late in February 2012. Members and supporters of Y'En A Marre claim that they are routinely harassed and threatened, wherever they go.
On January 27, the Constitutional Council validated Wade's candidacy, along with 13 other contenders, but nullified the petition of the world famous singer Youssou N'Dour whose candidacy was gaining traction among the Senegalese youth. More riots and protests ensued. The government banned all demonstrations and Wade scorned the protesters insisting he had every right to run since, "After all, I wrote the constitution. It was me, alone. If I wanted I could even run again in 2019."
On January 31, there was a massive march on the Presidential Palace to force Wade from power. Reports from international media noted that thousands of security forces had been deployed throughout Dakar and the country was on edge.
The elections are scheduled for February 26, and the world waits to see how this will all play out.
Senegal and the Global Season of Discontent
Regardless of the outcome of Senegal's current political crisis, the underlying economic and global structural elements that fuel the discontent of the Senegalese (and other people around the world) remain unchanged.
Three decades of IMF-imposed structural adjustment programs, neo-colonial diplomatic relations, and neo-liberal economics have generated a world of misery, a sense of despair among what is being labeled the "lost generation," and a total loss of confidence in established political and intellectual authorities.
Senegal is significant because it is a bellwether for the region. As a model of stability—the only country in West Africa to never have had a coup or violent takeover of power—it is looked to by others in the region as an example. Endowed with one of the most educated and relatively well-off populations in West Africa, Senegal's descent into political chaos could well destabilize the entire region. Ripples could be felt all the way to Europe in the form of an increasing tide of refugees.
Senegal's opposition movement is also part of a global expression of discontent at a world that had been profoundly remade in the past 30 years to the benefit of the super-rich and multinational corporations. Widening economic disparity, declining prospects for economic development, and the remoteness of power from everyday people's grasp has spawned an array of oppositional politics around the world.
As the Arab Spring turned into summer, fall, and winter, it was joined across Europe by the "indignant" movements against harsh austerity measures designed to make working people pay for the mess created by the corporate and financial elite. The "occupy" movements in the U.S. lodged similar complaints.
Each of them is unique in their specific forms and immediate demands. However, what all of these movements have in common is best summed up by the Senegalese rappers: "Y'En A Marre!" "We're Fed Up!"
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John Glover, Sufism and Jihad in Modern Senegal: The Murid Order (Rochester: Rochester University Press, 2007).
Linda Beck, Brokering Democracy in Africa: The Rise of Clientelist Democracy in Senegal (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Eric Edi, Globalization and Politics in the Economic Community of West African States (Columbia: Carolina Academic Press, 2007).
Jean-François Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London and New York, Longman, 1993).
Tony Chafer, The End of Empire in French West Africa: France's Successful Decolonization? (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2002).
Gary Wilder, The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Ibrahima Diallo, The Politics of National Languages in Postcolonial Senegal (Cambria Press, 2010).