“You don’t want to go to Dakar” was the reply that we heard time and again when we told people in rural Casamance that we were going to go to the capital. “It’s the city of crooks, thieves, cheats and swindlers, aggressive and noisy – no good for tourists”. They were generally unconvinced when we’d reply that we came from a big city and were used to the hustle and bustle – “so have you heard about the attacks?” they’d respond.

When we asked people about their experiences of the city, it turned out that the dislike of most of them was based around the economic conditions which they had experienced there. Dakar is, by a long way, the biggest city in Senegal having over a million inhabitants. In the villages and rural areas wage labour is almost non-existent so young men, without property and with no chance of of finding work often have no choice but to go to Dakar if they wish to earn enough money to get married one day and become householders themselves.

Almost all of the young men that we talked to had spent some time working , or seeking work in Dakar. They complained in particular about the constriction of living space that they had to endure. In Casamance they were accustomed to live in spread out compounds with many rooms where each adult has their own bedroom and new rooms can be constructed to handle expanding families. Dakar, on the other hand, has a housing model typical of Western cities with most housing consisting of flats, in large complexes, designed for occupation by individuals or couples.

Route take in Senegal, full map

However this housing model exists in a society whereby much larger family groups are the norm and each householder is under an social obligation to provide hospitality to relatives who arrive penniless from the villages at regular intervals. Thus, in many cases, a traditional sprawling family group will live within an individual housing unit, necessitating shift sleeping and putting great strains on sanitation and hygiene. Added to the difficult housing situation, were the problems of low wages, high prices, noise, pollution and inadequate public transport, all of which must have come as quite a nasty shock to those arriving from the idyllic, leisurely villages of verdant Casamance.

Considering the reality of the economic situation in Dakar, it was no surprise that those we asked expressed dislike for the city. Therefore, seeing as our relative extravagant wealth would allow us to avoid most of these problems, we were not unduly perturbed by all the warnings. On the other hand Dakar does have a reputation for crime, especially muggings, hardly surprising considering the constant influx of dispossessed youth. So we decided to take all possible precautions in preparing our trip. We took the unprecedentedly organised step of booking rooms a week in advance and planned our trip to be absolutely certain of arriving in daylight hours even though this meant adding an extra 11 hours of ferry ride to the trip. Then, when the boat failed to appear, we suspended our journey until the next day rather than taking an afternoon taxi. We wanted to get the very earliest taxi rather than risk the possibility of being dumped at a bus station in suburban Dakar in the middle of the night, our backpacks gleaming brightly with promises of expensive foreign goods, a beacon to every bandit in the city.

II GOING TO DAKAR

Thus we were to be found at 7 a.m. at the side of a street in one of the Ziguinchor suburbs waiting for a taxi to the bus station. By 8 a.m. when we finally caught a taxi, we had already lost some of our cushion. However the journey was reputed to take 6 hours in a 7-seater and since night doesn’t fall here until about 7 p.m., we were still feeling confident. This naive confidence further evaporated when we arrived at the bus station to see a shouting match between several gentlemen, one of whom was trying to explain that it wasn’t his fault that there were no 7 seaters left to Dakar – there was shortage due to the holidays for the end of Ramadan. The fare collector of the old and battered 35 seat minibus which was the only transport available, failed to restore our optimism when he declared that due to the patently superior quality of this minibus, we would arrive by 3pm. By 11 am when the bus actually left the station, we had lost all faith in our ability to influence the times at which events occurred and by noon, 2 military checkpoints later, when we actually left Ziguinchor, we were beginning to see the funny side.

The Dakar – Ziguinchor road is the main transport axis in Senegal. It is known as the ‘transgambienne’ as it slices across a section of the Gambia. It is renowned as the best road in Senegal as it allows transport to drive on the road itself most of the time and keep a reasonable pace. However the Casamance section of the road contains about 10 military roadblocks with full identity checks and searches in the first 80 kilometres. From Ziguinchor the road veers inland to cross the narrow part of the Gambia (The Gambia’s borders mirror the course of the Gambia river, apparently set at a distance from the river equal to maximum range of the 19th century British naval guns). As we made our way inland, the temperature got hotter and hotter and by the time we reached the Gambia river at about 2.30 pm, the sun was beating down mercilessly and the temperature was in the high 30’s. The combination of the heat and our hangovers from the previous night’s celebrations of the end of Ramadan had created a strong desire for cold liquids by this stage.

Since there are no bridges over the Gambia river, all transport must use a ferry to cross. The ferry terminal has become a particular hub of commerce as do all such spots on the route where the bus must stop. However, while most of these informal markets are based around fruit, snacks and refreshments, these were nowhere to be seen in the 20 or so stalls gathered around the ferry departure point. Instead the produce seemed to consist entirely of replica football kits. This proved something of a disappointment to us since we had been hoping to see the normal rush of vendors pressing plastic bags filled with chilled water and fruit juices through the bus windows. The infant sized Aston Villa kit complete with jersey, shorts and socks that one woman persistently tried to sell to was a poor substitute. At least we did get to see the provenance of the vast number of Manchester United tops in the region. Apparently Gambia has no import duty on clothes and this section of the Gambia – being a Senegalese road – serves as the natural distribution point for Senegal.

An hour later we had crossed the Gambia river, sped through the other half of the country and reached the Senegalese border post. As we waited to for the guard to stamp our passports, we observed a Mauritanian smuggler pull up outside in his car, run in, hand a few notes to the guard, then without a word being exchanged, jump back in the car and continue into Senegal. The system of bribes is obviously organised in a highly efficient manner in these parts! However tourists were obviously off limits for bribes and we duly received our stamps and left the office none the poorer, only to be greeted by the forlorn sight of our bus, jacked up, with 2 wheels missing and all the passengers sitting under a tree nearby. The bus had picked up two punctures at once and we had no spares!

According to some of our fellow passengers, we would have to get new tyres from Kaolack, 50 kilometres away and this would take several hours or even days. Fortunately this turned out to be an example of the law of travellers pessimism, whereby all fellow passengers on public transport will answer all enquiries about length of journey or arrival time with the most pessimistic estimation possible and a certain expression of resigned fatalism. This phenomenon has its inverse in the law of non-travellers optimism, whereby every enquiry, prior to a journey, from people who will not be travelling will be met with the most optimistic estimation conceivable. So while we only had to wait one hour for the new tyre, by the time we were back on the road, with scarcely a third of the journey completed, we were already later than any of the estimations we had received prior to starting!

Thankfully the rest of the trip passed much more smoothly and while we did get another puncture, this time we had a spare with us. Nevertheless it was 11pm when the bus finally spat us out into the wilds of the Dakar bus-station, exactly the situation that we had wanted to avoid. Our fellow passengers all showed considerable concern for our safety, repeatedly advising us to be careful , which had the effect of making us paranoid to such an extent that we felt as if we had been deposited in no-man’s land in the middle of the first world war. We grabbed a taxi, agreed instantly to an extortionate price and, as we drove through the Dakar night, we were constantly expecting hordes of heavily armed bandits to launch an assault on the vehicle. We reached the hotel, dashed inside and almost collided with a chubby little middle-aged Frenchman with a big moustache accompanied by two tall, thin, young, exceedingly nubile African women, who was negotiating the rent of a room for a few hours. We waited impatiently for him to finish, our backpacks feeling like timebombs waiting to explode but eventually we got our key, got into the room and barricaded ourselves in against the swarming hordes without, safe until the morning.

III DAKAR, CAPITAL OF FRENCH WEST AFRICA

During the next few weeks that we spent in Dakar our paranoia about our security quickly evaporated. Indeed we even found that the Dakar hustlers were easier to deal with than those in Cap Skiring. Whereas in the Cap, we would be obliged to spend several minutes rebuffing guides, in Dakar you could easily just ignore them and keep walking when they tried to stop you with their various ruses – “hey, it’s my friend from the airport”….”maybe you don’t recognise me without my uniform”. What’s more Dakar is much more familiar to us coming from Dublin than Casamance was.

Place d’Independence Dakar, January 2000

It is a city constructed very much in the European conception with the whole gamut of shops, hotels, restaurants, cafés, imported fineries, suit-wearing businessmen, cinemas, cybercafés, traffic jams, parks, universities and crowds hurrying about their business. Physically it is a good example of French colonial planning and architecture. The whole city is located on a peninsula, the westernmost point in Africa. The centrepiece of the city is the impressively Mediterranean Place d’Independance surrounded by grand hotels, bank headquarters and other symbols of capitalist power. To the South of the place is the wealthiest area of the city, housing the main administrative buildings as well as being home to many of the white inhabitants. It is located on the highest area of the peninsula – emphasising the colonists domination over the natives. The original inhabitants were evicted at the start of this century on the pretext of sanitation concerns, a device that was very popular with colonial administrations. This area is partly made up of broad tree-lined avenues and partly of a relatively upmarket commercial area, almost entirely European in concept.

North of the place, there is another commercial district which is increasingly African as you go away from the centre. The enclosed shops are replaced by pavement stalls and the size and energy of the throng increases. This whole central area is relatively compact and little more than a mile from the place, the residential Medina begins and these suburbs sprawl from here several miles along the coast. Increasingly, as you go from the centre, you come across sheep, goats and chickens, foraging among the rubbish and patches of bush, evidence of recent rural migration and a different concept of urban space. The pace of life slows and the European centre seems a million miles away.

Crowds seeking work at the Dakar Chamber of Commerce (photo: Chekov, January 2000)

Dakar was the capital of French West Africa, and one of the factors which caused Dakar to be chosen as a colonial administrative centre was its climate. It is relatively cool with light breezes and notably less susceptible to malaria than most parts of West Africa. However nowadays, the combination of dust, pollution and very low humidity during the dry season means that much of the population permanently have sore throats and blocked noses. During the 3 weeks that we spent there I had a persistent sore-throat and eventually had to go to a doctor who barely had to examine me to know what to describe – it cured me almost instantly and I didn’t have to resort to the inhalation of smoke from sacred wood which many people were advising. Nevertheless the relatively benevolent climate is one of the reasons why Dakar still houses a large population of French expatriates, numbering several thousand. They remain very much an elite in the city, owning many of the businesses and working as management in many of the multi-national companies and NGO’s which have their West-African headquarters in Dakar.

In addition to the colonial remnants, Dakar has a relatively large class of wealthy Africans and nowadays they probably outnumber whites among the rich class in Senegal. However this class is rarely seen wandering around the streets, they are occasionally spotted in taxis, 4×4’s or in shops but to see them in any number it is necessary to plunge into one of the exclusive French restaurants or cafés where they can be found, besuited and cultured, quaffing imported luxuries. The streets, on the other hand are the domain of the traders, beggars, hustlers and holy-men who make up an incredibly colourful and energetic patchwork of streetlife.

IV DAKAR STREETLIFE

Bana Bana

One of the first thing that one notices about Dakar are that there are people literally everywhere selling things, things of every size, shape and variety. It seems impossible to cast your eyes in any direction without finding a product thrust into your view by a hopeful salesman. Within the first 5 minutes that I spent in Dakar I was offered a bathroom scales, the latest copy of Paris Match magazine, a giant bath towel with the Welsh flag printed on it, a wall clock, a 2 foot long model wooden canoe complete with 12 individually carved oarsmen as well as a host of more mundane fare. Each of these products has a salesman attached, some of whom will have a single item to sell while others are weighed down by massive bundles of seemingly unrelated goods tied to their backs or balanced on their heads. These are the ‘bana-bana’, the wandering salesmen who occupy the economic margins of the city and form the bulk of the informal economy.

It is hard to know how many people are engaged in this informal commerce – some estimates are as high as 80% of the cities labour force – but it is certain that they are legion. They are visible in every neighbourhood seeking customers, offering goods and services, delivering sales patters again and again – ‘hey whitey. Sunglasses. Raybans. Cheap. Only $5. Okay how much will you give?’ – as passers by walk past without registering their existence. They sell goods and services which are no more expensive or hard to find in the shops and stalls. Their only economic advantage is their mobility and their desperation – they seek the customers out. They trail customers into the forbidden sanctuaries of cafés and restaurants only to be shooed away to reappear at a window, desperately pursuing that one sale which can mean dinner tonight.

Beggars

Almost as numerous and visible as the bana-bana on Dakar’s streets, and no less desperate, are the beggars, many thousands of whom hold out hands, buckets or bowls to passers by hoping for a few pennies. After spending a while in the city it is possible to recognise several distinct categories among the beggars. First and most eye-catching are the invalids especially the numerous lepers and polio-victims. The sight of stumps where one expects to see hands and their straw-thin legs often proves visually shocking, stopping you in your tracks as you walk past. The locomotion of the polio sufferers can be a particularly tortuous sight as they drag, swing and haul their wasted legs over the uneven, obstacle-strewn terrain. In many cases their unassisted progress appears as a miracle of mechanics.

The destitute form another distinct group of beggars. They can be any age and sex but by far the most commonly seen are the mothers with young children, probably not because they tend to be more often destitute than others but because others would have even less chance of begging enough to survive. They are often dressed in rags and occasionally use an infant, trained to hold out a hand to passers by, to collect their alms. Apparently many of these are women who have been abandoned by their emigré husbands or partners.

The third and most numerous category of alms-seekers are the talibés or disciples. These are children aged between 6 and 16, pupils at the traditional Koranic schools. These schools are common all over Muslim West Africa and are run by Muslim holy men, the marabouts. These marabouts are a particular West African feature of Islam. They combine a lifetime of study of the Koran with many of the features of traditional beliefs and superstitions. They are commonly credited with powers of divination and the ability to intercede with Allah on behalf of the faithful. Especially in the more traditional rural areas, many of the faithful believe that trusting one’s children to a marabout, to take care of their education and thus add to god’s army, is a way of winning brownie points with god. These unfortunate children are the talibés, they must endure years of instruction in the Koran consisting largely of transcribing and chanting verses.

In return for taking care of their upbringing, the Marabout gets to use his talibés as virtual slaves. In rural areas they will often perform hours of unpaid farm labour every day, tending the crops and gathering fruit and firewood. In urban areas they spend a lot of their time collecting alms for their marabouts and it is in performing this function that they are seen so commonly on the streets of Dakar. They are very often barefoot, always dressed in rags and characteristically they carry a bucket dangling from a string with which to collect food. Notwithstanding the importance of charity to Islam, it is hard to see how many of them could collect much since they are many thousands competing for every morsel of pity. The marabouts have a reputation for using corporal punishment against those who do not adequately perform their alms-collecting. All in all it sounds about as pleasant an education as the christian brothers used to provide in Ireland. Funny they way these religions have so much in common.

Finally, among the ranks of the beggars are the members of the Baye Fall, a particularly slavish Islamic brotherhood which emphasises hard work as a route to salvation. These dread locked disciples, dressed in patchwork cloaks laden with prayer beads, spend much time collecting alms, holding their calabash bowls out to passers by. They are probably the most persistent of the various mendicants, which is convenient since they are also the only ones who elicit contempt instead of sympathy. Thus I was able to relieve some of the frustrations caused by the ever-present demands for cash by being rude to these holy-men. Persistent demands for cash were met with ‘Satan is lord’ or some such response.

V. COUPE AFRICAINE de NATIONS – CAN

Another thing that was very noticeable in Dakar was that at certain times economic activity would suddenly slow down almost to a standstill and the streets would empty except for bunches of people, here and there staring fixedly into shop windows. It was the African Nations cup – the continents football championship.

Having experienced football mania in Ireland many times in the past, there was nothing unusual about the widespread interest in the tournament, nor in the fervent support for the Senegalese national side. On the other hand a couple of factors did seem particularly noticeable. Firstly the shortage of televisions was amazing. Every screen in the city seemed to host a huge crowd, gathered in an arc around it. A 12 inch screen in a shop window could hold the attention of a 50-strong crowd, many of whom would simultaneously hold portable radios to their ears to hear the commentary. These pavement crowds were as replete with comedians and ‘expert’ pundits as any soccer crowd, but I couldn’t help being struck by the civilized way in which they reacted to the roller coaster of fortune. When Senegal lost to Egypt by a single, extraordinarily dubious goal, there wasn’t a single expletive hurled at the screen. When, against the odds, they qualified for the quarter finals for the first time ever, the crowd cheered, clapped each other on the back and went smilingly back to work. Eventually I figured out that it wasn’t merely a more civilized nature which was causing them to act so differently to an Irish soccer mob, it was the fact that they were watching these matches without the blessing of alcohol! Even when I watched matches in the dingiest dockside bar, packed with sailors and prostitutes, it was difficult to find a single drunkard among the amassed Muslims. A strange cultural experience.

VI SENEGAL’S MODEL DEMOCRACY

Over the few weeks that we spent in Dakar I began to notice that an unusually large number of businesses in the central commercial areas of the city seemed to be having facelifts. The pavements in front of them were being ripped up and teams of workmen were hammering away at the storefronts. However, it soon became clear that steel bars, their foundations planted 4 feet deep into the pavement, hadn’t suddenly become the height of shopfront fashion. Rather, these businesses were busy fortifying themselves behind cages of reinforced steel bars. Why? Well, it just so happened to be election time and the cities’ merchants seemed to suspect that things weren’t going to pass entirely peacefully.

Senegal undoubtedly deserves to be classified as West Africa’s model democracy, but, in this context, democracy certainly doesn’t mean that the mass of the people have the faintest say in what goes on. What it does mean is that an event, called an ‘election’ by the ruling class, is held every so often. In Senegal these events have been held relatively frequently and there have been no military coup d’etats since independence (Robert Guei’s recent coup in Cote d’Ivoire gives Senegal the distinction of being the only West African ‘nation’ never to have enjoyed military rule). On the other hand, the same party, hand picked by the French colonial power, has ruled since independence in 1960 and the country has managed to evolve multiple parties, all with largely the same policies. This combination of regular, multi-party elections, without any danger of political change is what makes the country a model of ‘democracy’ in the region.

Senegal has a population of some 10 millions. 1.3 million votes were cast in the previous presidential election in 1993. In a country with high levels of illiteracy, poor communications infrastructure and minimal state services, a very small minority of the population are even on the electoral register. However, in the run-up to this presidential election, it was looking unlikely that very many of the 2.7 million registered voters could really be happy with the status quo. Unemployment is officially about 40% and a third of the population live below the poverty line, in reality both of these figures are probably higher. 40 years of socialist party rule since independence have produced little improvement in people’s lives . The youth of the country are particularly disenchanted – according to official figures 62% of the 4.2 million people aged between 18 and 25 are unemployed. For those lucky few who do have jobs, things are scarcely much better. Wages are appalling, especially considering the relatively high cost of living. A casual construction labourer in Casamance earns $1.50 for a 10 hour day while a state-employed teacher makes just $75 a month. While the recent structural adjustment program may have impressed the IMF and foreign investors, the series of privatisations, cutbacks and downsizings has not made life any easier for most people. In the run up to the election a great desire for change could be felt among the masses. Unfortunately, in this model democracy, ‘change’ was not one of the choices available.

There were four major candidates for the presidency and it was widely predicted that the incumbent, Abdou Diouf, was in serious danger of losing to his perennial opponent Abdoulaye Wade. Many political figures and commentators were trumpeting this possibility of ‘alternance’ as a democratic triumph which was crucial for the country’s emergence as a model for francophone Africa. If Senegal could achieve a peaceful electoral transfer of power, then perhaps it could avoid the cycle of corruption, autocracy, instability, military rule and civil war which have become par for the course among the nation states of the region. This reasoning caused many of the opposition figures to form an alliance behind Wade, the most likely looking opponent, including most of the parties of the left. However, despite the fact that the desperate economic situation of many of the nation’s people meant that, in the absence of massive fraud, it was looking very plausible that the government might lose, it was also looking almost inconceivable that the election might change anything for the majority of the people.

or the Senegalese elections were centred not around politics, nor policies, nor even personalities, but around shepherding. The rises and falls in the leading candidates fortunes were gauged not by opinion polls, but by lists of defections of the personnel from the various parties. As recently as 1998 all 4 of the leading candidates were members of the same government and 3 of them were in the same party. Two were recently barons within the governing Socialist Party whose ambitions had been frustrated prompting them to defect and create their own parties, along with various other power-hungry barons with regional bases. These new parties were purely vehicles for personal ambition, bereft of policies or politics. The election campaign consisted of the various parties attempting to entice barons and important regional figures away from each others’ parties. In fact this practice of switching political sides has become so common in Senegal that it has been given its own special name ‘transhumance’.

Transhumance

Now, in geography class in school I remember learning that transhumance is the shepherding practice of Alpine farmers who would lead their flocks onto the high pastures every Spring, and bring them back down in Autumn to spend the Winter in shelter. In a similar manner the Senegalese politician shepherds his flock of voters into the PS camp, until one day a PDS leader arrives with promises of an important position , or better still, a large budget for a development project. The politician then simply has to herd his flock into the PDS pasturage, at least until the URD leader arrives with promises of even juicier morsels. In the year before the election at least a dozen senior national political figures switched parties, some even yo-yoed between parties, switching backwards and forwards for shamelessly self-serving reasons. In the weeks preceding the poll, the pace accelerated with entire regional branches of political parties switching allegiance en masse.

So rather than trying to convince the electorate to vote for them, the candidates concentrated on trying to attract shepherds who come in a number of different guises. Firstly there are the traditional leaders, descendants of chiefs or tribal leaders. Secondly there are the large capitalists, often owners of groundnut plantations, which are Senegal’s major cash crop. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there are the religious leaders, the marabouts, the hierarchy of the Muslim brotherhoods which wield huge influence. Unsurprisingly these 3 categories often coalesce in one person. The local Marabout may be a hereditary chief and a large landowner who is capable of mustering near hundred percent voting loyalty from his flock due to the multi-faceted nature of his power. It is these figures that are fought over by the candidates in the election campaign since, by switching sides, they can turn an area from blanket loyalty to the government into an uncontested stronghold of the opposition overnight. The most important of these figures are the leaders of the two biggest brotherhoods, the Mourides and the Tidjanes. Traditionally, on the eve of the elections, the marabouts give a counsel or ‘ndiguel’ to their members about which way they should vote – of course after having consulted with the big man upstairs.

In the weeks before the poll there was a huge amount of lobbying and negotiating between the principal candidates and the principal religious leaders. For example, Moustaphe Niasse’s opening campaign rally was visited by a Mouride delegation consisting of 32 buses and 44 cars filled with the councillors of the Khalife Serigne Saliou Mbacké. This time round the ruling Socialist party was looking in trouble since many people attributed their previous election successes to their ability to win over the Marabouts en masse, this time the opposition had succeeded in getting some of the important marabouts to call for a vote against the government, or to refrain from giving any advice.

Corruption and Clientelism

The transhumance of the politicians goes hand in hand with rampant corruption and deep-rooted clientelism, both of which allow individuals to take large chunks of voters with them as they wander between parties in search of greener pastures. The corruption runs from registering scores of deceased or infant voters, to the purchasing of voters’ cards (market price $7.50). The clientelism starts at the level of party activists who are recruited with the promise of jobs in the event of eventual victory. Given the vast reserves of unemployed youth, it is relatively easy for political figures to gather sizeable bodies of activists. The fact that, for these activists, it is a winner-takes-all situation combined with their personal dependence on their political patron, gives these militant organisations an added fervour and they often serve as personal militias: breaking up opposition meetings, burning down opposition buildings, ripping down posters, intimidating dissenters… Although the governing PS was for a long time the leading player in this field, the opposition parties are increasingly enthusiastic practitioners. Also, the government barons are faced with the problem of having to live up to their promises. This can lead to serious embarrassment. For example, less than a month before the presidential elections, the Socialist party youth branch in Kolda distributed leaflets which said in essence “We’ve done all the electoral work we said we would, now where are the jobs we were promised? If we don’t get jobs we’re defecting”.

Another aspect of clientelism is the promising by local barons of development projects for their villages and regions. Typically the local politician will tell the villagers that if X party is elected then he, because of his good connections, will ensure that they will be given electricity, running water and a paved road. Yet again, on this aspect, it seemed that the government’s chickens were coming home to roost after 40 years of promising the earth; On the 21st of December the 21,000 strong rural community of Kounkamé, hitherto solidly government supporters, released a statement saying that unless the promised electrification was completed (the pylons had been put in place around the time of the 1998 legislative elections) they would defect en masse to the opposition. Again on the 17th of January, 43 ‘pro-government’ villages of the Gandjolé region released a statement declaring their intention to vote for the opposition as the electrification – guaranteed to be in place by 2000 – had never been carried out.

The opposition candidates and their regional power figures were no less shamelessly clientelist, however, they were able to make promises without ever having had a chance to deliver. Indeed Wade relied throughout on the simple slogan ‘Sopi’ – meaning change in Wolof, rather than delivering any real policy proposals. Vote for Wade and everything would be different – the long promised electricity and running water would arrive, jobs would be available and politicians would keep their promises… The opposition alliance’s paper was packed with outlandish promises. “When Wade is president all of the villages will get electricity, our army will by the most modern and best equipped in the region” and so on.

Petty politics

Paradoxically, because the elections were entirely devoid of ideological and political content, they were all the more viciously fought. The candidates didn’t even pretend to be driven by anything other than personal ambition and powerlust, thus nothing prevented them from using dirty tricks, intimidation and violence in trying to win the race. In every single step of the process: the creation of the electoral lists, the printing of voters’ cards, the distribution of the cards and the voting itself there were political crises, accusations of fraud, counter accusations and secret negotiations as all of the candidates looked for any means of giving themselves an advantage. The saga of the “Israeli cards” exhibits this very well.

After months of arguments about the content of the electoral lists, the interior minister, General Cissé, was given the task of producing unfalsifiable voters’ cards which he duly set about doing and a Dakar-based firm was contracted to carry out the task and print the cards. Then, less than two months before the vote, the opposition discovered that the general had secretly ordered a second set of voters’ cards to be printed in Israel. The general claimed that this was as a precaution in case there was any problem with the Senegalese cards, but, realising that the game was up, he declared that he would publicly burn the cards. The opposition then released statements of outrage that the government was willing to burn $100,000 of taxpayers money in such a fashion and announced that they would boycott the burning. The burning was then called off due to lack of interest at which point the opposition changed tack to accuse Ousmanne Tanor Dieng, the government’s chief of staff, of having paid for the cards. Dieng promptly launched a court case for defamation against the leading opposition candidate. Then another opposition candidate caused a huge stir by declaring that he had evidence that general Cissé was preparing a coup d’etat – only for him to clarify this the next day by saying he had been referring to an “electoral coup d’etat” (i.e. the Israeli cards). Wade, the opposition frontrunner, hoping to take advantage of the ripples from the Cote d’Ivoire coup, then declared the government could only win if they resorted to fraud and in the case of such an “electoral coup d’etat” then he would call on the army to carry out a coup d’etat on the people’s behalf. President Diouf responded by declaring that, in the case of post-election violence by the opposition, he, in his capacity as commanding officer of the armed forces, would call upon the army to ‘restore order’.

The candidates culminated their campaigning by holding a series of rallies around the country. In the tense atmosphere, these rallies often ended in violent clashes between the ‘youth organisations’ of the various parties. In Dakar we happened to witness several of these rallies. About 2 weeks before the first round of voting we happened to pass through one of Diouf’s rallies on a bus. The rally was marked by the fact that virtually the entire audience was wearing outfits with the image of the president’s face printed all over them. As a promotional measure he had produced thousands of metres of cloth with his face emblazoned all over it and the enterprising tailors of Dakar had fashioned this cloth into every conceivable style of dress, suit, shirt and blouse. The sight of the many acres of the president’s serene countenance was quite a sight to behold as our bus slowly inched its way through the crowd and we were quite enjoying the experience until a few people on the bus shouted ‘SOPI’ out the window and the crowd began to hurl projectiles at us – thankfully we got away quickly since at various stages during the campaign numerous people were injured or killed during clashes at these rallies. Purely by coincidence, less than 5 minutes later on the same bus journey we encountered Wade, the opposition front runner.

Biography of Abdoulaye Wade - former President of Senegal (2000-2012)

Wade is 74, bald, with a face set in a permanent grimace, he commonly dresses in a power-suit and tours Dakar in a cavalcade of open-top Mercedes. On this occasion he was in his most characteristic pose, jacket off, braces over his white shirt in the style of a Wall street stockbroker, his fist in the air as he stood upright in the back of the car, punching the air and crying ‘SOPI’ to the passers by. He was followed by several more cars, full of fierce looking young men waving their fists and snarling at the crowd as if challenging any government supporters to try to stop them. The sight of Wade seemed to electrify the crowds on the streets and on the buses who echoed his slogan back and punched the air with their fists. If nothing else, he certainly has a talent for showmanship.

The week befoe the election saw a large exodus of expats towards the resort areas of the Gambia and the Cote D’Ivoire. However, while the tension did mount with more violent clashes, bannings of radio stations and burnings of party buildings, the situation didn’t escalate into the widespread violence or even civil war which many people feared. The elections were organised according to French system. In the event of no candidate achieving a majority in the first round a runoff is held between the two leading candidates. As many had predicted there was a runoff between Wade and Diouf. The period between the two polls saw an intensification of the wheeling and dealing between the political figures as Wade negotiated for the support of the eliminated candidates in return, of course, for a share of the pie in the form of senior government positions. Although president Diouf did succeed in creating one last act of transhumance by prompting Djibo Ka, the 4th placed candidate to dramatically switch sides, it was too little too late. Wade duly completed his victory with the backing of the rest of the candidates. We can expect him to be busy over the next few years attempting to share out the spoils of his victory among all those to whom he has promised favours. The uninfluential and disenfranchised masses will have to wait a long time indeed for their voices to be heard.

Despite the fact that the Senegalese seem to have so little to hope for from their model democratic process, things are not entirely gloomy. The autonomous unions, grouped into two federations: the CSA and UNSAS have been fighting a series of battles against the privatisations and for increased wages and living conditions. These campaigns have been bitterly fought and relatively radical. The independent press is reasonably lively and the venality and vacuity of the political class seems to be widely recognised. Finally the very weakness of the state infrastructure, especially in areas like education and health, means that there is some space for self-organisation. Various initiatives of communally organised education and health clinics have emerged especially from trade-union circles. It is these types of organisations have some chance of ending the vicious circle of under-development rather than the self-interested political parties.

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