Election Day in Senegal

Senegalese people went to the polls yesterday in what I considered to be under very peaceful circumstances.

Most polls were conducted at schools, one of which I happened to be near my apartment. The large majority started at 8am and closed at 6pm – those that started later, i.e. at 9am closed at 7pm, etc. I suspected something extraordinary was going on as the usually quiet street across from my house was now buzzing (this I was able to see from my terrace) with cars pulling in and out and people traipsing about. I decided to satisfy my curiosity by taking a mini walk on the street just after 5pm before heading to my ex-colleague’s that lived nearby to watch tv footage of the events of the day. I noted nothing odd. The people who lived across the polling station/school had pulled up chairs in front of their homes to watch the scene. I did not go inside (and tried to be nonchalant as possible) but from outside, I noted a few people sitting on a bench inside the school compound talking and jesting. The real scene of action was a classroom just within the compound where a few people emerged from having voted. I noted nothing unscrupulous, scandalous or violent.

I was a little annoyed/bored (I had even contemplated taking my camera along for the walk although I would have been disappointed like every other time I contemplate taking my camera with me and return home not sad at all as there had been nothing camera-worthy) but I was actually relieved. I reasoned, well, my area is usually quiet anyway so no surprise there, perhaps when I go watch tv, there will be more exciting stuff going on.

When I arrived at my ex-colleague’s place, the only thing exciting was the colour of the shirt of one of the three journalists on the local channel they had been watching all day. No footage of election violence, unruly behaviour, not even in the so-called ‘popular neighbouhods’. Once again, I was bored/disappointed but IMMENSELY relieved. I am so proud of Senegalese people! True, some say that they’re weird Africans but they’re mighty peaceful ones so we’ll deal with their weirdness any day.  As the husband of my ex-colleague noted, even if some were paid to ‘shut their eyes’ to questionable behaviour, in this internet on your phone age, someone would have taken photos/videos of such things and circulated them. But there have been no such thing reported, YET. So as he further reasoned, since no one is alleging (or has alleged) fraud, and since all candidates stood for the election, it will be hard to make a case for fraud even if the incumbent wins.

But voter turnout was terrible. Prior to the elections, there had been some five million registered voters. As the results were coming in (they would start off with the number of registered voters and the number who actually turned out), it was apparent that probably less (in my estimate) than half the number of registered voters had actually turned out to vote. Eventually it was said that some 3 million people voted, some 25% of the population! Granted the entire population is not eligible to vote, it is still a very low number. So what happened? Apathy? Even the husband of my ex-colleague that I went to visit did not go to vote (I think he didn’t have time to register or something to that effect). During my couple of hours at their home, they received three visitors, all Senegalese, none of whom had gone to vote. And all four of these are really informed, educated folk. I think many people probably just felt that there was no point (they felt the president would win anyway and did not want to go waste their time) AND (perhaps more importantly, and as I alluded to some posts ago), people think most, if not all the candidates, are the same – particularly the three who previously served for the incumbent, one of whom is Macky Sall, the one most likely to face the president in the case of a runoff. In short, many people, especially the informed ones, felt they had no decent option so they decided not to exercise their right to choose.

I was reminded me of the last Canadian election. Many people were dissatisfied with Harper’s overly sophisticated ego and gradual conversion to US conservatism but he won, howbeit with one of the lowest voter turnouts in a long time (if we had runoffs in Canada, the election would have resulted in one). The opposition presented neither good enough cases for their causes nor good enough choices (as the voters saw it) – people couldn’t identify with Ignatieff, and although Quebecois turned out to vote for one of their sons, Layton in droves, it was never going to be enough to win.

Which brings me to this: it is VERY difficult to unseat the incumbent. And it has seldom been done in history. I read an article some time ago that pegged the % of times an incumbent has won an election at at least 80 (or if not higher). So Barack Obama, unless you say you hate white people and were a former black panther, you don’t have much to worry about. In fact, you shouldn’t even have to spend half of the 780 billion USD that it has been alleged was spent on your campaign in 2008.

But I digress – the results have not yet been confirmed but it looks like either the president wins (he has to win at least 51% to avoid a runoff), or he has to face the runner-up in a run off at some point later. At first when the results were coming in around 6:30pm, as polls began to close, the thing was looking sure fire for the incumbent. But later on in the night, as more results began to be announced, it was looking more like a run off would need to happen between the incumbent and a candidate named Macky Sall (and ex cabinet minister for the president), although this dude later annoyed me when one of his speakers went on the radio to proclaim his victory (while votes were still being counted!), calling him President Macky Sall.

This morning on the radio however, I heard a government official claiming victory for the President, putting him at some 53-55% of the votes (a little suspect if he needed to win 51% to avoid a runoff) and then a colleague just told me the President won some 30-something percent, while Macky Sall won some twenty-something percent.

In any case, it is once again, the constitutional council (the one that allowed the president to run) that announces the official results of these elections so we wait and see what they come up with this time.

So Mr. Incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, if you do win another seven year term (SEVEN!), don’t get it twisted – it’s not because people chose you, it’s because they did not want to chose the others!


The Police, the Teargas, and the Mosque

My previous post was actually supposed to be about this but then I got carried away by Senegalese youth.

Basically, a police officer threw tear gas into a mosque downtown Dakar, close to the Place de l’Independence last Friday, the 17th.

He was a moron.

As the story goes, protesters were throwing things at police officers, and police were retaliating with rubber bullets and the occasional tear gas. Now, I don’t know exactly what happened to lead up to this particular event, but it was claimed that some protesters were throwing things at the police and hiding in and around the mosque, and the next thing I saw (I only saw the footage from this point on) was a police officer, standing just across the street from the mosque beside his truck, pick up a tear gas and hurl it INSIDE the mosque, sending people furiously scurrying about.

Did I mention this police officer was a moron?

So needless to say, people are pissed off, especially the Tidjane Brotherhood, as it was their mosque that was defamed.

This post is actually supposed to be in defense of the policemen during these times at Dakar so we shall exclude the above-mentioned moron from the rest of this entry.

On Sunday, when I was watching tv at a friend’s place (before I left and got into an accident, lol), the repeatedly shown footage was of a group of policemen who, visibly outnumbered, kept backing up as a crowd of protesters with stones and anything ‘hurlable’ advanced on them. Another was a footage of a group of about seven policemen who were shielding themselves, throwing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets at an advancing crowd much larger than them. They even showed one of the officers trying to shoot the rubber gun and I almost died of laughter – just the way he held the thing (or tried to hold it) was enough to cause fits! And he was a typical Senegalese man – as skinny as they come.

All that lead me to this question, is it by FORCE? Pardon the pun!

If the President or Minister or whomever tells me to take six other men to go control a crowd of two hundred young Senegalese (largely men) in some neighbourhood, I will look at  him and ask, “U dey craze (Are you crazy) ?!” If he insists, I’ll say, “ok, no problem.” I’ll get there and hit up the nearest bakery with my men to buy sandwiches and watch the action.

If people want to protest, let them protest! Why do I have to try to stop them and die? Afterall, it’s not me they’re mad at!

But what happens is that these men go and put themselves in front of a crowd of hundreds, trying to stop them from advancing down some street (and I’m not talking about the ones guarding downtown Dakar – those ones have reinforcements-it’s the ones that are sent to ‘cover’ the neighbourhoods in and around the city that suffer the most). They get scared (understandably), start shooting their rubber guns (sometimes randomly, accidentally injuring and killing people) and make other fatal mistakes.  Another footage I saw was of a police man who caught a protester and started beating him hard on the head with his baton. On the head! With the duration and force of the beating, that guy will definitely suffer some head injuries in the future – he already looked discombobulated as they put him in their car to be carried away.

So many of the deaths could have been prevented, and while I’m not saying all the police are innocent in all these (there are fools like the moron above), it is certainly a tough job out there for them!

A little On Senegalese Youth

At last count (from what I read yesterday afternoon), there have been 12 dead as a result of the protests in Senegal so far. I would say all were unintentional, and some were purely accidental. Among the dead are a grandmother, a toddler, a policeman, and a teenager who was buying bread at a bakery. The majority of the dead, if not the rest, have been students.

This should come as no surprise – at a recent conversation with a Senegalese Youth Leader/Worker, he pegged the number of unemployed youth at 3 million. To put things in perspective, Senegal’s population is about 12million. So I think they youth reserve the right to be pissed off to the point of going out there to demand change. And it is not just university students that are pissed off, it is all the youth working on buses, hanging out at their mama’s homes all day/night, selling things/hustling on the streets from dusk to dawn.

When I first arrived here in Senegal, I wondered why so many youths seemed to not (want to) attend school or university, but I reasoned with myself that university was probably too expensive and therefore preventative. You have to pay for school, you have to buy books, uniforms, etc., and you have to have clean clothes. If you’re at university, you have to work little or not at all so you can do well and progress. How many of them can really afford to do that? I spoke to a friend around my age – a young Senegalese Nigerian (who has spent at least 14 years in Senegal) about it and she mentioned that save for a few programs, the government pays for you to go to university. And schooling up to that point is free. There are even various Masters’ programs that are free.

What? I thought this was Senegal, not Sweden!

Her ultimate conclusion: Senegalese people, a large part of them, are lazy. They just do not want to go to school. Um, she might have a point there, I thought.

BUT thinking further about this, I realized homegirl might perhaps not have been right after all. In Dakar, there is the state university Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), where, if you do go, you study for free (for most, not all, programs), and even get some sort of spending money/bursary very month. But it is the only state university in Dakar. There are two other public universities in the entire country. There are numerous other small, private universities in Dakar, but they are not free. And tuition can cost in the thousands – of dollars. These are inundated with middle to upper class Senegalese and French African students from Ivory Coast, Tchad, Niger, Congo, Gabon, etc. I have a friend who’s doing a program at UCAD, but one of those for which one has to pay, and his tuition is about $2000 (I believe for the academic year – about eight months). If tuition at the state school can cost that much, then we can imagine tuition at the private schools is at least that and even if it were lower, it would not be much more so.

Estimates suggest that there are about 60 000 students at UCAD and the World Bank has suggested more than a few times that it should stop admitting students, citing inadequate infrastructure to support the 60 000, let alone a few thousands more. Let’s imagine that the other two universities in the country can admit about 40 000 students each (they are much smaller so I doubt it but let’s assume) so that makes about 140 000 students in all the state universities at any given time. The population of Dakar and its surrounding areas is at least 2 million and Africa’s demographic is such that youth (18 to 35) are the most numerous of any population, sometimes comprising of up to 70%. But let’s tread on the low side with Metropolitan Dakar, and say it has about 40% university age young people. That makes about 800 000 university eligible students. Let’s say half of those don’t even want to go or are just not interested. That leaves 400 000. Let’s say some 100 000 of those have parents that can pay for tuition at a private university (and that is incredibly high, but let’s just assume, once again). That now leaves 300 000. But UCAD only has the capacity for 60 000 at any one time, meaning it could probably only admit an additional 5 000 per year, if all those that are supposed to graduate actually do so on time. If not, it must admit less. Given that I’ve been overly nice with the numbers, I would peg the actual number of eligible students who want to go to UCAD but can’t at around half a million, if not more. That is mind-boggling!

So that means competition is fierce to get into UCAD, if you are from a lower ‘class’ family (as are many people here) and you’d like to study tuition-free. You will most likely get in if you’re one of the smartest students in your class or if your parents are high up the ladder and can swing some connections. There can be only a handful of ‘smartest students’ in any class. Most students hover around average or a little higher, which is, in my opinion, good enough if you want to get a higher education. Performance/competence at work requires only basic/average intelligence – the rest is hard work and perseverance! Anyway, if you’re from a lower class family and no one from your family has ever gone to or graduated from university, and you think you could probably go to university, but you’re not sure if you’re smart enough and no one has ever encouraged you or told you that you are indeed smart enough, especially since the family business is in trading and your family wants you to continue the family tradition…

And then there is the ridiculously high unemployment rate among young people, educated or uneducated alike which doesn’t endear one to go ‘waste’ four years of one’s life only to go to square one. Might as well go master a trade/craft! Getting a job in Canada/US/Europe is hard enough for young people, much less here. And then there is the quality of the education, which leaves much to be desired. UCAD is a fairly decent university which explains why so many students from the region go there, but even that doesn’t compare to anything in the so-called ‘West’ and yes, it is an unfair comparison but it is definitely worth mentioning because it is not a lack of money but a lack of political will to prioritize state education (because the same politicians can afford to send their kids to universities in Europe or North America). Professors are often not paid by the State (y’all think my three month unpaid stint was bad?) so they strike leaving students bored and idle at home. Even when they are paid, their earnings are paltry, to say the least.

Education is elitist- all over the world. Unless you have a privileged upbringing (lower class and up in developed countries, middle class and up in developing countries) and have been pounded about the value of education, you just don’t get it (even some of those who have been pounded still don’t get it!). Going to school is a scary thought for many young people. It’s a competitive place in various senses of the word. A sense of belonging is paramount and if you don’t feel you belong (if you don’t feel you’re smart enough, if you don’t feel you have enough material things to compete at break time, or if you don’t feel you look a certain way), you won’t want to be at school. No one wants to feel stupid, left out or out of place. Unless you’re encouraged and supported, you’re not going anywhere…

So really, at the end of the day, laziness is too simplistic a reason. While it might apply to some people, it does not apply to all, and certainly not to most. And I argue that it definitely does not apply to most Senegalese or other African youth who have to battle against issues that many of us wouldn’t even imagine still exist.

Elections in Senegal

So while I was also in Canada, the Senegalese constitutional council (the country’s highest legal office) that was supposed to decide whether the incumbent President could run for another term in office decided that indeed, he could. Not that any Senegalese was surprised. As mentioned in an earlier post, rumours had it that all the men on the council had had their salaries doubled, along with gifts of new homes, cars, etc. I also foresaw their decision but I was hopeful until the very last moment that maybe, just maybe, they would put their country, their people first. But I was sorely disappointed.

They made their decision on Friday, January 27th  while I was still in Canada and what followed, as was expected were demonstrations where one policeman was killed (unintentionally) in Dakar by rioting youths and two other were killed (also by accident) in another town not too far from Dakar. However, the riots were concentrated in a few pockets of the city such that if you avoided those areas (I suppose, unless you actually lived there and just wanted to go home), you would be okay.

Demonstrations and protests have continued sporadically since then, although just after I returned on the first of February, some were worried that the opposition movement was losing steam as less people were showing up to ‘calls for protests’. But as we draw nearer to the actual election day just in a few days on the 26th of February, the movement has picked up steam again. Last week saw protests perhaps every other day – this week, every day! Protesters want to gather at the city’s ‘Place de l’Independence’ downtown which is also near the Presidential palace but are officially forbidden to do so. So what results are protesters who gather near or around the Place (although they cannot even get there for the police barricades erected around its perimeter) clash with police officers who throw tear gas and pelt them with rubber bullets.

There are two major ‘movements’ or something to that effect. One is led by a group of rappers, community activists, journalists, etc, who seized the momentum just last June 23, 2011 (the day when Dakar sizzled in anger at power cuts and the President’s proposal to erect a new Vice Presidential post and to lower the percentage needed to win the elections) to propell their movement, called ‘Fed Up’ into relevancy. Another is the M23 movement, a coalition of antagonists turned opposition candidates who started out organizing a gathering every 23rd of the month to commemorate the day Dakar sizzled and ultimately, to promote their own campaigns. These two movements often ‘work’ together and are sometimes indistinguishable, except that the rapper duo obviously resonates much more with the youth, especially all the unemployed youth (and Senegal, like many other African countries, has them in the millions) who are just ‘Fed Up’ and they claim to be apolitical, with allegiance only to their country and their people while M23 has become the movement of the opposition political parties. The main gathering spot of these two groups is the Place de l’Obelisque, a place not too far from the university, near some popular neighbourhoods, near where I used to live.

Security-wise, unfortunately, downtown is for the most part, a no-go zone if you don’t have anything urgent to do there (well, I went this past Sunday for a pseudo-urgent errand that almost killed me – more in the next post). Not that it is so dangerous, but that you really never know what’s going to happen.  UN staff (not that I am one, but we get their security warnings at the office) are forbidden from going anywhere near downtown this coming weekend (they have to cover their behinds after all), starting Friday. And every day, they issue some sort of warning after hearing about the possibility of a protest (which until this week almost always never happened or had weak turnout). People who live around downtown/Place de l’Independence with whom I’ve spoken are usually annoyed and have gotten tired of being asked to evict a certain area (meaning cancelling all their activities) only to wait for nothing to happen. So until this week when things got a little more intense around downtown (and even then, there were mere opportunitists burning things so that journalists could have something to film, except the ones who suffer are the street traders/beggars downtown who’ve seens their earnings take a nosedive), people had become ‘protest fatigued’ and were no longer bothering about security warnings.


Saturday July 23 – Anniversary of the day of Discontent, June 23

A very large, peaceful (impressively so) ‘mobilization’ was organized by the opposition to Abdoulaye Wade’s ambition for re-election on July 23. This date was chosen to commemorate June 23, the day of revolt in Senegal when people took to the streets to protest the Presidency’s attempt to pass a bill that would reduce the amount of electoral percentage required to win an election. It was like an open-mike protest. Whoever had anything to say went up to the mike and had their turn. Probably, the most memorable part for me was when a man (I’m not sure if he was a member of the opposition or some other politician) came up to the mike with a red card and said, “a red card for Abdoulaye Wade!” It was both comical and serious at the same time. But it was a peaceful gathering like none I had ever heard of. I actually was not there (too tired from all that dancing the previous night), but watched the proceedings live on television (it was organized from 9am until 2pm). I eventually did step out later in the evening to visit my Senegalese friend that lived nearby around 7pm, and when I got to the mobilization scene there was NO sign that there had been a massive gathering earlier. The only thing happening were the usual evening soccer matches. The only sign that anything out of the ordinary had occurred in the area was an army tank parked in front of my Senegalese friend’s apartment, which was a few blocks from the mobilization scene.

The Dakar obelisk or Place du Nation, the scene of the mobilization - just hours afterwards!

Not to be outperformed, supporters of the president also staged their own ‘mobilization’, although this was planned for between 4 and 8pm in another area of town. It was also broadcast live and attended by the president himself, along with his wife and son. The daughter, as usual, was in absentia. I’ve been told that the daughter is rarely seen in public (fortunately for her, Senegal does not yet have TMZ) and does not appear to be interested in politics, unlike the son/minister who controls an uncanny amount of largely unrelated portfolios. She’s just enjoying their money in private, somewhere in Dakar if I remember correctly. Anyway, the president’s gathering was also broadcasted live, but it was a bit rowdier than the opposition, which to reiterate was perhaps the most peaceful demonstration (for the amount of people present) I have ever seen or heard of. The president’s invited speakers kept saying there were 2.5 million people present, a questionable stat at best. I’m not sure who was really keeping count. From the looks of the crowd, it certainly seemed the opposition had more numbers.

The other interesting thing was the type of people present at the mobilizations. The opposition’s people looked very organized, with lots of young men (and men in general) and people representing all sorts of groups and organizations (as evidenced by placards and printed tshirts), and the odd mom-and-pop group with sloganned t-shirts. The president’s had a greater number of women (perhaps because all their sons were at the opposition’s) and did not seem as unified as the opposition’s. They lacked the passion and fervency that characterized the opposition’s people. My Senegalese friend commented that a lot were probably paid in some way. It may also be that the president did not have time to really mobilize the ‘proper’ people (whoever those are) and he was forced to put together whomever at the last moment. But his crowd was certainly ‘curious’, to say the least.

TV image of the president at his mobilization.

Society in Discontent in Dakar

I arrived in the Dakar on the 28th of June, and apparently, luckily so, as the previous few days had been marred by protests against the president (Abdoulaye Wade) and power outages. It was especially bad, I was told, on the 23rd and 25th of June, when Dakar people took to the streets to protest the president’s tabling of a bill to parliament that would enable one to win an election with 25% of the votes (it was normally 60%) and that would see the installment of a vice-president, something Senegal has presently done without. People were also wary of the president’s seeming intentions to, as it were, “hand over” the presidency to his son, Karim Wade, who is the current Minister of State for International Cooperation, Regional Development, Air Transport, Infrastructure and Energy. How one person can simultaneously handle such diverse portfolios is beyond me! But I suppose they are all related, as thinking so would undoubtedly make them so. Apparently the bill was eventually not tabled on the 23rd as the president had intented. However, people are still unimpressed with the president – many are calling for the disqualification of his candidacy in next year’s elections.

Some of these protests were also against the power outages that have been occuring in Dakar for at least about a year now, outages which began last summer. I myself even attempted, for a few days, to keep a schedule of when the electricity would come on and off to prepare myself, but the schedule just seemed to have no ryhme or reason so I gave up. What I did conclude was that when there was electricity, it would remain for at least two hours, after which anything could happen. One of the issues with lack of electricity in Dakar is the rather high cost of living that removes laziness as a option. So without electricity, many can’t work, and survival becomes a challenge. It also gets rather hot and humid here in June/July so that people use fans or ACs to sleep at night. And it seems like someone has been listening to the people. Even I have noticed a difference in electricity between the past two or three days and the first few days when i arrived. Or perhaps its a honeymoon until the people take to the streets again in protest.

It’s funny when people talk to me about power outages here. I just look at them and I think, “What exactly are you all complaining about?! At least there is electricity for a few hours a day! Have you been to Lagos?!” But I think that’s probably an unfair reaction citing a) the ridiculously high cost of living in Dakar and b) the fact that people have had constant electricity until only a year ago. In Nigeria, I think people have gotten used to the lack of electricity that it has become second nature. No one expects anything to change anymore and the powers that be have seemingly, totally eradicated the agency of the people that people no longer believe in their own collective power. But I can’t even debate Nigerian “power” politics here (no pun intended) – I wouldn’t do it justice, for many better than me have tried and sadly, have failed.

The actual electricity thing, to me, is actually of little consequence. I really only want it at night when I want to sleep to ward off mosquitoes buzzing in my ear. But I plan to invest in some mosquito coils, or use headphones to fill up the vacuum that attracts them. The rest of the day, the sun is bright enough, and at night, I have a flashlight for whatever else I need to do. The stove, not that I’ve used it that much, uses gas, and the refrigerator – well, I really only put something in it yesterday evening, otherwise it’s been empty all along. I would need electricity to plug my computer for the internet, but I can’t afford internet. Besides, they have the portable internet usb keys which is what I would buy if affordability was not an issue.

I try to be conscious and use the AC and electricity (when it does come) sparingly, but apparently, it matters little for they get billed anyway! Either way, the AC makes so much noise that I think it exceeds my daily decibel allowance so I can’t sensibly have it on all the time. Ahh…the joys of Africa.