The protests may have stopped, but the embers of discontent continue to smoulder in Senegal

The protests may have stopped, but the embers of discontent continue to smoulder in Senegal

Young men take to the streets of Kolda in southern Senegal on 5 March 2021. Although the protests were initially triggered by the arrest of leading opposition politician Ousmane Sonko, they were also a response to widening inequality, government corruption and strict anti-Covid-19 lockdown measures.

(Ibrahima Balde)

The sun was at its zenith when the throng of young men arrived at the gendarme station on the outskirts of the town of Diaobé in southern Senegal on Saturday 6 March. They blocked off the road with burning tyres, scaled the low walls, and pried open the metal gate of the militarised police station. While Commandant Babacar Moussa Diallo was whisked out the back by armed soldiers, security services fired into the crowd, killing an 18-year-old student named Sadio Camara and severely wounding seven others. Over the next few hours, the post was stripped of anything useful by residents, who left only broken glass, twisted metal bars and blackened buildings.

While attention was mostly focused on the capital city of Dakar and the heavy-handed government response to last month’s protests in Senegal, which left at least 10 people dead and scores injured, in Upper Casamance in the south of the country, protests about party politics became an opportunity to express deep-seated grievances over economic stagnation and perceptions of government neglect and abuse, leading to the destruction of a string of government buildings across the region.

Upper Casamance refers to the regions of Kolda and Sédhiou and sits between Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Guinea. Cross border trade and wide kinship networks make this part of Senegal more connected to its neighbours across the border than to Dakar. According to government statistics, the region also contains the highest proportion of people living in poverty, and has some of the lowest rates of children registered with the government. Only one paved road crosses the region and most communities lack regular electricity supply.

The immediate spark for the protests across Senegal was ignited on 3 March when leading opposition politician Ousmane Sonko was arrested on his way to court in Dakar to answer to charges of rape.

The days following his arrest were punctuated by protests in around 25 urban areas across the country, most of which were initially organised by Sonko’s political party, who say that his arrest was politically motivated as the 2024 elections get closer. While most of these protests did not escalate beyond burning tyres in the street and exchanging projectiles with police, in a handful of situations – over half of which happened in the south – what began as a rally in support of Sonko evolved into attacks on government buildings and security services firing on citizens.

“The Ousmane Sonko affair just opened the door,” says Souleymane Ba, a 30-year-old motorcycle taxi-driver in Kolda’s regional capital (which is also called Kolda). Ba’s comments were reflected by almost everyone across the region. “Us youth are tired, and frustrated,” he continues. “We are all struggling with many hardships so people took advantage of the Ousmane Sonko protests to take to the streets.”

While unemployment is a problem across Senegal, it is most acute in the urban areas of the south, where, according to a 2017 study by the Senegalese government, the unemployment rate is over double the likely understated national average of 2.9 per cent. While there is fertile land and water, without tractors and other inputs it is hard to eke out a living with an ever-shortening rainy season. Apart from the parastatal cotton factory that employs a few hundred people a year, the region has no industrial base. “If you’re lucky a friend or family helps you work in a shop or buy merchandise from elsewhere to sell here,” explains Ba. “Otherwise you drive a motorcycle taxi and hope you can make enough to bring some home for your family.”

“It’s like we’re not a part of Senegal”

Nuha Badjie is the director of a government-run trade school in Kolda, established as part of the government’s plan to reduce youth unemployment. Sitting in his cramped office Badjie explains that each year around 60 students graduate from the centre with certificates in plumbing, electrical engineering and mechanics. While he says the government has made huge investments in trying to help young people, he admits that many of their graduates have a hard time finding work. “If you’re trained but not given the materials to succeed, you’re back in your initial position.”

In a region with few opportunities, migrating to Europe is seen by many as the best option to support their families. While speaking to Equal Times, motorcycle-taxi driver Souleymane casually mentions that he also tried to migrate to Europe over a decade ago. “We got in a little boat in Mauritania, but were arrested by the coast guards,” he recalls. “I just wanted a better life for myself and would have done anything to attain it.” Today he still struggles to support his family 250 CFA (approximately US$0.45) per trip.

As if that were not enough, over the past year the Covid pandemic has worsened this already dire situation. While Senegal has been lauded for its public health response to the pandemic, the impacts of the global slowdown and the government’s response has been deeply felt in urban areas. According to People & Data, a Senegalese market analytics firm, the drop in informal work has been most pronounced in the southern regions of Kolda and Ziguinchor, where cross-border trading is a large part of the economy.

While unemployment and the pandemic-related economic slowdown have contributed to a general feeling of malaise among many young people, those who took part in demonstrations and attacks on government facilities also spoke to a deep disillusionment with the state.

“The way the politicians in Dakar and the government services here treat us,” says Alpha Omar Diallo, a street vendor in Diaobé, “it’s like we’re not a part of Senegal.”

This sentiment is most pronounced in Diaobé, a town of around 30,000 people that sits on the main east-west road across Kolda region and is known for its weekly market, which draws people from neighbouring countries. According to a local human rights activist, the protest in Diaobé started at the petrol station on Saturday morning, after the demonstrations had already climaxed in Dakar. After setting the petrol station on fire, the crowd of mostly young men, including many motorcycle taxi drivers, went to the mayor’s office and began throwing stones at the windows. They then marched across town, chased out the gendarme, burnt his personal possessions, and stripped the post bare.

“We went to the gendarmerie because the commander, Diallo, had been bringing hardship with the mask mandate,” says Abdoulrahman Barry, a 28-year-old who ferries people around Diaobé on his uncle’s motorcycle for a living. Barry says that since the pandemic broke out, officers have been fining people between 6,000 (approximately US$10.90) and 12,000 CFA (US$21.80) for not wearing masks. While law enforcement officials can charge between 3,000 (S$5.45) and 30,000 CFA (US$54.50), they generally charge the minimum penalty in other places. Everyone Equal Times spoke with in Diaobé mentioned the strict imposition of the mask mandate.

Abusive state agents

While complaints about abusive state agents are strongest in Diaobé, they resonate across the region. In the Upper Casamance especially, “many people don’t trust the state and don’t like civil servants,” says Vincent Foucher, a researcher on West African politics at Science Po in Bordeaux. As he points out, in a region where the economy is based on cross border trade and forestry products (of varying degrees of legality), the state is most present as “customs officers and forestry officers, the kind of people that pester you when you go about your business.”

As word of what was happening in Diaobé spread to neighbouring towns through WhatsApp and Facebook, a group of students and motorcycle taxi drivers in the neighbouring town of Kounkane began moving between various government offices and the houses of their functionaries, threatening to burn them down. The next day further up the road in Manda Doaune, the housing for the gendarme, the customs, and the forestry service were set on fire.

Djiby Fall is a schoolteacher in Kounkane and was among a group of community leaders who confronted the protesters and convinced them not to set anything on fire. They were successful until one group split off and vandalized a school on the edge of town.

While expressing sympathy for the situation many young people find themselves in, Fall points out that burning local government offices destroys the limited official paperwork people have, “and without those papers you are nothing to the government”.

By the time President Macky Sall finally addressed the nation on the evening of 8 March, the cinders had cooled in Upper Casamance and community cleaning crews were removing debris from the streets. A few weeks later, while everyone was quick to denounce the destruction to this foreign reporter, many also identified with the protesters’ motivations. Meanwhile military trucks were more visibly parked on the side of the road and customs officials were scrutinising identification more seriously than in the past.

Fall and others in Kounkane have since held a series of meeting with local officials to try to find ways to address the youth’s complaints, but he says unless that the government focuses on jobs, young people will continue to struggle at home and attempt to migrate elsewhere. In his speech on the evening of 8 March President Sall said that he understood the youth’s frustrations and has since announced plans to finance an emergency employment programme. Yet a month after the protests, Abdoulrahman Barry remains unconvinced: “We just want to be able to support our families and for the government to help us instead of obstruct us…isn’t that how a government is supposed to work?”