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Letter from Senegal

Photos by Michael Busch.
Photos by Michael Busch.

Beneath this half-completed section of highway overpass on the dusty outskirts of Dakar, Moussa spreads his arms widely and raises them to the concrete slab above his head. “This is what the tycoon classes want for Senegal!” he announces with theatrical triumph. “New roads for their new cars!”  Then, with his arms lowered, he leans closer and says seriously, “But this is not what we want. We do not need new roads. We need to eat.” 

My English-speaking companion has brought me to this lonely stretch to illustrate the incongruity between government priorities and the reality of everyday need in Senegal. While the construction of the country’s first tolled thoroughfare consumes hundreds of millions in federal monies and World Bank loans, the frenetic struggle of ordinary Dakarois plays out on the nearby city streets. There, men and women scramble to hawk trinkets, bootleg perfumes and counterfeit watches. Their industry and persistence is impressive.

“Senegalese, we work hard but cannot afford anymore to buy even rice. Imagine, rice!  Our main dish!  Things have gotten worse.”     

Moussa, a cell phone technician of unusually slender blend, has strong opinions when it comes to food. And with good reason: Food security has become the issue of chief consequence throughout the country as increasingly expensive commodities have been met with stagnating incomes and rising unemployment. With few social protections from the state, the crunch has disproportionately affected the lives of the poor, and disgruntled, majority.  

Tensions came to a head a year ago when locals took to Dakar’s streets in protest of precipitously rising food prices. Wearing t-shirts with “We Are Hungry” boldly stenciled across the chest, hundreds of protesters marched downtown where they were met with tear gas and police batons. Undeterred by the violent state response, activists returned a month later in substantially greater numbers to demand government subsidized foodstuffs and the president’s resignation.     

Since then, the situation has grown direr as shockwaves from the global economic crisis have begun to strike the country. Hopes that the decline in oil prices would in turn lower the cost of agricultural commodities have not been realized. Last summer brought with it a 74 percent jump in prices throughout the country’s urban centers. And at market today, bags of rice continue to cost double the amount than a year and a half ago. More troubling still, people have even less money to spend than before.

“After the rising price of food, declining remittances are the most serious threat to Senegal’s economic stability,” a Dakar-based UN officer tells me over breakfast one morning. “Local people depend on them.”  While the World Bank estimates that remittances account for nearly 9 percent of the country’s annual GDP, the actual amounts of money flowing to Senegal from overseas workers are likely double that amount.

That is, until recently. Whatever the actual numbers, remittances are sharply down since the onset of the global downturn. With Senegalese workers overseas facing the threat of unemployment and rising cost of living, “Migrants are sending less money, or they are sending it less often—once every three months instead of once a month,” according to Monsour Tall of the U.N.’s Habitat program. Speaking with the BBC recently, Tall noted that “The effect is very dramatic because the fall in remittances has arrived at the same time as last year’s sharp rise in prices.” 

The net result finds average Senegalese hungrier and at increased risk. UNICEF’s Senegal office reports that the financial crisis has rendered an additional 20,000 households—roughly 200,000 people—across the country food-insecure. With reduced access to food, families are forced to eat less frequently, meals are smaller, and nourishing ingredients are replaced with less healthy substitutes. One solution to combat these desperate measures lies in increased government intervention in the form of food handouts, credit initiatives and programs to revitalize domestic agricultural production.

Such interventions, of course, require substantial investment, which may not be forthcoming in the current international environment. Reduced foreign aid, upon which Senegal relies heavily, is “the third threat to Senegal’s future stability,” my U.N. contact tells me at breakfast. “It is far from clear that governments will continue to give as in the past,” he says between bites of a croissant. “We will see.” 

In the meantime, turbulence marks the political landscape. Senegal boasts a proud tradition of consistently successful democracy. The country has enjoyed repeated, peaceful transitions of power following elections, and has never known a military coup. Perhaps most significantly, the government recently made peace—albeit a fragile one—with separatists in the southern reaches of Casamance. Current developments, however, have revealed cracks in what is widely considered a solid foundation. 

I arrived in Senegal shortly after the country’s March elections, a critical round of nationwide voting marked by fears of violent eruption. For many observers, the regional and local outcomes amounted to a referendum on the ruling party’s performance in advance of the presidential election in 2012. But while minor episodes of violence and intimidation were reported in the weeks before polling, election day itself passed peacefully without incident.

Still, the results were a slap in the face to President Abdoulaye Wade’s ruling Sopi party, a coalition that came to power in 2000 promising “change” and that, up until recently, has enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Skyrocketing food costs, rising unemployment, and creeping suspicions that the elderly president is grooming his son Karim to assume power, however, produced dramatic defeats of Sopi all across the country, including in the president’s power base, Dakar.

The introduction of Karim Wade as a possible successor to his father’s office was met with public skepticism and distrust. It was widely assumed that Karim would take a seat on Dakar’s municipal council, then quickly rise through the regional ranks, and run for the presidency in 2012, all without any significant public service. Dakar’s Sopi mayor promoted this perception by publicly promising to hand over his office to Karim in the event of victory. The opposition successfully built on this doubt by painting the Wades as a monarchy in the making, and a threat to the country’s solid political tradition.

“This isn’t the United States,” Oumar, a civil servant, tells me excitedly as we share the backseat of a taxi making impressively slow progress through downtown Dakar’s interminable gridlock. “Here, the people do not allow for the son to follow the father into power. It does not matter what Wade wants. The people decide. Senegal is a democracy.” 

That may be, but while Sopi was taken to the cleaners on the whole, Karim eeked out a victory for his municipal seat. At the same time, the opposition’s capture of a majority of Dakar’s local offices, including the mayorship, effectively shut the door on Karim’s political ambitions—at least for the moment.  Whatever the future holds for the younger Wade, it is clear that his road to power will not be paved with public complacency. But does it matter? 

“Wade, not Wade, the problem is the same,” Oumar says later that evening. “Life here is expensive.” We sit in his modest but beautifully decorated home where I have been invited for more talk and a bite to eat. Not surprisingly, our discussion has returned to the topic of food.

“In Senegal, we eat rice at every meal. Rice with fish, rice with chicken, rice with vegetables. And we import all of it from Asia. Senegal can grow rice also. We need to learn how to do it more efficiently.” When I ask Oumar about the prospects of government subsidies and loans to the country’s rice farmers, he agrees that state investment would help. Will it ever happen, I ask. “I don’t know,” he says. “It will be expensive, and the government makes money from taxing the imports. It will be no different afer Wade.”

Just then, Oumar’s pregnant wife enters the room carrying a large silver plater heaped with a steaming portion of rice with fish. It smells divine. She places the dish on the floor, leaves, and quickly returns with a basket of bread. Oumar takes a spot cross-legged next to the food, and beckons me to join him. “Come, let’s forget politics and enjoy what we have for tonight.”  With that, we each tear a piece of bread from the loaf and scoop up some food from the plate. Oumar raises his up in toast, and I do the same in return. “Welcome to Senegal, Michael. Bon appetit.”


Michael Busch

Michael Busch is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at the CUNY Graduate Center.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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