The young people who want to stay and change Senegal
New generations stand up to the government and seek to break with the French colonial legacy
Dakar (Senegal)On the streets of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, it is easy to find these days French supermarket chain Auchan's shop windows broken. It is not only in Dakar, in fact: you can also find it in cities like Mbour, about 80 kilometres south of the capital; or in Thies, 70 kilometers east. And it's not just Auchan supermarkets: it's also mobile phone company Orange's shops, or clothing stores linked to the Zara brand, or television and newspaper buildings close to the government, which were set on fire. These are the scars of the of the unprecedented wave of protests that Senegal experienced in early March, which according to the opposition ended with the death of 13 demonstratos.
The trigger for those days of anger was the arrest of Ousman Sonko, an opposition leader who was particularly popular among young people. Throughout the country, especially in Dakar and the Casamance region, the Senegalese - especially young people - took advantage of this episode to express their anger against the government, which they blame for the lack of future prospects in the country, linked to an economic crisis aggravated by the pandemic, to cases of corruption that affect the executive, through to the cuts in freedoms promoted by the president, whom they suspect of wanting to perpetuate himself in office, which he came to nine years ago. The protests dragged on for days, until Sonko was released, but the unrest, like the scars of the riots, is still very visible on the country's streets.
It is seven o'clock in the evening and at Cheikh Anta Diop University, the country's main university and one of the most important in Africa, young people are leaving class and heading home. Outside the building, the police presence is particularly high, possibly because the university students were one of the most active groups during the demonstrations. Three boys, two philosophy students and a geography student, stop. "Sonko? Of course we support Sonko. We need a change, this government is corrupt and doesn't think about young people," says one of them, who says he took part in the demonstrations. "The president [Macky Sall] looks like a dictator. He's changed since he came to power, and we've had enough," says another, Magatte Sarr, 20. But the feeling is that, above all, their unease centres on the lack of opportunities to progress in their country. "We are studying now, but what will happen when we finish? There is no work. I don't want to get on a skiff because it's dangerous, but I understand that many do," Sarr continues.
Another young man joins the conversation. He is 28 years old, his name is Cheikh Diokj and he explains that he has studied a degree and a master's degree and is now doing a PhD. "I've always been at the top of the class, I've done what needs to be done, and I can't find a job. We put in a lot of effort, and there's no reward." He assures that many friends of his who have earned a degree at this same university are now working as security guards at supermarkets or manning the pumps at petrol stations. "Here you only work in important places if you have contacts or if you come from Europe," he concludes.
And this last point is interesting. One of the attributes that young Senegalese people value most in Sonko is his rupturist discourse with the French colonial legacy, still present in Senegal, and with the foreign tentacles that, according to him, condition the growth of African countries. The 45-year-old opposition leader has repeatedly denounced the plundering of the continent's resources: he often recalls that 80% of the Senegalese economy is in foreign hands or denounces the French presence in the Sahel, which he considers is not a response to the fight against jihadism but to the desire to retain influence. For all of this he blames the president, whom he sees as incapable of breaking with these links and committing to "courageous" policies that reinforce the pro-Africanism that he defends.
This explains why, during the protests in early March, French companies such as Auchan and other foreign companies were the target of the demonstrators' anger.
"I don't want to leave"
In the afternoon, as the sun sets and the heat eases, Dakar's beaches fill with young people taking exercise. Some run from one end of the beach to the other, others do push-ups or play football. There are even those who practice Senegalese wrestling, which is very popular in the country. The girls use the street furniture to do sit-ups. Many of them, in fact, are university students who get together to play sports in the afternoon, after classes are over
While taking a break between exercises, Malick Seye agrees to talk. "This government is rotten. We have to break the link with France once and for all. You know, our president does everything Macron tells him to do," he says. Sonko seems like a good solution to him, but the feeling is that any name would seem better to him than Macky Sall. "I'm studying engineering. I have friends who are going to be lawyers and businessmen. Why do outside companies have to come in and keep it all?" he says. Then he points to his cell phone. "We're not like our parents anymore. We are connected: we know what's going on, how you live and how we live," he reflects, while joking about the problems in Europe with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
"I don't want to leave. I want to live well in my country." Certainly, there are many Senegalese who, in desperation, throw themselves into the ocean and risk their lives to try to reach the Canary Islands. But there are also many, like Malick Seye, who want to bring change to Senegal, a country that wants to grow. It has the ingredients to do so and a population with an average age of 18.
This is part of an ARA series on Senegal. Other articles deal with the young Senegalese who are willing to risk their lives to come to Europe and big multinational fishing companies active in Senegal.