In his televised address on 3 April, on the eve of the bank holidays, Macky Sall, in power since 2012, promised to respond to the demands of young people, ensuring an envelope of 450 billion CFA francs (675 million euros) for employment over three years, including 150 billion in 2021. The leader is trying to calm the situation since the outbreak of demonstrations, from 3 to 8 March, led by young people, following the arrest of the opponent Ousmane Sonko. This uprising, which left at least 15 people dead and many injured, revealed a youth angry at a government that is deaf to their demands and their cry of alarm against unemployment. Cheikh Fall, a keen observer of African youth and coordinator of the Africtivist network, which advocates democracy in Africa, gives his analysis of the situation.
Beyond the Sonko affair, how do you explain the popular revolt of young people last March against the government?
Cheikh Fall, coordinator of the Afriktivists network
Cheikh Fall, coordinator of the Afriktivist network
What happened is nothing more than the expression of the frustrations and disappointments of young people, who feel that they are not listened to by the authorities. Senegal is known as a democratic country, but one has the impression that those who were elected in 2012 have forgotten those aspects of democracy which are communication, listening, dialogue and also empathy. We are living and going through the same situations as in 2012. The situation of young people has not improved and on top of that they feel the absence of the state and justice in the country. There is a feeling among young people that democratic gains are being regressed. We must not forget that the young people who elected Macky Sall in 2012 are now heads of families and leaders. They are no longer young and are part of the active life of the nation.
On the other hand, the younger brothers of the young people who elected Macky Sall are as mature and responsible as those who threw Abdoulaye Wade out of power. We must listen to these young people who are growing up in a connected environment and in a world of collective intelligence, who know what the Tunisians or the Algerians are doing for their democracy. All these revolts are reaching the ears of young people here, who live 400 kilometres from Dakar, because they can access this type of information and content via social networks. So there is no longer a political elite that has a monopoly on thinking, on democratic vision, or on a development agenda.
The future must be built together with active listening to the leaders. But it was the absence of all this that led to the fall of Ibrahima Boubacar Keita in Mali. It was also the absence of listening that almost set France ablaze at one point with the yellow waistcoats, prompting President Macron to set up citizen consultations. Today, it is time in Senegal for our leaders to understand that they are not elected to have a hand in the destinies of the citizens and do as they please. We need to move towards a co-construction and co-organisation of the country, involving all the actors of society to achieve common goals. It is for all these reasons that young people have taken to the streets.
What is your view on the unprecedented level of violence during this uprising, where clashes between the police and the demonstrators were recurrent?
Violence is not the forte of the Senegalese. But during the events of March, this violence expressed bitterness, a feeling of rejection, disdain, and lack of empathy on the part of the authorities. The President’s latest outing on the Covid-19 vaccination campaign is testimony to this. He found nothing else to do but threaten the Senegalese, telling them that if they refuse to be vaccinated, he will offer the vaccines to another country. This reflects a form of divorce between the citizens and the administration which has now led to this form of violent demonstration by young people.
What was the strategy of the youth during this uprising, which was very different from 2012?
The strategy of the youth during this uprising is very different from 2012. Because in 2012 it was a social movement led by known actors from civil society, such as artists and politicians, who made young people aware of the need to say no and to be outside in the face of a failure to respect democracy. On the other hand, what many people have not understood about this youth revolt from 3 to 8 March is that it is a Tik Tok and Twitter revolution. It was not the media that informed the youth of what was happening.
The authorities cut the signal of two television stations, but this did not stop the Senegalese from being aware of the situation, because today there is a revolution of Facebook lives, or of the hasgtag Freesénégal which has flooded Tik Tok and Twitter. These young people, who are between 12 and 18 years old and not even old enough to vote yet, are making videos that are going viral and calling on their brothers and sisters to come out and demand a more real democracy and more justice. It is not the person of Ousmane Sonko or the fact of the politicians, but the juxtaposition of several elements that made them come out. With the internet everything that is done is known at the same time. On social networks, there are influencers with millions of followers, who carry messages of hope and advocate democracy.
Today, it is this form of information that is based on facts, i.e. filming something in a raw way. It is all of this that made it impossible to channel the crowd movements, because it was not a matter of gathering in a place like the Place de la Nation, but spontaneous movements. As the videos and tweets went viral and the Facebook posts reached the maximum target, more and more young people came out. And when they found themselves on the streets they expressed their weariness of the harsh environment they have lived in for years.
The youths attacked and looted French stores such as Auchan. How do you interpret these attacks?
It reflects a sense of independence and sovereignty that has been compromised. The messages of some influencers and opinion leaders have been heard by young people. It’s not just messages, but also signals and experiences. When we see that the President speaks more to the Western media than to the local media, or that he spends more time offering condolences to his European friends and partners while we do not hear him on the young people who perish at sea, trying to reach the European coasts, this increases the frustrations.
These young people are frustrated when they see that contracts are given to French companies. Even if they offer employment to Senegalese, they are discredited and criticised by some economists because it is not done in the right way. When these young people see the attention that the authorities pay to France or the French President, while they turn their backs on their demands. When they see how the authorities react when they are in France, pretending to be democrats, when they do not care about the well-being of their people, all this creates a feeling of frustration with a country and interests in the nation that are mortgaged.
Even if in fact there is absolutely nothing to justify the vandalism, it should send a message to the authorities that the people and these young people are very informed. These are young people who aspire to have a certain sovereignty, economic legitimacy and mutual respect with partner countries. We appeal to all young people: breaking, raping and looting is not demonstrating. It is vandalism. Demonstrating can be done without affecting the interests of others. I hope that this message will be heard and that from now on, relations with the people will be in the interest of the nation.
What are the main difficulties of Senegalese youth?
The main difficulties facing young people today are employment, training and basic education. The fact that young people are abandoning public schools, or this form of clan system at the level of education and higher education, is frustrating for the people. Parents cannot afford to send their children to public schools and feel that they will not get a good education. This feeling reflects a failure on the part of the authorities to address the aspirations of young people. The problem for young people is that they are not listened to, that decisions are made in their place and that they are never involved in decision-making or reflection bodies.
We always speak in the place of young people. Young people must be listened to in order to participate in the elaboration of the development and political agendas of the nation. Today, the only examples of youth representation are the national youth council, or sport in the neighbourhoods… This is not enough. Today, these young people are in an open and interconnected world. Even if these young people are frustrated. These young people have more democratic aspirations than the political elite.
What are the concrete solutions to be put in place to allow young people to have a future?
Politicians must find answers that allow these young people to express themselves. They must provide a framework that allows them to express their talent. In Senegal, when Covid-19 arrived, it was young people who mobilised to carry out awareness campaigns, to create robots, to distribute hydroalcoholic gels, to make masks and to make volunteers available to hospitals and health centres to help. These are the young people who have come out to express their discontent and anger because they don’t feel involved in political agendas. The answer is to listen and then work out joint programmes with these young people to enable them to put their talent and expertise at the service of their nation.