The road towards Palmarin, in the Saloum Delta, one of our favourite destinations for long weekends away from Dakar, has been transformed. It used to involve 35 kilometres of driving on sandy tracks — or beside them, as is so often the case here, because of the many potholes. Today we zip along paved roads. We used to be stuck in traffic for hours on Sunday evenings on the national road in Bargny, a prelude to the traffic jam in Rufisque, before passing through a bottleneck, and finally arriving on the peninsula on which the city of Dakar sprawls. Today we speed into the centre of the city down a toll motorway.
Claus-Dieter König directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Dakar Office.
Macky Sall, President of Senegal since 2012, is quick to point out these achievements: the infrastructure in rural areas has improved and paved roads make it easier to market agricultural produce. Villages that until recently only knew the light of flashlights and paraffin lamps after sunset now have electricity. This is a relief, not least for artisans.
Behind the façade of progress, however, there are many problems that Macky Sall is leaving to his successor to tackle.
Snapshots from Dakar
Anyone travelling to Dakar will encounter a burgeoning city. Stylish, high-rise residential blocks are springing up in once quiet neighbourhoods of detached houses with large gardens. One of these neighbourhoods is Mermoz, where the Dakar office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation office is located. Rents and property prices have skyrocketed. The street in front of the office, which used to have very little traffic and where my daughter could still ride her scooter a few years ago, is now clogged every evening with drivers who think they can avoid the traffic jams on the parallel main road by detouring through this residential area. This tactic is becoming less and less effective — and not just here, side streets everywhere are clogged with traffic during rush hour.
Growth rates of 6 percent allow Sall to claim that he has developed Senegal economically. However, this growth is not reaching those at the bottom. On the contrary: many are currently feeling the effects of rising prices for basic goods and rents, which are forcing long-time residents out of their homes. It is true that poverty is more visible in other African countries than in the Senegalese metropolis. Slums like Kibera or Mukuru, in Nairobi, do not exist in Dakar. Despite this, entire families still live in makeshift houses of wood and corrugated iron. These provide no protection in the rainy season, and residents are often left standing in water in their own homes. These corrugated iron shacks are usually located in backyards and so are not visible from the street.
The situation of the vast majority of the country’s workers can be described using snapshots. For example: Senegalese culture places a high value on dressing well. Thus, it is hard to imagine that the young woman wearing a smart dress and a fashionable wig on her way to work lives with a dozen other members of her extended family in a 20-square-metre room in one of the suburbs. Although she does not have to commute that far to work, she often spends more than an hour each way in the so-called Car Rapide, the colourfully painted minibus that is part of Dakar’s cultural heritage.
The Car, too, gets stuck in the rush-hour traffic jams, as it avoids the toll road to save on costs. However, the woman cannot afford a different method of transport: her job at a modern call centre, where she works for the European market, still only pays her a low wage.
A few months ago, I helped a family of my wife’s relatives move to a suburb of Dakar. The husband works as a guard for a security company, the wife as a cook in a kindergarten. Together they earn around 300 euro per month. Security guards work 12-hour shifts. The father of the family has to leave the house at 4:30 in order to get to work on time, as traffic builds up early in the morning — it often takes him more than three hours to get home during rush hour.
A large proportion of Senegalese women are experiencing economic change mainly through the disappearance of their sources of income. For example, fishmeal factories are replacing the artisanal processing of fish, which in Senegal is traditionally the domain of women.
The family moved from the inner Dakar district of Ouakam to a village about 30 kilometres outside the city. There they built a tiny house on a small plot of land. It still has no windows or electricity — that will have to wait until they have some money left over. The floor is made of clay and will be tiled when the windows are installed. More and more people cannot afford the rapidly rising rents in Dakar and are moving to the suburbs. For many, being poor here means having no time for anything other than wage labour and long commutes in the Car Rapide.
Even the wealthy spend hours in traffic jams. They are also moving out of the city centre because they cannot afford the property prices. A new service is the TER, a modern suburban train that runs from the historic station in the city centre to Diamniadio, the new administrative and industrial centre 35 kilometres outside Dakar. The United Nations recently inaugurated its new building there, and industrial facilities are already in place, with ministries to follow. A regional train will soon connect with the airport. Additionally, an express bus line is being constructed servicing the northern suburbs of Dakar, where the majority of the city’s population resides.
The toll motorway, the TER, and the express bus line may bring some relief to the traffic situation, but the city of 4 million still lacks a comprehensive public transport concept. No adequate service is provided for “normal low-income earners” (I say “normal” because people on low incomes represent the majority of the population). A journey on the TER costs around ten times as much as on the Car Rapide. The government has announced that the express bus fee will cost around three times as much, and for many people the toll is either costly or prohibitive. Ultimately, the new transport developments remain prestige projects with limited impact.
Poverty Is on the Rise
Without government-led redistribution, the touted economic growth means nothing to the majority of the population. Such redistribution is nowhere on the horizon. The social infrastructure, especially in rural areas, also remains inadequate. This incudes schools and healthcare. There can be as few as two teachers for a village with 150 children. School only goes up to the sixth grade. Many families lack the money for learning materials, and as a result some children, especially girls, leave school early. Too many people still die from curable diseases because there are no medical centres or hospitals, or these lack necessary equipment. People can seldom afford treatment and only a small portion of the population has health insurance.
Conversely, a large proportion of Senegalese women are experiencing economic change mainly through the disappearance of their sources of income. For example, fishmeal factories are replacing the artisanal processing of fish, which in Senegal is traditionally the domain of women. There are also new ports being planned for areas where women have hitherto made a living from this work.
In November, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation organized a climate school in Saint-Louis, the historic capital and fishing region in the north of the country. We learned that the facilities for gas extraction off the coast, which will become operational this year, are already drastically reducing the yields of the local fishing communities, which are putting up fierce opposition. The corporations are also throwing their weight around in the cities. French supermarket chain Auchan is waging a price war with food retailers in traditional food markets — and winning. The site of the former locally run Malian Market in Dakar is now home to the Musée des Civilisations Noires and the National Theatre — two other prestigious projects that Sall took over from his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade.
And then there are the effects of climate change. These affect fishing communities through the accelerating extinction of species, but also through storm surges that wash away their homes. As rainfall becomes less reliable, agriculture is also affected. Yet the Sall government is not addressing this at all — the people affected are neither being compensated nor are there any attempts to find them alternative sources of income.
Macky Sall’s presidency has also seen a continuous increase in Senegal’s foreign debt, especially in the last six years. The country is now facing a debt crisis. The economic record of Sall’s term in office is therefore extremely poor.
A Democratic Farce
Two of Senegal’s neighbours, Guinea and Mali, are currently ruled by the military, as are the West African countries of Burkina Faso and Niger. Senegal, on the other hand, is considered stable. But under Macky Sall, the country is not as democratic as it is often proclaimed to be in the West. Opposition journalists are in jail, as are young people whose only crime was taking part in a demonstration six months ago. Also in prison are several people who announced their candidacy for the presidency, most notably opposition candidate Ousmane Sonko, who was not allowed to stand in the elections originally scheduled for February 2024, which have now been delayed. Opposition demonstrations have been met with increasing state violence, particularly in the last three years.
Already in the lead-up to the 2019 presidential election, Sall managed to use court convictions to prevent the only two serious contenders for the presidency from running. This time around, the president is paving the way for his protege Amadou Ba by eliminating or obstructing his competitors. In addition to Sonko, another promising candidate, Karim Wade, was barred from running because he allegedly did not renounce his French citizenship in time (candidates are only allowed to have Senegalese citizenship).
The number of people leaving Senegal is higher than ever. These are people who have no hope that the change of president will improve their situation — neither economically nor politically.
Macky Sall has also used collective punishment to combat opposition and protest. Cheikh Anta Diop University, for example, has been closed since June 2023. Its students are among those taking to the streets to demand their democratic rights. The closure of the university means that 40,000 students, who would otherwise be living in the university’s dormitories, are currently not in Dakar. This is by design, as it means they can no longer mobilize against the government. In total, more than 90,000 students are being prevented from continuing their studies.
Another instance of collective punishment is that the ferry connection between Ziguinchor and Dakar has been suspended since protests began in June 2023. Ziguinchor is the most important town in the Casamance region. Its mayor is the same Ousmane Sonko who is challenging President Sall and enjoys widespread support among the Senegalese population. In the summer, protests in the region were particularly fierce. The lack of a ferry connection increases the cost of transporting products from Dakar to Ziguinchor and, in turn, raises the cost of living in the area, further fuelling the resentment towards the central government.
Growing Refugee Movement
As part of our climate school in November, I met Fadel Wade, a climate activist from Bargny Close to Dakar, the town is a site where Senegal’s sharpening contradictions are becoming apparent. A coal-fired power plant, shut down due to public opposition, now stands where women used to process fish. Fishermen find fewer fish due to the planned new port, and toxic dust from the nearby cement factory settles on the harvest in the fields. These are just some of the challenges. When we met, Fadel was mourning family members who had drowned while trying to reach the Canary Islands on one of the fishing boats. Bargny has been deserted, he said. The youth have left; many want to leave the country.
Senegal’s government is responding to the wave of emigration by increasing control of the seas. Helicopters are being deployed to locate and turn back boats. When in doubt, police officers even shoot at people boarding boats. As on all escape routes, where controls and patrols are intensified, the risk and costs grow. People have begun trying to make their way via the Sahara, away from the main transport axes and with few sources of water.
The boats are also venturing into more perilous seas. Both on the boats and the desert, death is a constant presence — and this is also due to the European Union’s efforts to discourage migration. The fact that this barely functions as a deterrent demonstrates the level of frustration and despair among the youth, who face a lack of prospects in Senegal.
Currently, the number of people leaving Senegal is higher than ever. These are people who have no hope that the change of president will improve their situation — neither economically nor politically.
Macky Sall rules a country that, on the surface, appears to be in good shape. A closer look reveals the parlous social situation for the majority of the population — and the reason why so many try to leave. These people have already voted with their feet and in the boats, and many have paid for this with their lives or by being profoundly traumatized. This is not a success story. The country is facing difficult times.
Translated by Juan Diego Otero and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.