The people of Senegal are out in protest over President Abdoulaye Wade’s efforts to manipulate the country’s constitution, writes Sokari Ekine in this week’s round-up of African uprisings. Ekine also discusses the continuing public sector strikes in Botswana and the creation of an online collective of activists opposed to Equatoguinean President Obiang Nguema’s rule. nThe winds of revolution from “Arabic” countries are blowing towards Senegal. Indeed the head of the press group Walfadjri [fr] just kicked it off. In a press conference on Thursday, Sidy Lamine Niasse called all Senegalese to a demonstration on March 19 – the anniversary of the Senegalese political alternative – to denounce the injustice reigning in the country. The sit-in will take place at the Protêt square or the independence square, rechristened the highly symbolic name of ‘Tahrir square’ by Sidy Lamine Niasse’ (translated into English – http://bit.ly/lA90ve)
A further statement made on the website Afrik explained the disillusionment of the youth with 40 years of mismanagement, corruption, rising prices, high unemployment and most importantly the belief that President Abdoulaye Wade was seeking to change the constitution to allow him a third term and priming his son Karim to succeed. The statement also condemned the arrest of rap group Keur Gui after their denouncement of the president and his failures (http://bit.ly/lA90ve).
On 19 March 3,000–5,000 protesters gathered in Independence Square in what turned out to be a peaceful rally despite the government announcement the night before that it had foiled an attempted coup and made 15 arrests. Many doubted the truth of this and felt it was a ploy to destabilise the protests by reaching out to nationalist sympathies. This may have worked as a separate group of some 10,000 demonstrators marched to the presidential palace in support of Wade.
Three months later on 23 June thousands of Senegalese in cities across the country and from all walks of life took to the streets with the chant ‘Don’t touch my constitution’ in opposition to a proposed law which would allow a presidential candidate to take power with just 25 per cent of the vote and create a vice-president which people fear would be given to his son. Within hours Wade had capitulated and abandoned the proposed 25 per cent vote but not the plans for a vice-president and not before human rights activists Alioune Tine, who had previously received death threats, and Oumar Diallo were seriously wounded in a brutal attack (http://bit.ly/my8rJx).
The reference to Tahrir Square was both a rallying call to enact a dream of a different Senegal and a declaration that says ‘we are here’ and things are no longer as they were.
The massive street protests in Dakar and cities across Senegal forced an almost immediate turnaround as the government quickly withdrew the proposed constitutional changes. Last December in ‘Twilight of a regime or dawn of a new era’, Sidy Diop warned of a looming instability in Senegal as the regime ‘confronted by threats to its survival’ struggles to keep a hold. The choice for President Wade is transparency and engagement with voters or, as he has attempted to do, to violate the constitution.
‘If, on the other hand, it is a question of taking another path, violating the constitution and republican values, this project would be very dangerous for national cohesion and might incur civil war. And any politician, of whatever political stripe, whose acts and gestures above all serve his personal ambition, would commit an enormous blunder and cause his country to slide into violence and chaos. This is the why we dare to hope that those who believe Wade has this intention are mistaken. Such an enterprise would not only be very risky but also his compatriots would put into question his whole life and his political career, which has been for the most part dedicated to changeover among parties, to commitment without concessions, to a continuous struggle for the defence of public liberties and democracy.’
Diop refers to an emerging movement and ‘new ways of expression through petitions’ which he suggests should be institutionalised as a way of both rejecting decisions and as instruments for creating new laws.
‘The present situation in Senegal is at a decisive turning point in its history. We have, on the one hand, a power that is very uncertain about its survival and that seeks solutions of all kinds for its continuity but which, of its own accord, has deprived itself of the bases that can guarantee it. On the other hand, there is an opposition that is trying hard to elaborate concepts and strategies in order radically to change the nature of the state and of power but which must overcome the difficulties and obstacles that lie in the path of a sustainable unity.
‘And then, between these traditional forces, a civil society has emerged that brings real hope to those that now doubt the capacity of the parties to get the country going again, because they themselves have contributed to create the present difficult situation.’
In the wake of 23 June protests, Senegalese civil society (http://bit.ly/m4uy29) made the expedient decision to create a new movement incorporating some 60 groups. Their first demand is for the president not to contest the 2012 elections; however, in doing so there is a recognition that political and social change requires a collective consciousness and organisation and cannot rely on the short-term impact of street protests.
Senegalese blogger Arame Tall’s post ‘Green Thursday in the Life of the Nation of Senegal: The Day everything Changed & Ticking bomb finally exploded’ is a powerful exposition on the historic meaning of 23 June for Senegal and the region.
‘Green for the color of hope, green for the color of renewal, green in opposition to the oppressing claw with which the ruling party of PDS (the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais) had reigned over the country of Senegal for the past 11 years of rule–whose color of representation was blue, once the symbol of SOPI, or change, when PDS’ leader Abdoulaye Wade was elected to power in 2000 toppling a 40-year regime.
‘Thursday June 23 was indeed a historic day in the life the Nation that we the youth of Senegal will never forget. The Nation came out, in all of its glory and fury, men and women, youth and old, poor and rich, swift politicians and lay common men/women, and took to the streets together as one to contest a law proposal orchestrated by the Presidency that was to change the rules of the electoral game to enable an easy reelection for Abdoulaye Wade for a third 7-year term in the upcoming February 2012 election.
‘Today the People of Senegal enabled their transition to a new era for their country, and Africa’s democracy: it is the era of Civil Society. The small country of Senegal has demonstrated once more the grandeur of its democracy, and the maturity of its Nation. I believe Senegal will never be the same after this historic day. 2 dead and 145 gravely injured was the bitter price to pay. But never again is the song sung by all the hearts as people go to bed in Senegal tonight.’
COUNTRIES TO WATCH
An agreement to end the nationwide strikes which began on 18 April was signed on 12 June, but it’s not clear whether everyone has returned to work. Views differ on the reasons behind the strike. Bongani Masuku of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) sees the strikes as a struggle for workers rights and against the ‘neo-liberal restructuring of the public sector’. For Tshiamo Rantao of the Botswana Network of Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS, the strikes are a ‘sign of the rising power of labour’. Professor of International Relations Stephen Chan puts the strikes in the wider context of discontent with the ruling party:
‘There is genuine disquiet about possible shrinkage in public sector employment, but there is also a mood of discontent with the stylistics of the President and his austere and disciplinarian utterances. These convey the sense that society is an army camp where orders should be obeyed, rather than something open and expressive – whether for better or worse. Political opposition has not threatened the ruling party since independence, and there is no real sense that citizens seek the government’s overthrow. But they do want a sense of new dynamism. The important thing about the trade unions is that they occupy the effective space that civil society and political opposition in Botswana should occupy, but cannot. The expressiveness of dissent, as led by the unions, is an important development in Botswana.’
African Dictator is a website created in March 2011 by an anonymous ‘collective of international social activists’ with no allegiance to any government or ideological perspective except to draw attention to countries led by dictators who have a history of civil and human rights violations. In Equatorial Guinea, a group of secret bloggers announced the creation of new movement which would use social media to remove President Obiang Nguema:
1) ‘The Equatorial Guinean Youth Collective, we are a youth organization, born in Equatorial Guinea in secret, to organize and fight for our legitimate rights and interests, joining the youth, strengthening the youth movement.’
2) ‘We have teamed up to find the exchange of news, views and the effective support of workers and democratic organizations in the imperialist countries and mainly of Central African countries, as young people and workers who have brought down dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt.’
Two years ago it would have been difficult to imagine that a small group of online activists would be influential in toppling a government but Tunisia and Egypt have shown that with time this is a real possibility. In a sense we are fortunate to be able to witness the early stages of what could become a mass movement. I hope the youth collective can sustain the struggle and that they will receive the support from activists across Africa and elsewhere.
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* Sokari Ekine blogs at Black Looks.
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