West Africa has seen a number of recent coup d’états. Might Senegal be next? The mood in the country is rapidly turning against France – and the change is primarily fueled by young people.
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The past three years have seen a series of Francophone governments in West African countries fall to successful overthrows. Places like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have all experienced putsches , with the power shifts frequently being heralded by anti-French demonstrations, attacks on embassies and hatred openly expressed on social media platforms. On Wednesday, the Central African country of Gabon became the latest former French colony to see the military take power, with the announcement coming just a day after the country’s incumbent president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, had won a third term in a disputed election.
The Françafrique System – the name critics have given to the political, cultural and economic influence France continues to exert over its former African colonies – seems to be in its twilight.
Will Senegal, one of France’s last remaining partners in the region, be next? There, too, support for Paris is rapidly dwindling, particularly among the younger members of the population.
The aroma of fresh baguettes fills the air and fine white flour dust clings to the pink blouses of the shop assistants. In the back, bakers are kneading dough for the next batch. Several clear plastic boxes are standing on the gray tiled floor: one filled with imported wheat flour, one containing the local grain, sorghum, and the third full of moringa powder, a kind of superfood made from the seeds of the tropical moringa tree. France or Senegal; import or local – even bread is political here. At the moment, it’s the turn of the box from France, with bakers mixing wheat flour, water and yeast – and a bit of moringa for good measure.
Yes, says Isseu Sakho, the owner of the Mburu Bakery in the heart of Senegal’s capital of Dakar, the majority of her customers order classic French baguettes made from wheat flour. “That, too, is Françafrique,” she huffs in frustration. “We must free ourselves from France’s stranglehold!”
Senegal has been independent since 1960, to be sure, but the baguette is still just as much part of everyday life in Dakar as it is in Paris. And the French supermarket chain Auchan continues to dominate the grocery business in the country, at least for the middle classes. Those wishing to escape from the city must pay a highway toll to Eiffage, the French multinational company. And bread is purchased with CFA francs, a currency that is pegged to the euro. France’s influence in Senegal is everywhere.
Isseu Sakho runs the Mburu Bakery in Dakar Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
At the Mburu Bakery, they are baking more bread using local grains rather than imported wheat. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
Sakho wants to change things, step by step. She is baking more and more bread and cakes using local ingredients instead of imported flour, with 40 percent of her products now coming from local grains. “The demand is there, and that is also a product of the political discussion,” she says. “Young people in particular want an independent Senegal.”
“France has overlooked just how significantly the continent has changed and how pronounced is Africa’s newly developed awareness for its place in the world.”
Bakary Sambe, Timbuktu Institute – African Center for Peace Studies
He can hardly walk for more than 10 meters before being stopped for a group selfie – a smile into the camera, thumbs in the air. The next fans are waiting not far away for a handshake and more photos. Even police officers want a picture. Walking down the street with Guy Marius Sagna these days is like joining a popstar for a day out. “Keep at it!” a passerby calls out.
Sagna, though, is not a musician, he’s a politician – a member of parliament and founder of the movement FRAPP – France Dégage. The movement’s name translates somewhat awkwardly to “Front for a Popular, Pan-African, Anti-Imperialist Revolution – France Clear Out!” In French, though, the word “frapper” also means “to hit.” The play on words is intentional.
Sagna is a populist, it is fair to say. He is adept at producing trenchant slogans and can speak for hours about the alleged abuses committed by his country’s former colonial masters. Much of it is polemical and vastly simplified for easy digestion, and he’s good at tirades – if not quite as practiced in coming up with workable concepts. Ultimately, though, that doesn’t seem to matter much. Many find his rhetoric hard to resist – and he is helped out by decades of French arrogance in West Africa. Paris has never been shy about lecturing its former colonies and has also frequently courted and mentored disliked local elites.
Sagna is one of the most prominent opposition politicians in Senegal. Elections are approaching next year, and already, many are wondering if the West will soon be losing its last reliable partner in the region. “People are finally waking up and freeing themselves from their neo-colonial prison,” says Sagna.
Guy Marius Sagna stands in front of Djolof Chicken, a local fast food chain. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
Young people in particular are turning away from France and listening to people like Guy Marius Sagna. Many are tired of the clique surrounding President Macky Sall, who won’t be running for re-election next year. Sall is widely seen as a French puppet, as a key element of Françafrique. It used to be that a candidate’s close ties to Paris would be of assistance in the election. But today, such bonds almost guarantee ballot-box failure in West Africa.
Since June, the opposition has been organizing mass protests primarily directed at the criminal conviction of their leader Ousmane Sonko, with thousands taking to the streets earlier this month. The marches have at times turned violent and several people have been killed since the protests began. Beyond just showing support for Sonko, however, protesters have also targeted French supermarket chains like Auchan and service stations belonging to the French oil giant Total. Heavily armed security guards now patrol many such potential targets. Local politics appears to be mixing dangerously with anger at the “imperialist enemy.”
“We don’t support a coup d’état, but if a peaceful transfer of political power isn’t possible, then the powers that be are fomenting violence,” says Sagna.
Recently, the French ambassador to Senegal commented on FRAPP, and his statements merely served to highlight just how helpless Paris is in the face of the criticism, and how oblivious French leaders are to the mood in the country. “I can’t imagine a movement called FRAPP – Senegal Dégage in France,” said Ambassador Philipe Lalliot. It would fall afoul of the law and would be so alien to the relations we have with the Senegalese community we have in France.” It was almost as if he had forgotten that Senegal has never colonized France.
Even in European diplomatic circles, there is a fair amount of mystification at the French approach. “They have barely understood anything,” says one diplomat, adding that Paris has no concept for dealing with the current rejection of all things France. When the violent protests erupted in Senegal, the European Union had actually planned on issuing a joint statement – but it never came. The EU member states had apparently failed to agree on a common position.
The rusty metal contraptions of Magic Land, an aging amusement park with a Ferris wheel and a rollercoaster, tower over the beach. Sitting in white plastic chairs and drinking sodas down below in the sand are Amadou, Dickel and Miriam, all of them in their mid-20s. On the table in front of them, also made of white plastic, are a fashionable leather handbag and Mickey Mouse headphones. Dickel and Miriam are going to university in Dakar, the one studying data science and the other finance. Amadou works as a photographer. They asked that only their first names be used for this article.
Amadou, Dickel and Miriam on the beach in Dakar Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
Amadou: “FRAPP is extremely influential with those our generation, and most of us support them, as do I. But we shouldn’t be rioting in supermarkets. The French should see us as intellectuals, not as anarchists, otherwise they won’t take us seriously.”
Dickel: “I think it’s a good thing that there were coup d’états in Niger and Mali. It’s brutal, but necessary. The youth are finally opening their eyes.”
Miriam: “Our parents’ generation didn’t grasp the reality. There’s a mass movement in our generation, even if it will be difficult to end our dependence on France.”
“They’re pillaging our country, they’re building fortresses. We can’t allow ourselves to become martyrs!”
The catchy rap rhymes of Togolese star Elom 20ce are blaring from the speakers while the air smells of spray paint and weed. The outlines of a woman’s face are slowly taking shape on a black wall, along with her mouth and nose. The sprayers from the Radikl Bomb Shot Crew, or RBS for short, the largest sprayer collective in Dakar, are wearing facemasks as they outline two faces onto the wall. “Political prisoners,” they say. The graffiti is intended as a statement pushing for their release.
Madzoo continues work on a portrait of two “political prisoners,” as he refers to them. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
French companies have a stranglehold on the Senegalese economy. This image is of anti-French graffiti in Dakar. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
Madzoo runs a graffiti school in Dakar. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
Everyone who lives in Dakar is familiar with the graffiti of RBS. The collective’s founder, Serigne Mansour Fall, alias Madzoo, turns out onto a major arterial. He’s a big man with broad shoulders and an intense gaze – and he looks uncomfortable crammed into the rickety, yellow taxi. He then asks the driver to stop before striding across the multi-laned street.
He points to a wall, a 20-meter-wide section of which is covered with street art. One image portrays a fat white man being spoon fed by Senegalese President Macky Sall, symbolic of the exploitation of the continent. Next to it are three figures wearing Ku Klux Klan masks and scarves with the flags of France and the United States. Above are the words: “France is killing Senegal.” Madzoo laughs. “I’m surprised they haven’t painted this one over.” The state, he says, is often quick to cover up some graffiti. At times, he adds, police officers even stand right next to the sprayers, just waiting for them to finish up before destroying the product of their efforts. Officially, the graffiti isn’t illegal.
“We aren’t yet free. Senegal isn’t yet free,” says the graffiti artist. “We want to contribute to waking up the young people.” The next generation in Senegal, he says, are no longer interested in the old, French-educated elite. They want an Africa on eye level. Madzoo studied philosophy and teaches at universities in the U.S.
“It’s the black rebirth,” Togolese artist Elom 20ce raps from the speakers.
“Culture is soft power,” says Oumy Sene. A tall Senegalese woman with a thatch of red-dyed hair on the top of her head, Sene speaks confidently in a booming voice. She’s standing on a newly paved road and pointing to a space between the multi-storied residential buildings to where two men – car washers – are sitting on buckets. Soon, though, the men are going to have to go elsewhere to ply their trade, because the empty lot is to become home to the Russian cultural center Kalinka. Initially, it will be built out of containers – “until we are able to find a larger piece of property,” says Sene. She is part of the new center’s leadership team.
Oumy Sene hopes to open a Russian cultural center on this piece of property. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
Sene speaks English with a British accent, French with a Senegalese accent and perfect Russian. She spent many years living in Moscow, the daughter of a Ukrainian mother and a Senegalese father. In the war, she is staunchly on the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “West Africa’s renunciation of France should have happened a long time ago,” she says.
Recently, Sene traveled to St. Petersburg for the Russia-Africa Summit, where she presented Senegal at a stand. She earns her living as a consultant for Russian companies. “I open doors for them here,” she says. The Russian international broadcaster RT may soon establish a presence in Senegal, as becomes clear during our conversation. “I am only allowed to say anything once something has been signed,” Sene says with a grin. Business is apparently good.
Now, the Senegalese woman is to establish a Russian center in the heart of Dakar, allegedly independent of the Russian Embassy, at least financially. The money is from donations, including large companies – but, she insists, the recently deceased Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was not among them.
The plans are sweeping. The center is to provide grants to hundreds of Senegalese schoolchildren so they can travel to Russia. They also want to establish a network of local journalists and support small, local NGOs. In other West African countries, such networks are already active in turning public sentiment strongly against France and spreading disinformation, but Sene says her center will not engage in such activities. In May, the Kalinka team organized a parade through Dakar to honor the Soviet troops who fell in World War II. In the morning, they showed Russian war films.
“Interest in Russia is growing,” says Oumy Sene, which is why her center is growing as well. At some point, they hope to become a real institution, like Germany’s Goethe Institute or the Institut Français, an instrument of soft power. “We want to be an important player,” Sene says, although she doesn’t want it to sound like a threat. But, of course, it is certainly seen as such in the West.
Didier Awadi’s recording studio is decorated with a rather bizarre mixture of portraits and certificates. Behind the mixing board and clearly visible to the musician are photos of Thomas Sankara, the former president of Burkina Faso – an idol and hero for many pan-Africanists and a pioneer in the struggle for the continent’s independence. On the other side are three certificates. Twice, Didier Awadi has been named “Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters”: In 2002 in Paris, and in 2003 in Dakar. Above them is an award from the United Nations, which named him an “Ambassador of Truth” in 2005.
DJ Awadi, as he calls himself, leans back in his chair, his long dreadlocks hanging over the back and his T-shirt stretching across his belly. He starts a video, his most recent message of truth. This year, he released the song “Quand on refuse, on dit non,” which translates as: “If you refuse, you say no.” He has developed the song’s video into a short film, some scenes of which are not easy to watch. In one, a white man bursts into the cabinet meeting of an obviously African country demanding that raw materials, data and infrastructure be sold, apparently to Europe. A minister refuses and is shot to death.
When the video quickly cuts to the next scene, the white man appears again, but this time as a slave with chains around his neck, together with other whites who are being sold by their Black slave masters. He is whipped, his teeth are examined. And then the credits roll, along with a message opposing slavery: never again, no matter of who or by whom. A clear message. Awadi grins: “I don’t say with a single word that I’m referring to France.”
DJ Awadi in his sound studio Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
But when rumors of a shocking new video began making the rounds in Dakar, an acquaintance of his from the French Embassy suddenly dropped by, the rapper says. The acquaintance wanted to see the video, and the artist showed it to him. And that’s when the problems began: The rapper was suddenly no longer welcome in the world of French culture, a persona non grata, as Awadi says. The case attracted a significant amount of attention in Senegal.
The Institut Français in Dakar did not respond to a query from DER SPIEGEL. The Foreign Ministry in Paris also declined an interview request with the French Embassy about the widespread criticism of Françafrique.
Awadi, the “Knight of Arts,” has always had one foot in two different worlds. He has played countless shows in Europe and has tight bonds with the French cultural scene. At the same time, though, he has been singing about what he sees as France’s neocolonial policies for more than 30 years.
The French supermarket chain Auchan has repeatedly been a target in recent unrest. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL
The rapper says he’s not particularly bothered by reports that he has been blacklisted. He says he has enough money and doesn’t need support from Paris. “They’re not as important as they think they are.” There is one thing, though, that he would like to say, something important to him: He doesn’t want the Russians to come in and take the place of the French. “We can’t throw out one colonial master only to open the door to another.”