Protest and Activism / West Africa

From Taksim Gezi to the Corniche: Protests over Public Space in Dakar

Anyone who has spent time in Dakar knows how lively the Corniche, or coastal beaches and cliffs that make up the western limits of the Senegalese capital, become in the evenings. University students taking a break from their reading at nearby Cheikh Anta Diop University, women gesturing as they walk together, and young men getting off work all flock to the sidewalks and beaches there to run, lift weights, and stroll along the sidewalks as the ocean brings in some cool evening air. Dakar’s wealthiest neighborhoods, first shopping mall and fanciest hotels all sit along the Atlantic here, though large parts of the area remain undeveloped and open for evening pop-up restaurants and public access to the beaches. The views of Gorée Island, of hundreds of young men running football drills together, and of the Ouakam Mosque can be beautiful in the setting sun.

In March, activists began speaking out against the “wall of shame”, an unfinished wall built to mark the construction of the new Turkish Embassy between a recreational center and Terrou-Bi, an expansive resort-style hotel.  Only partially built with nothing yet inside of it, the wall fully blocks any view of the ocean or beach but has come to represent fears about the influence of foreign governments on national politics, the privatization of land considered public, growing economic inequalities and poor living conditions in the capital, and the lack of government accountability to its citizens. (Already, the American government built an immense compound on the furthest-reaching Pointe des Almadies to house its new $181 million embassy.) The land, it seems, was previously considered part of the public domain but was then reclassified as private by the State to be given to Turkey under Senegal’s previous president, Abdoulaye Wade. In a show of mutual exchange and goodwill, Turkey granted Senegal land in Ankara for the construction of a new Senegalese embassy in the Turkish capital.

These protests, organized mostly by Corniche Ouest, Jeunesse Dakarêveuse, and Non au Mur -coalitions of youth organizations – have focused on the lack of government accountability to the city’s citizens and the privatization of public spaces. Bousso Dramé, a young student who made a name for her herself by refusing a scholarship from the French government last year after a humiliating orientation process at the French embassy and French culture institute in Dakar, has been one of the most prominent voices in the protests (see this video for footage of the leaders of Non au Mur, of which she is a part). New NGOs arguing for the need to protect the coasts for environmental reasons as well as the well-known Y’en a Marre, a group of rappers and journalists known for mobilizing the Senegalese youth to vote, and to vote against Wade, in 2012’s presidential elections, have also participated in public protest against the construction of the Turkish Embassy.

Although campaigns against the wall have been in full-swing for the past two months, the return of ex-president Abdoulaye Wade last week to Senegal has complicated the political dynamics of the issue. Wade, who left Senegal in 2012 with his tail between his legs after having succeeded in changing the rules of the electoral game so that he could run for a third term (arguably unconstitutionally). More importantly,he left after having failed to convince Senegalese voters that he wasn’t trying to place his son, Karim, as a likely successor. Wade has been living in Versailles, France ever since his defeat and returns just as his son is facing trial in Dakar on corruption charges. Having been jailed for over a year, Karim is accused of embezzling $1.4 billion during his time as Minister of State for International Cooperation, Regional Development, Air Transport, and Infrastructure. Some see Karim’s imprisonment as a “witch-hunt” led by current president Macky Sall, while others have seen it as a necessary part of Sall’s promise to deal head-on with corruption among government officials.  Sall himself faced allegations of corruption in 2009 but escaped prosecution, claiming that such charges came from his political detractors trying to punish him for his public feud with Wade.

Dakar’s mayor, Khalifa Ababacar Sall, as member of the ruling coalition, loudly opposes the embassy project. Having run against Karim Wade for mayor in 2009, he has long positioned himself in opposition to the politics of the Wade dynasty. His efforts to prevent work on the embassy have been ignored since regional prefect, Alioune Badara Diop, has countered that the urbanization code of 2008 stipulates that the mayor can only authorize what has already been decided by more senior officials.  As prefect, Diop has recently banned nocturnal dancing and parties on the beaches for “security reasons”, pushed for more stringent regulation of parking in the capital, and refused permits for public gatherings aimed at protesting the wall and, conversely, welcoming Wade back to Senegal. For his part, the head of the city’s division of urbanism and housing, Abdou Birahim Diop, stated that the corniche is “a natural zone [that] belongs to everyone.”

Of course, the parallels to the extended protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park can’t be ignored.  Istanbul’s protest movement, initiated over opposition to the construction of a shopping mall in the public square but then broadened to fight the growing authoritarianism of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyi Erdogan, as well as the Arab Spring have informed how Senegalese activists use social media to mobilize urban populations. (Y’en a Marre emerged days after Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire sparking the Tunisian Revolution.) Turkey’s ambassador to Senegal, Zeyneb Sibel Algan, responded to the protests arguing that, because Wade gave the land to Turkey, she “doesn’t [personally or officially] have anything to do with this” and is going to go ahead with the construction.

Sall, who formed his own political party, the Alliance for the Republic (APR) in 2008 year and won the presidential election in 2012, came to power in part thanks to the growing presence of civil society in Senegalese politics. Power outages and water shortages are still frequent and deep economic inequalities persist in Senegal, but Sall has been able to implement legislation for rent reduction in an expensive capital, lower taxes on earned income, subsidies for Senegal’s poorest families, and free health insurance for children under the age of five. (If only the US government could be as progressive on these issues!) Ruling with a coalition government, he met with Non au Mur and SOS Littoral on May 4 to discuss the issue of the wall, moving along the beachfront with officials, architects, and activists. The Senegalese president then quickly moved to announce that work had been suspended on the Turkish embassy until an alternative site could be identified. The president indicated he had ordered the wall’s destruction and an initiative for an urban planning competition for the Corniche.  Taking steps that his counterparts in the Middle East (Qaddafi, Al-Assad, Ben Ali, and Mubarek to name a few) failed to accept, Macky Sall heeded civil society and subsequently changed government policy. As one Facebook user said to congratulate Bousso Dramé after she posted the news, “I think this is what Africa needs : vigilant, engaged, peaceful citizens.” What the user didn’t add is that, while it’s not only Africa that needs citizens like this, political leaders who listen to their citizens are just as vital to the process of protest, meeting, and political change.

Erin Pettigrew is finishing her PhD in History at Stanford University. She works on the history of Islam in West Africa, issues of race and slavery in the colonial and post-colonial periods, and various discourses of reform in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.

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