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Letter from Dakar

When an awkward, mild-mannered geologist called Macky Sall won a landslide over his former boss Abdo

One Thursday morning in March, I watched as a bull was butchered outside the house of Macky Sall in Fenêtre Mermoz. The then Senegalese opposition leader was living in this affluent quarter of Dakar, close to the Atlantic-facing corniche and a regional office for Oxfam. In the alley behind the house, men spread out the skin of the bull in the dust close to an abandoned airport scanner machine. They piled hunks of meat into metal tubs. Inside the house stood a woman of uncertain portfolio, holding a Victoria’s Secret carrier bag.

The departure of Sall’s campaign convoy was scheduled that morning for 11 o’clock. The hour came and went. His press attaché, a slim man with protruding ears, became increasingly uncomfortable. Finally the candidate emerged; cufflinks fastened the sleeves of his gleaming white boubou, or ankle-length robe. Approximately 90 minutes late, Sall’s caravan struck out into Dakar on a mission to win a presidential election.

On 25 March Senegal, a former French possession on the west coast of Africa, held the second and concluding round of its presidential poll. The contest featured Abdoulaye Wade, the octogenarian incumbent and leader of the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS), who had been first elected to the post in 2000 and was reluctant to hand over power. There had been demonstrations against him in the city, an opposition movement had sprung up and some opponents had died in confrontations with the state security services that had turned violent.

The protests in Dakar before the Senegalese election led to speculation that this might be the beginning of a sub-Saharan African spring. I flew in to Dakar just before the run-off. In the first round on 26 February, Wade got 34.8 per cent of the votes, the highest total of any candidate, but not enough to secure an outright win. Macky Sall, a geologist by profession who held various portfolios in Wade’s government before breaking away to form his own Alliance pour la République (APR), was the highest-scoring opposition candidate in the first round, winning 26.6 per cent. The other 12 opposition candidates had formed a coalition with Sall with the intention of ousting Wade.

The vision thing

One afternoon, I absconded from the journalists’ minibus and rode on the back of Sall’s pick-up as his convoy toured the city. We entered Guédiawaye, a working-class suburb of Dakar where concrete-reinforcing iron rods prod out of roofs. A crowd surged on either side.

Sall seemed an uncomfortable campaigner. Bespectacled and in his white boubou, he stood in his truck and waved both fists in the air but his movements were awkward. At one stage, addressing the crowd in the Wolof language, he declared: “Guédiawaye – you have given me a victory in the first round. I know the second round will be a confirmation of what you gave me. I know Guédiawaye has already chosen its side. Victory has been proven, visible and realised. If ever Wade tries to snatch my victory, the population will revolt.”

Despite his anti-Wade rhetoric in Guédia­waye, Sall is in some respects the man’s protégé: he served as prime minister under Wade until 2007, and ran Wade’s successful re-election campaign that year. His break with Wade came after he questioned the actions of the old man’s son, Karim, who many thought was being groomed by his father to succeed him as president.

The next morning I swapped sides. The French-colonial-style presidential palace on what used to be called the Avenue Roume has a gleaming white frontage. Sculptures of lions stand outside. Sprinklers were at work on trim lawns. Soldiers in red tunics stood guard outside the gates.

The presidential stretch Mercedes S600 was parked and waiting. Around the sunroof ran a handrail, rather like the equipment installed in lavatories for the disabled. I noticed a dent, too, on the rear right wheel arch.

On the morning of Friday 23 March, the last day of the campaign, President Wade, dressed in white slippers and a brilliant blue boubou, went out to meet his people. He was officially 85 at the time of the election but many Senegalese believed him to be older. As his convoy passed through Dakar, his supporters chanted “Gorgui”, a Wolof term of respect meaning “elder” that has become a moniker for the PDS leader. A white woman appeared out of the roof of the S600. This was Viviane, Wade’s French wife, standing beside her man.

In the colourful Marché des HLM quarter, Wade addressed a crowd of voters. “The people used to have $500 in a year. Now it’s above $1,000. That’s what the UN says, not what I said. We are not a poor country any more.”

Wade is a complicated figure, one of the last few survivors of the post-independence generation of African leaders. As an opposition stalwart, he fought and lost four presidential elections against the dominant Parti Socialiste du Sénégal before unseating Abdou Diouf in 2000. His record in office was mixed: new roads were built, Dakar was modernised and work began on a new airport. But he was accused of cronyism and nepotism, especially when he appointed his son to a super-ministerial portfolio overseeing international co-operation, air transport and infrastructure.

The most apparent evidence of the eccentricity of the Wade years stands on a hilltop above the Atlantic in Dakar, close to the Mamelles Lighthouse. At 49 metres, the Monument of the African Renaissance is taller than the Statue of Liberty. The gigantic bronze edifice depicts a man holding a child aloft. A third figure, a woman with her skirts blown up as if by the wind, leans towards the man. It cost $27m to build the monument and took a year’s work by North Koreans.

Mamadou Diouf, a Senegalese who is professor of African studies and history at Columbia University in New York, told me that Wade regarded himself as the best leader for Senegal. “It’s also a vision,” Diouf said. “He’s a man who believes he knows everything, and knows everything better than any Senegalese.”

But it was Wade’s actions before the elections that stirred the protests against him. In June last year, he attempted to pass a constitutional measure that would allow him to win the first round of a poll with only 25 per cent of the vote. Anger at this power grab gave birth to a protest group, the Mouvement du 23 juin (M23).

The day before the run-off vote in March, I arranged to meet Alioune Tine, one of the leaders of the M23, at the Pointe des Almadies, the westernmost point in mainland Africa. In a restaurant where the awnings advertised Beaufort beer, the 63-year-old literature professor, dressed in a robe, sat at a table. “The current constitution of Senegal has all the power with the president,” he said. “The National Assembly is very weak, the judiciary is very weak.”

Before the first round of the election, the M23 had failed to force Wade not to stand for a third term. Senegal established a two-term constitutional limit for presidents in 2001. Wade unilaterally decided that the limit should not apply to his first term in office, which started a year before the law was passed. Now the M23 had hitched itself to Sall’s coalition.

The protests against Wade before and during the election were restricted to a small number of events. Senegal does not have the large pools of disaffected and educated young people who were the kindling in the fires of the Arab spring. Yet it would be unfair to write off the movement altogether. Vincent Foucher, a civil rights researcher in Dakar, pointed out that for the first time in Senegalese history people’s participation in the campaign was based on conviction, rather than the expectation of largesse from a party boss. “I think it’s a very significant and important thing,” he told me; “it’s a new thing in Senegalese politics.”

Boo to the president

25 March Election day in Dakar began with lines in the sand – snakes of men and women whom I watched queue in the northern Parcelles Assainies quarter of the city. I failed to find a Wade supporter among them.

“We’ve had enough of him, though we know he’s done some great jobs,” said Gora Gaye, a tailor. “In 2000, in 2007, I voted for Wade, but now our hopes are dashed.”

Later, I went to see Wade vote in the Pointe E neighbourhood close to the seafront. There was tension. A marabout – one of the Muslim leaders who wield significant influence in Senegalese politics – had instructed his followers to come down to the polling station to show their support for the president. The authorities were struggling to control the crowd. Shortly after I arrived, police in black fatigues threw grenades of tear gas or smoke, it was unclear which. The violence did not escalate.

When Wade arrived to vote, he was wearing a white boubou. He had been booed when he voted in the first round, but not this time. Afterwards, he stood up through the sunroof of his car, looking backwards as it drove away, an old man all in white, retreating through the crowd like a piece of stage machinery.

By early evening, results were being announced on radio as they were posted at individual polling stations. It was not looking good for Wade. That night, I went to Macky Sall’s headquarters in the Scat Urbam quarter, home to large housing estates. Crowds had gathered outside. Some people had climbed trees; others were firing rockets; many were dancing. The atmosphere inside the building was party-like, APR and other opposition supporters excitedly massing.

At about half past nine, word filtered through that Wade had telephoned Sall to concede. Then when a rumour emerged that Sall would be at the Radisson Hotel on the corniche, I went over there. By the time I arrived, the French press corps had gathered. After midnight, Senegal’s new president appeared in a tent in the grounds of the hotel and addressed those gathered before him.

“We have shown in the face of the world that our democracy is mature,” Sall said. “I respect also those who voted for the other candidates.
I will be the president of all the Senegalese.”

When the final results were announced on 27 March, they showed that Sall had won a landslide victory, by 66 per cent against Wade’s 34. The peaceful transfer of power in an African election is an undeniable achievement. Overshadowing my time in Dakar were the events in neighbouring Mali. There, on 21 March, junior army officers launched a putsch that ousted the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Touré.

There is a strong democratic tradition in Senegal; it remains the only nation in mainland West Africa never to have experienced a coup since independence, which it won in 1960. Wade wanted to remain in power. However, unlike Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire, who refused to accept that he had lost an election in 2010 to Alassane Ouattara and caused a civil war, he had no choice other than to concede defeat in that night-time telephone call to his opponent. Wade would not have been able to command the loyalty of the military, and Senegal does not have the same kind of ethnic fissures to exploit as in Côte d’Ivoire. It also has a vigorous and free press, and its presidential election underlined the point Barack Obama once made to an audience of MPs in Ghana – that Africa needs strong and open democratic institutions, rather than more strong men.

Simon Akam is the Reuters correspondent based in Sierra Leone
 

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.