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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

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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