Has Africa’s May ’68 been forgotten?

In 1968, France witnessed an extraordinary student uprising which changed politics. Morocco and Senegal did too, but we seldom talk about it.

Demonstrations of May 1968 in Bordeaux. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It is, of course, dangerous—if not ludicrous, in some cases—to compare national histories, especially post-colonial ones, and see abusively not just similarities but symbiotic, even underground connections between key political events.

This is as true of the way in which we look at May 1968 in Europe (especially France, Italy and Prague); as it is how we look at the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of May 1968 today, in both Europe and Africa. They are not going to be the same, neither then or now. Indeed, the interesting conclusion to draw from a glance at the debates in two African countries that “had” a May 68 of their own—Morocco and Senegal—is that they, separately, avail themselves of two very different but linkable attitudes: marginalization and recuperation.

In Morocco, more press ink has been spilled this year, it would seem, on how Moroccans had an important role in the May 1968 events in France: rather than on the extraordinary events in Morocco itself. It is true that May 68 in Morocco does not follow at all the time-line of its former colonial master France. If the Casablanca riots of 1965 mark the start of a ten-year period of deep unrest in Morocco—during which world-renowned novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun was punished for his role as a young student in those bitter street battles and radical trade-union leader Mehdi Ben Barka was disappeared by French and Moroccan intelligence services—then Morocco’s ‘68 starts in October 1968 and reaches its height across 1969, 1970 and 1971.

The creation of the Parti de Libération et du Socialisme by former Moroccan Communist Party leader Ali Yata in October 1968 and his subsequent prison sentence in February 1969 then led to school strikes in March 1969; these were followed by further arrests of members of the Union Nationale des Forces Populaires (UNFP); and the widespread boycott of elections by the UNFP, Union Marocaine du Travail (UMT), and the Parti de l’Istiqlal in October 1969. Morocco was marked in 1970 by medical students’ strikes and a state of emergency decreed by Hassan II. Clashes also occurred in the Gharb region where agricultural communities battled against land-grabs by industrial farmers, followed by miners’ strikes in Khouribga. So, the first of a number of coup d’états against King Hassan in 1971 was a but a culmination of the widespread and growing unrest in cities and rural areas.

And yet, there is a suggestion in today’s press in Morocco that May 68 in Morocco did not even take place. It is true to say that some of the current coverage of May 68 is hidden beneath a more important event for the Arab world in the second half of the 1960s, namely the heavy defeat of Arab armies in the Six-Day War with Israel in June 1967.  Nevertheless, the years of protests, state-repression and political instability in Morocco between 1965 and 1975—the so-called “années de plomb” [years of lead]—have been largely overlooked in the 50th anniversary. This is partly because in 2004 Hassan II’s successor, Mohammed VI, instituted a wide-ranging but deeply flawed, process of reconciliation that did nothing to bring justice to those who were punished for their part in Morocco’s May 68.

Contrast the relative silence in Morocco around its 1968, then, with Senegal’s approach today to its 1968 uprising. Here, the Senegalese state has used the old (post-68!) technique of recuperation. Far from ignoring, downplaying or belittling May 68 (as in Morocco today), the Senegalese political class and press have placed the commemoration of its May 68 at the heart of its ideological strategy.

There is even talk of a devoir de mémoire [a duty to remember], an expression normally reserved for more important events such as the Holocaust or the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Indeed, one of the rare people to write on Senegal May 68, Omar Gueye, has been interviewed, alongside others keen to share their memories. The state-sponsored commemoration has led to official events, lectures, debates, in and around Dakar. And a panel of experts has helped digest what happened and why.

But nowhere do we see any stark criticism of Léopold Senghor’s presidency during 1968. Luckily, there has been much more sober and critical coverage in the international francophone press, especially about Senghor’s cruel and bankrupt response to Senegal’s May 68, which, to the more discerning Senegalese population, now looks like a panicking leader happy to do deals with France, its army and its continued meddling in African affairs.

Alongside marginalization and recuperation, Africa’s ruling classes are always keen to stymie the domino effect of social uprisings (1968 saw significant social uprisings also in Congo-Kinshasa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Tunisia). Indeed, one of the most heartening events in Senegal’s history of 1968 is the protests against Senghor when he visited the Frankfurt book fair in September 1968. The protests were organized by German students (including Daniel Cohn-Bendit) angry about Senghor’s vicious repression of Senegalese students.

Morocco and Senegal in 1968—not to mention the Mafeje Affair in the fight against Apartheid in South Africa in 1968 quietly commemorated by the University of Cape Town this Summer—show that all revolts have their international dimension. For this reason, May ’68 in Morocco and Senegal today, and elsewhere in Africa, needs to be marginalized and/or recuperated by the African ruling class, for such is the level of anger building up, from the Marikana debacle in South Africa to Tahrir Square in Egypt, from the recent Rif uprisings in northern Morocco to the militant strike wave across Nigeria. Africa’s leaders today can handle the Fire Next Time that James Baldwin (1963) wrote about by controlling the Fire Last Time that Chris Harman (1988) described in his book on May 68; but what they do most fear—and rightly so—is the fire any time.

Further Reading

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