Senegalese activists persevere despite setback

Beyond national elections, the Y’en a Marre political movement is changing Senegalese civic and political life for future generations.

Dakar. Image credit Rachel Tanugi Ribas via Flickr (CC).

In late 2011 and early 2012, the collective known as Y’en a Marre (We’re fed up/Enough is enough) emerged as a dynamic force in Senegalese politics. Founded and led by rappers Fou Malade (Malal Talla), Thiat (Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Toure), Kilifeu (Mbess Seck) and journalists Fadel Barro, Aliou Sane and Denise Sow, the movement focused on ensuring the legitimacy of the 2012 presidential elections there. The collective, along with other political and civil society groups, organized mass protests against the candidacy of Abdoulaye Wade (who was running for an unconstitutional third term). They encouraged youth to vote out the 85-year-old incumbent. One of the trademarks of the movement was their use of hip-hop and rap as a means to voice their discontent and to mobilize youth. Although Y’en a Marre did not succeed in preventing Wade from participating in the elections, their activism played a role in Wade’s defeat by his former prime minister, Macky Sall.

Y’en a Marre (YEM) again returned to the spotlight during the recent 2019 Senegalese elections, when they took to the streets to advocate against the re-election of Macky Sall. They argued that Sall had not been an effective leader, having done little to improve the lives of ordinary Senegalese. In particular, complaints lodged against Sall focused on the misallocation of resources: investing in cosmetic changes to the country, such as building glitzy parliamentary buildings and bridges, without addressing social needs like education. Despite the efforts of YEM, on February 24, 2019, Macky Sall was re-elected with 58% of the vote. In a recent conversation with the authors of this article, Thiat, a leading YEM member, said he was “disappointed, but not surprised.” Some in Senegal, like Thiat, question the validity of Sall’s victory, accusing him of suppressing competition and cheating “upstream” through advanced access to voter information.

But for a group who rose to prominence in response to a specific political crisis, Y’en a Marre’s strength has turned out to be its longevity and ability to continually define itself outside of the narrow purview of official politics. For YEM, the elections were battles in a larger war to reshape the role of citizens in Senegalese politics, and Sall’s victory in no way undermines YEM’s day-to-day activism in-between elections. Instead of focusing on short-term goals, the movement has been working to change the issues that underlie the behavior of Senegal’s political leaders.

Since 2011, YEM’s approach has been rooted in the idea of the New Type of Senegalese (NTS). NTS is a bottom-up approach to inspire citizens to be involved in local politics. This ideology centers individual and collective behavior of citizens as the primary impetus for effecting change in the way the country is run, and aims to tear down the barrier between governing rulers and their constituents. YEM’s approach has been about a principled resistance to alignment with any political party or candidate; that is, they see themselves as occupying an independent watchdog role fully outside of official politics. They understand that changing the mentality of an entire nation will take time, and therefore their efforts are necessarily focused on the youth of Senegal. Thiat sees himself and his comrades, who are mostly in their late 30s, as part of the “sacrificed generation,” who may not live to see the results of their work: “Change is going to come from the population when they are ready. We understand that the fruits of our fight—we will not benefit from it… We are the sacrificed generation. We have to sacrifice the rest our lives to changing the situation.”

What is dynamic about YEM is that the shared overall vision of NTS allows for individual activists to drive forward specific initiatives within the framework of the broader movement. One of their ongoing projects, Dox ak sa Gox (roughly translated from Wolof as “walk with your community”)focuses on connecting the residents of Senegalese communities to their local officials. The program creates space for unique interactions through forums mediated by members of YEM, which give citizens the opportunity to express their opinion on local governance, to set out their priorities so that they can be better taken into account by their elected representatives, and also offer the opportunity to pressure elected representatives on agreed deadlines. YEM have also developed a monitoring website, which details the political activities of local administrators. It is a people-based approach to politics, decentralizing the political elite and giving agency to citizens in contributing to policy development, the allocation of resources, and access to public goods and services.

In addition to this, YEM has taken on environmental initiatives to create more green spaces not only in Dakar but also around the country. Members have similarly rehabilitated abandoned buildings, painting the walls with art and graffiti, and planting flowers on the exterior. In these renovated centers they have built rehearsal rooms, recording studios, and meeting spaces as a resource for young Senegalese students.

Other projects are run individually. Thiat is in charge of Mboka, an initiative attempting to bridge the divide between Gambia and Senegal. The two countries are ethnically and culturally very similar, but the international borders (the result of colonialism) create divisions not only in social interaction but also in its economic and commercial relationships. Mboka is about cultivating a sense of brotherhood between the two nations by easing border crossing procedures and organizing forums that address issues of inequity between the residents of the two countries.

Fou Malade has been working with the formerly incarcerated, providing them with art materials and a space to express themselves visually. Aspiring MC’s coming out of prison also have access to studios where they can record and then release their own albums.

Simon has taken on Citizen Mic—a competition that encourages young rappers to write music about democracy and the people. Last year there were 300 participants at the month-long series of workshops leading up to the competition, and the winner received a home studio, in addition to a year’s worth of rent payments.

The recent presidential elections were a reminder of the challenging circumstances YEM operates in. High-level political machinations, a patrimonial conception of public affairs, layers of bureaucracy, and the weakness of local-level institutions all constantly threaten to undermine the impact of YEM’s initiatives. However, by taking aim at underlying issues rather than just the country’s political leadership, YEM is trying to restructure the foundations of Senegal’s civic life. As Thiat argues, “We are wasting our time comparing ourselves to the United States and to Europe, those Western countries… We will never catch that train. We have to create our own tracks, our own train, and take our own way. This is a long process of change.”

It is not surprising that YEM leaders like Thiat find inspiration in Steve Biko, the South African black consciousness leader murdered by Apartheid in the late 1970s and whose ideas have inspired the new generation of South African student activists. Like Biko, Y’en a Marre activists insist on the primacy of developing confident and politically engaged young Africans who can challenge injustices that run deeper than changing elected officials—even if they don’t see the fruits of today’s organizing for years to come.

Further Reading

Africa 3.0

Another month, another special Africa issue. This one is by French weekly newspaper Courrier International (part of Le Monde group), edited by Isabelle Lauze and Ousmane Ndiaye. Many of the articles have appeared elsewhere but are published here …

Y’En A Marre’s political hip-hop anthems

8 of 13 Senegalese opposition candidates trying to unseat Abdoulaye Wade in the upcoming presidential elections (including three former prime ministers under Wade, and no-longer-candidate Youssou N'Dour) gathered on Obelisk Square in Dakar last Sunday. The rally went peaceful, "crowds of color-coordinated supporters awaited while listening to political hip-hop anthems in Wolof."