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Misunderstanding Self-Immolation in Senegal

Self-incineration is no longer the same taboo it once was.
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In Senegal, renowned for being peaceful and stable, a dangerous trend of self-incineration has surfaced. This year, the previously unthinkable practice of self-immolation has claimed the lives of at least four people, while several others have been rescued and treated for burns. Over the past two years, there have been attempts at self-immolation on average once a month. Civil, social and religious authorities are searching for ways in which to stamp out the act.

A worsening trend

There has been much disagreement over motives for self-immolation, but it is likely that the causes vary widely from economic difficulties to other social injustices.

In the first case this year, in February, 40-year-old Oumar Bocoum set himself alight. Bocoum was dismissed by the information ministry as a “disgruntled person with a mental deficiency”. Bocoum, a former soldier, set fire to himself in front of the presidential palace to highlight the need to pay wounded soldiers their overdue salaries. Bocoum argued that he and some of his colleagues had waited for years and done everything “humanly possible" to secure their late pay, but were slowly dying of hardship and frustration in their homes.

Two or three other recorded cases in Dakar were allegedly individuals with mental problems - including Madina Diop, a 32-year-old woman who had wanted to kill her six-month-old son.

Another case involved a man reported as heading a group of drivers who had accumulated over $200,000 to purchase taxis and set up a transportation company. He alleged that the architect of the plan was an employee of the presidential palace who had promised to give the money to an Italian car manufacturer to deliver the vehicles. After years of frustration and waiting, he attempted suicide by self-immolation in front of the presidential palace before being rescued.

Stages of defiance

Since then, armed guards in front of the palace have been given special orders to keep an eye out for possible offenders and although other attempts have been made, all have been rescued. Although isolated incidents should not be mistaken for widespread behaviour, it is clear a societal taboo has been broken. 

Popular local online publication Seneweb revealed in July this year, just a week before the beginning of the Holy Islamic month of Ramadan, that 91 individuals were on a list to burn themselves. The publication stated that most of them had begun the initial stage of defiance by undergoing a hunger-strike in different parts of the country.

Almost immediately, civil society and the faith-based organisations, ran a nationwide campaign appealing to would-be victims to rethink their plans. It has been presented as an act against Islam. Initial signs of the appeal's success faded quickly, and only one month later a teenage boy set himself alight in front of his girlfriend’s home after he was prevented from entering.

Mostly the young

Crucial to stamping out the practice is understanding the motives behind such extreme actions. But the government has underestimated its significance and given short shrift to these acts, urging youths to invest their energies into sports - with wrestling being especially lucrative.

In many circles, however, the act has been specifically linked to the “biting hardship” caused by the difficult global economic situation. It has hit Senegal particularly hard. However, the cases cannot be exclusively attributed to one factor. 

“It is mostly the young people who are committing the act, since they are the most affected by the difficulties imposed on us by the government of President Abdoulaye Wade since he came to power ten years ago,” a retired pupil teacher Mbaye Diop told Think Africa Press. He continued: “They [youths] no longer drink ‘ataya’ [Chinese tea] as we used to do whenever we met and play cards, because neither themselves nor their parents can afford sugar, let alone gas to boil the tea.”

Pierre Atepa Goudiaby, the former advisor to President Abdoulaye Wade, also veered from his former party’s line, describing the situation as “real and worrisome” and insisting that “it needs to be resolved”. “Politicians”, he argued, “should tell the public that it is possible to give hope and offer directions about how they could fulfil that hope.”

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