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Transcending Tradition: Senegalese Youth Make Themselves Heard

The Y’en a marre movement is changing Senegal's political landscape.
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The Y'en a Marre message is being embraced by young men in Senegal. Photo courtesy of Christina Sebastiani.

Dakar, Senegal:

The Senegalese presidential election of February 2012 was hailed as a success. What made this election different from the others was the crucial role of the Senegalese youth, who maintained a strong political presence against the corruption and political inertia of their leaders.

A history of youth protest

Senegal displays demographics similar to many countries on the continent. A large proportion of its population are young, and many are included in the country's high levels of unemployment. As Mamadou Diouf of Columbia University writes in “Urban Youth and Senegalese Politics”, the Senegalese state has historically tried to either repress or co-opt young people through the discourse of traditionalism:

“Youth and the young are a key theme in the discursive project of nationalist ideology. Although the ideology itself is out of style, it still informs the Senegalese regime’s interventions in the management of youth…This ideology blurs the distinction between the state and the holders of power, on one hand, and the masses, on the other. It rests on the manipulation of traditions of submission to authority and to elders, thus circumscribing a social and political space from which youth is radically excluded.”

Fary Ndao, a Senegalese student and socio-political commentator, says that for him the policies of the government do not reflect the people it should serve. The older generation retain power and do not let the young minds enter the political arena. As a result, the Senegalese youth have resorted to a more violent way of entering into the political sphere.

Youth discontent is not a new phenomenon. Under the presidency of Abdou Diouf, 1981 to 2000, youth anger was widespread in response to the enforcement of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) policies such as a reduction in social spending. Mamadou Diouf writes that, “The state had been progressively disengaging from the sectors of health, education, and sanitation. Public services and public and para-public institutions ‘trimmed the fat’ and impoverishment ensued”. Diouf’s time was met with staunch public resistance, and protests were the norm at almost every election. Despite the public discontent, President Diouf served four terms as President.

"Y’en a Marre" – enough is enough!

Significant opposition to Abdoulaye Wade’s presidency emerged when he announced in 2009 that he planned to run for a third term of presidency - despite the Senegalese constitution limiting presidents to two terms in office. In January 2012, Senegal’s highest court ruled that Wade would be allowed to run for a third term in office, given that the constitution had come into effect in 2001, a year after Wade had started his first term - thereby recognising his first term of presidency as falling under the previous constitution.

The court decision was met with violent protests across Senegal. At the forefront of the protests was the youth group called Y’en a marre, which had formed in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, in January 2011, and has subsequently gained international recognition.

Alioune Sané, journalist and founding member of Y’en a marre, explains the group’s origins:

“It is from a very particular context that Y’en a marre came to be. There was amongst many the feeling of social injustice, a paroxysm, the flood crisis was not being taken care of and the education was paralysed. The state was preoccupied with futilities, such as the monument of the African Renaissance.”

Young people everywhere in Senegal were protesting their discontent, but had no common banner to represent their grievances. Amongst the first members were the two writers Alioune Sané and Fadel Barro, a young student, a young marabout (Islamic teacher), and a rap duo Keur-gi. Very quickly they released a document called “The one thousand complaints against the state”, that included grievances from every social class of Senegal. In Rufisque (a popular neighbourhood of Dakar), there were 400 signatures on the petition within an hour.

As a consequence of their impact, various members were offered money and security outside Senegal by the Senegalese government to stop their activities. However, when they didn’t back down, threats followed and the members had to go into hiding. The movement survived and Y’en marre capitalised upon that to rally against the corrupt politicians. They recognised that the right to vote was the youth's best weapon. The group's impact expanded beyond young people, their message was embraced by citizens of all ages.

Their battle continues, and they have recently launched several units throughout Senegal, and chosen young local leaders. Alioune Sané stressed in his interview, that all leaders were not just committed but more importantly were chosen because they understood the grievances of their area. They are currently launching various programmes that include improving education, fostering peace, and monitoring elections and electoral promises.

Facilitating change

While comparing the most recent election to ones of the past, three differences stand out; the most visible is the use of social media. Twitter, Facebook, forums and websites were all mediums used to rally young people to come together. Its potential had been already demonstrated in Egypt and Tunisia, and in Senegal has followed suit. Despite the fact that only a small minority has access to a computer, let alone to Internet, social media played a critical role in the 2012 elections.

A second difference can be observed in the participation of a certain group of people, namely rappers. Two of the founding members of the group Y’en a marre were rappers from the group Keur Gi. Historically, Senegalese rappers have denounced the abuse of power by officials and chronicled the difficulties of the lives of Senegalese people and their music has reached even marginalised areas such as Guediawaye, Pikine, and Thiaroye. 

Lastly, this time the social problems far more diverse than outspoken students and high youth unemployment. A lack of electricity, water and other such basic necessities brought small businesses to a halt and corruption spiralled out of control. This meant almost everyone had a critical interest in these elections. Anyone of voting age was called upon to their potential in bringing about change.

These changes should leave Senegal optimistic about its future: young people whether educated or not, poor or not, threatened or not, are prepared to take a stand against their governments’ broken promises and they are better equiped than ever to make their grievances heard.

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