Senegal rising! Africa’s youngest elected president inspires hope amid challenges

Reclaiming our societies from colonialism and neocolonialism is part of the unfinished business in much of the Global South

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Jubilation exploded in the streets of Senegal when Bassirou Diomaye Faye of the Patriots of Senegal party (Pastef) won the presidency with over 54% of the votes cast.

(If the leading candidate had received fewer than 50% of the votes in the first round, a second round featuring the top two candidates would have had to be held).

Faye, a former tax inspector, defeated Amadou Ba, the nominee of the coalition that had ruled Senegal since 2012. That makes the 44-year-old left-wing pan-Africanist the youngest elected president in the continent.

Faye and Pastef campaigned on a platform to break free from the influence of France, their former colonial master. They vowed to chart a more independent course for Senegal.

Despite Senegal achieving formal independence in 1957, its economy and finances, along with those of other former French colonies, have been tightly controlled by France. This has stunted the economic progress of the former colonies and caused much resentment, especially among the youth.

This resentment has led to coups. Governments perceived as being too subservient to France have been overthrown – Mali in 2021, Burkino Faso in 2022 and Niger in July 2023.   

The road ahead for Senegal is far from smooth. As the table below shows, Senegal is underdeveloped – poorer than Malaysia – with a per capita income (based on purchasing power) that is a ninth that of Malaysia’s.

The relative poverty of Senegal is further highlighted in under-five mortality and maternal mortality rates.

The incoming government of the Pastef party faces monumental tasks. They are taking over a country which now imports about 70% of the food that the people consume.

This is the result of pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IPF) and the World Bank to slash trade tariffs. These agencies are fixated on the idea that free unhindered trade will speed up development in developing countries.

What happened instead was agricultural surpluses from Europe (which heavily subsidises its agricultural sector) flooded the markets of Senegal and other African countries, wiping out local food producers.

Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, which once supplied food to Europe during the colonial period, depend now on food imports to feed their people.

But as the table above shows, Senegal, like many other African countries, has a negative trade balance. Their merchandise exports are much less in value than their imports of goods.

And we have not yet considered the outflow of dividends, profits and loan repayments. These service sector outflows will further worsen the balance of payments situation.

So, Senegal is desperately short of the foreign exchange it needs to import food, medicines and other consumer essentials. The country also needs foreign exchange to bring in machinery and spare parts to raise its productive capacity.

The challenges sketched above – there are several others we have not gone into – are serious, but they are not insurmountable.

The conundrum facing the incoming government in Senegal is similar to what many nations in the Global South have faced over the past 60 years: how does one find the resources to meet the people’s legitimate expectations while rapidly developing the productive base of a society ravaged by colonial (and neocolonial) plunder.

Many economists have grappled with these issues. Dr Clive Y Thomas, an economist from Guyana in the Caribbean, is among those who have analysed what is needed to break out from underdevelopment.

In his book Dependence and Transformation, he suggests these measures:

  • Ramp up the production of basic foods locally. Make land available to those with farming skills. Support these farmers with water sources and fertilisers. And stop the intermittent flooding of the local market by EU agricultural surpluses. Food products should only be imported if domestic production is insufficient. Establish a floor price for the food products that local farmers produce, so that their vocation is sustainable
  • Become self-sufficient in the production of as many consumer goods as possible. Reserve scarce foreign for crucial imports such as medicines, medical and other equipment, and machinery to raise the productive capacity of the local economy. This might require the suspension – and later the renegotiation – of free trade agreements that stipulate low tariffs across the board
  • Process commodities before exporting them to increase export earnings
  • Curb the import of expensive consumer items used by the elite – imported cars, clothes and furniture – to conserve precious foreign exchange

All of these measures require ‘buy-in’ from the Senegalese population. It will be helpful to the incoming government if they have been educating their supporters that the underdeveloped condition of the Senegalese economy will require time and some sacrifices to overcome.

Regenerating the Senegalese economy would be easier if the party coming in to power has already created a cadre of educated and committed young people who understand their role in rehabilitating Senegalese society.

Hopefully, Pasaef has not campaigned using unrealistic, populistic campaign promises like “we win today, and tomorrow everyone will have an easy life”. 

Whether or not Senegal will be able to overcome its serious problems depends on the preparedness of the movement that has mobilised the people and created this window of opportunity.

Hopefully, apart from the issues above, they have also made concrete plans to monitor and prevent the corruption of their leaders by business people, both local and foreign. This is an ever-present danger in ‘free market’ societies, and movements which are serious about reforming society need to tackle this danger.

Reclaiming our societies from colonialism and neocolonialism is part of the unfinished business in much of the Global South. So too the building of sustainable economies to cater to our people’s needs.

Senegal’s move in this direction is a moment to celebrate. Let us wish the people all the best in their endeavour to rebuild their society.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a long-time Aliran member and contributor, served as Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput from 2008 to 2018. A respiratory physician who was awarded a gold medal for community service, he is also a secretariat member of the Coalition Against Health Care Privatisation and chairperson of the Socialist Party of Malaysia.
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Benedict Lopez
3 Apr 2024 7.12pm

I was in Senegal in April 1996. Even then I noticed that the country had the potential to move forward albeit the challenges. The country was one of the few stable democracies in Africa