Street protests

It never felt very likely that the unrest in the Arab countries would spread to sub-Saharan Africa, although I’ve heard many wishing for it. However the authorities are clearly nervous.

There are to be a number of demonstrations here in Dakar tomorrow, one to mark the 11th anniversary of the election of the current president, and others by various opposition groups, but demonstrations are not that unusual here. However, I was surprised to see on TV the other night a broadcast, like an advert, clearly addressing those planning to attend the demonstrations. “Stop violence” it started, with pictures of peaceful demonstrators behind the message. Then it went on to demand respect for the law, protection of the country’s stability and the need to keep the peace, ending finally with a demand to “Say no to violence”. The whole thing lasted for at least two minutes.

It’s true that there are many problems facing people here in addition to the ongoing issues that go with underdevelopment. As in the rest of the world, food prices keep rising - I guess this is the issue hurting people most at present. Unemployment is very high, particularly in the capital. & adding to the frustrations are the power cuts. We are used to having a couple of months with sporadic power cuts during the rainy season, but now we have power only around 50% of the day and this has been going on since last summer. It started with the purchase by the national electricity company of some dodgy fuel which damaged the generating plant, but subsequent audits have revealed delapidated machinery resulting from years of inadequate maintenance, plus a financial structure which means they are losing some $300,000 per day (as the electricity costs more to generate than they are selling it for – and it would not be a good time to put the price up!). No-one really knows when the issues will be resolved.

However, the Senegalese do not suffer from the political and social repression of many Arab countries. There is a free (and very vocal) press here, there is a real democracy, which the next elections due in 2012. & there is free association – people have the right to march, to demonstrate. Unfortunately though when the people are frustrated and angry, as they are now, demonstrations that start off peacefully can turn a bit nasty. We’ve had plenty of tires burnt in previous marches (why do people burn tires?), windows smashed, and even recently a bus was burnt in a protest about the energy situation (why a bus? how does that hurt the electricity company?). The police often get out the tear gas.

So whilst I don’t fear a full-scale revolt a la Libya, I think I may be staying indoors tomorrow.

Update since I drafted this last night: an email from the British Embassy warning us to avoid crowds and demonstrations because of potential violence.

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