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GO TO SENEGAL – AND WONDER!

By NBF News

This is a rather strange title, considering the fact that the Senegal, a Peninsula, West African Francophone, country, which is also a coastline country is not one of the countries of Africa or the larger developing world that have made significant advance-in global economic terms. My recent trip to Senegal, my first ever, courtesy of the National Institute's annual study tours of selected African countries, has exposed to my mind's eye a number of perspectives, regarding the whole question of the West African and African integration in economic, political and cultural terms- within the context of ECOWAS, African Union and its economic dimension through NEPAD.

I must quickly state here, in an expedient but relevant digression, that when I said it was my first visit to Senegal, I have a critical paradox in mind. That is the fact that internal travel in Africa for Africans is a rarity. Most African intellectuals and even middle class elite, dash in and out, off and on, to Western countries—Europe and America but we hardly know our own continent. It is impossible to visit one sub-region of Africa from another without having to go through one European country or the other. The situation may have slightly improved, nowadays, but it is largely true that we can and do travel more easily in Europe and America, and even within distant Asian countries than we do in travel in our own continent. This is a major impediment to the whole question of integration, given the critical educational value of travels. We scarcely know ourselves, except in gratuitous and glorified terms of our undying wish for a pa-African unity in political an economic terms. Let me return to the topic of my title—Senegal.

A few facts about Senegal may be handy for those who, like me until this trip, don't know the country and other West African neighbouring countries—not just for general educational purpose but within the context of development of Ex-colonies, either of Britain, France or Portugal and the impact of all of that on the fortunes and destinies of the countries. It is also germane to the whole question of African development and integration in a globalizing world. Senegal's population is about 14 million—a bout the numerical strength or Lagos or Kano States. It is about the farthest tip of West Africa and the continent to the West, largely surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, through which the trans-Atlantic slave trade made one of its most despicable routes in the heinous human traffic of over three centuries. The Goree Island, perhaps the most infamously important slave ports— replicated, of course, in Badagry and Ghana—lies on the Atlantic by Senegal.

Senegal, the erstwhile headquarter of French West Africa, is a relatively poor country with a number of highly unique, intriguing and instructive features. In spite of its poverty, Senegal is about the most politically stable democracy in Africa. It is a country where no military governance has ever found its feet. The only, recorded military attempted coup in 1962 was foiled and the military became highly integrated into the governance structure of the State by the visionary, first President of Senegal, the cultural intellectual and poet-politician—Leopold Sedar Senghor. It is true that longevity in a democratic state is not necessarily synonymous with progress and development but it is defendable to say that Senegal runs a stable, functional democratic government.

This has attracted substantial foreign investment to that donation-dependent country. This cannot be said of many African countries, including our country where decades of military interregnum have left the nations in politically incoherent states, with democracies remaining, inevitably, fledgling and fragile. Surrounding countries to Senegal, including Guinea Bissau where a protracted liberation struggle of a revolutionary stature, as led by the great revolutionary and freedom fighter-Amilcar Cabral, remains today, in a parlous, anarchic state. Ditto Guinea and Mauritania.

Other West African states that are still crawling democracies are the war-torn, Ecomog-rescued Sierra-Leone and Liberia. Senegal is a poor but stable and secure country enjoying a large dose of confidence and financial assistance from organizations and agencies. This, of course, cannot be cited as an index of development in itself as no country can be considered a developed country which relies, heavily for its budgetary capital, on foreign aid. What I find most instructive, if not intriguing, is that a poor, even relatively impoverished country like Senegal enjoys minimal social discontent, social insecurity—of life and unbroken property and democratic stability. Sociologists are wont to attribute high crime rates and national insecurity to poverty, unemployment and illiteracy.

All of these abound in Senegal without its attendant implicaturs. The country seems then to provide a case-study for sociologists and political analysts. Night life is safe and serene in Dakar. Crime rate is very low and property and life are largely safe. You find hawkers leaving their wares in their little kiosks overnight and coming back the next morning to resume business.

In spite of its low economy, Senegal has devoted a substantial ratio of its annual budget to education. Indeed, the government, and more appreciably so with the present government of Abdoulaye Wade, has made basic education free and compulsory. This was effected as an act of constitution. About 40 per cent of its annual budget is allocated to education. This is far in advance of the 26 per cent minimum recommended by the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The educational sector of Senegal has been greatly liberalized, providing access to the private sector willing to participate in the educational development of the country.

I have made slight reference above to the massive and systematic integration of the armed forces in the social economy of the nation, making political ambitions unattractive and unthinkable in Senegal and thus stabilizing the democracy. There is a Ministry of Armed Forces headed by a civilian Minister with all the Army and National Gendarmerie (a military force with police and security responsibility) Chief of Staff and the Chief of Defense Staff being members of the Executive of the Ministry.

The armed forces are heavily involved in the nation's health scheme and other health services with a positive effect on the nation's health care delivery.

I found an impressive political and leadership foresight in the establishment of the Senegal Refinery Company (Societe Africaine de Raffinaire) by a country that has no drop of crude oil under its soil. This was done by Senghor's government as far back as 1962, long before oil prospecting commenced in earnest in Nigeria. This early recognition of the place of energy in national, economic development by a nation without petroleum and gas prospects is instructive, especially when you come to learn that the greatest source of crude oil supply for the refinery of Senegal comes from Nigeria—a country with one of the highest crude oil deposits in the world!

With four large refineries in Nigeria built since the seventies, with none of them ever producing to a quarter of its optimal capacities, or even hardly functioning now, it is a matter for commendation to the visionary leadership of Senegal as Nigeria even exports refined petroleum products form Senegal. We must also note, without seeming to rob it in, that Nigeria is one of the major hand-out givers, in monetary terms, to the Senegalese government and for which the government of Senegal is implacably grateful!

One of the very interesting sectors of governance in Senegal is the legislature. The legislative arm of government comprises of the Senate and a National Assembly. The body is an elected one with its campaigns sponsored by government indirectly through free slots in the nation's press. The parliament receives salaries like civil servants without any bogus allowances or constituency funds. Thus, they are largely able to maintain their independence and produce Bills without let or hindrance from government.

Even though, in recent times, the President appoints a high percentage of the members of the Senate—a development which many have criticized heavily as anti-democratic— the general feeling is that the legislature in Senegal is by and large very vibrant. Recently the legislature passed a bill on parity—which will ensure that men and women have equal percentage in political and civil appointments in the country. This is, perhaps, the most forward-looking act by any parliament of legislature in Africa. It is hoped that it works and can become a model of democratic practice on the continent.

True. Senegal's economy is weak, and largely dominated by foreigners; true, there is trouble at the backyard of the country, with the virtual, protracted war in Cassamance, and Guinea Bissau; true, the per capital income of the country is low and there is massive unemployment; yet, there is no question that there are strong potentials for growth in a country with a stable democratic culture, secure and disciplined populace. There is a fair chance of Senegal developing into a thriving economy.