In Senegal, the left has given up fighting for its ideals – interview with MIF Scholar Rama Salla Dieng
According to academic Rama Salla Dieng, the Senegalese left, absent from the upcoming presidential election on 24 February, is paying for its successive compromises with the Liberals.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Interview by Coumba Kane. Published on 16 February 2019 by Le Monde.
For the first time in Senegal’s political history, the Socialist Party (PS) will not put forward a candidate for the presidential election on 24 February. In power from 1960 to 2000 under Léopold Sédar Senghor and subsequently Abdou Diouf, the PS then supported the coalition of outgoing President Macky Sall under the leadership of Ousmane Tanor Dieng.
Rama Salla Dieng, a lecturer at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK, analyses the reasons for the failure of the Senegalese left.
Is the lack of a socialist candidate for the presidential election surprising?
Yes. However, this has been a long time coming, and the turning point was in 2000 with the election of Abdoulaye Wade. Until then, the Senegalese political spectrum was polarised between liberals and socialists. It was under the authorisation of Abdou Diouf (1981–2000), a socialist president, that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment programmes were implemented and the CFA franc devalued. Then came Abdoulaye Wade in 2000. He further blurred the traditional political lines by pushing a socialist agenda while being a liberal at heart. As the champion of sopi (meaning ‘change’ in Wolof), his social transformation project saw increased state intervention in the economy through subsidies for agriculture and energy.
In a similar vein, Macky Sall, himself a former socialist who converted to liberalism, diluted his programme of social measures such as scholarships for the poorest households. These years were marked by internal struggles within the left-wing parties: the PS, the National Democratic Rally and And-Jëf (African Party for Democracy and Socialism). The fragmentation of the political left was cemented by the participation of certain key figures such as Mamadou Diop Decroix, Amath Dansokho, Djibo Ka and Abdoulaye Bathily in consensus governments led by liberal prime ministers.
Recently, two other socialist figures, Aissata Tall Sall and Khalifa Sall, have joined liberal presidential candidates Macky Sall and Idrissa Seck. Is the right-left divide still relevant?
These unions are causing further disruption on the political scene. The left has not proposed an agenda for 20 years; it collaborates with the Liberals. In urban centres, traditionally socialist elites are being seduced by the ruling party and this trend is also apparent at the local level. As part of my research in the Louga and Saint-Louis regions, I have witnessed this phenomenon of ‘political transhumance’ among many mayors and religious leaders. However, it would be a mistake to sum up the left in reference to its political ‘dinosaurs’. It’s better to speak of ‘lefts’.
Has the left given up defending its ideas and values?
Yes. The historical left, from independence through to the 1990s, was anti-establishment. Its leaders took part in the social struggles of May 1968. Many were imprisoned or went underground to survive until the full multi-party system was introduced in 1981. Leaders such as Landing Savané or Abdoulaye Bathily belonged to parties that fought for and advocated respect for civil liberties and equality. In the 1980s, they denounced the structural adjustment policies imposed by international institutions that harmed the poorest members of society. That left allied itself with other African leftist movements or the international community to lead the fight. But since the late-1990s, the left-wing parties have barely reacted to attacks on civil liberties.
Where does the battle of ideas take place?
The battle of ideas takes place mainly outside the political sphere. Trade unions continue to epitomise this, but other players have also been addressing it in recent years. Debates have taken place in civil society, within religious movements that are increasingly attracting young people (especially at universities), within civic movements that have a watchdog role and, very significantly, on social media. Some abstentionists choose to invest in these pockets of resistance which, for them, symbolise hope. The battle of ideas should be seen as a quest for meaning: people should understand that progressive ideas are the prerogative of neither the left nor the right.