How Musicians Mobilized a Movement to Defend Democracy
One of the few African countries to never experience a coup d’etat, the Republic of Senegal has always been relatively peaceful. But the nation has been in the limelight lately, as this year’s presidential elections provoked much civil unrest. While Senegal is not rich in minerals or other natural resources, its citizens have always prized the one resource they do have: democracy. Unfortunately, this was threatened in March when President Abdoulaye Wade hesitated to relinquish power upon completion of his term, inciting a season of protests and riots.
Driven by civilians’ refusal to suffer injustice under pseudo-democratic governments, the wave of political change that began in North Africa during last year’s Arab Spring has now spread beneath the Sahara, as over 15 African countries held presidential elections. Although once loved by the people, Wade, like so many other leaders, succumbed to corruption and nepotism to hold on to power. His unconstitutional third bid for presidency was simply the last straw. In protest, the Senegalese people engendered a powerful and successful movement to ensure that their voices were heard and democracy preserved during these elections.
As the people of Senegal strove to protect their democracy, the country’s rappers and musicians emerged as political leaders, spearheading the movement against Wade. Although the involvement of African musicians in politics and social activism is nothing new, world-renowned Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour took it one step further when, on January 2, he announced his candidacy for president of Senegal. The musician has long been an activist and a major force in the promotion of free expression in Senegal, and has carried out several developmental projects.
“I never had personal ambition to be president, but the situation is so bad at the moment,” N’Dour told the Sunday Telegraph on February 19. “Senegal needs a renaissance.”
Africa has a history of dedicated and compelling musicians who mobilize their people towards social and political change, among them the late Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba. Senegal is no exception. Extremely influential, especially in the lives of the youth, Senegalese musicians often use their fame to inform the people about government policies and social issues. Today, rap group Y’en a Marre, which means “fed up,” is one of the most prolific examples of this. They preach for the New Type of Senegalese (NTS), a group that promotes political activity and social consciousness, rapping about social injustices, politics, corruption, and a better Senegal. Y’en a Marre has also taken an active role outside of music, guarding voting arenas and mobilizing the youth to “reflect before they elect,” among other activities. But even in this context of politically active musicians, N’Dour’s decision to engage in front-line political action and run for president was exceptional.
Unfortunately, on January 27, Senegal’s Constitutional Council revoked N’Dour’s candidature, stating that most of the signatures collected were illegible. Few citizens found this surprising, but many were outraged. Although N’Dour’s lack of advanced education — he never completed high school — raised questions about his ability to serve as president, his supporters have always judged him based on his investments in the country’s media sector and his abilities as an efficient business man. According to a BBC article from January 5, N’Dour owns a micro-finance company, stakes in the country’s famous Thiossane nightclub, and two prominent music studios, employing thousands of Senegalese. In comparison, Wade spent $27 million building a narcissistic bronze statue for himself in 2010, while unemployment, power outage and high food prices were plaguing the country.
“What Senegalese are perhaps more worried about is the fact that, although they say President Wade has built roads… you can’t eat roads,” said NPR’s West Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, on February 27.
Despite his inability to run for president, N’Dour remained active during the presidential campaign, organizing political rallies and encouraging the people of Senegal to pay attention.
“We are allowing a dictatorship to set in here,” he warned a crowd in Dakar on February 19, one week before the elections. “Senegal needs to free itself, to rediscover its democracy.”
Along with the country’s mobilized youth, N’Dour and Y’en a Marre continued to spread their slogans everywhere in the city of Dakar, promoting the NTS and declaring “Don’t touch my constitution.” They did not relinquish and, in the end, the movement yielded results: on February 26, Wade did not receive enough votes to avoid a run-off election, and on March 27, after the second round of elections, his opponent, Macky Sall, was declared the winner.
Wade’s loss is good news for Senegal, but Sall’s victory is bittersweet. Although his win will prevent a dictatorship under Wade, he seems to be of the same school of thought as the former president — especially since he worked with Wade as prime minister and protégé.
Still, this year’s elections have roused the people of Senegal, and Sall will be watched with a critical eye. N’Dour, Y’en a Marre, and all of the ordinary citizens who risked their lives for this democracy are awake and vigilant. They will continue to support and protect their democracy and will constantly remind Sall’s government that they are here — the New Type of Senegalese.
Ihuoma Mambo Atanga, also known as Chichi, is a multimedia producer and editor of the West African culture blog MediAfritiQ.com. She is currently a media studies and management graduate student at the New School for Public Engagement.