On the Road in Dakar
On the Route de Aeroport in Dakar one can find horse-drawn carts; rollerbladers holding onto the back of cars; drummers riding on top of white buses that have “Alhamdulillah” (“All praise is due to Allah”) painted below the windshield; an endless parade of taxis, in varying states of repair; and pedestrians in traditional Senegalese clothing hoisting themselves over the center divider. On the sidewalks women walk with babies wrapped onto their backs, and men carry multiple flats of eggs on their heads—all the while avoiding children, goats, and the occasional herd of cattle.
Such is the road on a normal day. But on Sunday, June 26, things took a different turn. At about 10 am hundreds of young men came streaming out of the back streets of Yoff, a Muslim fishing village that is part of Dakar but still retains its distinct identity and traditions. The mob stormed across the Route de Aeroport, toward an airport hangar-like tent set up on a sandy construction site. In the background loomed the airport control tower and the city’s bizarre, hulking Monument of the African Renaissance. In short order, the tent was ablaze, and the swarm headed for the airport, where they met up with gendarmes in riot gear.
I watched the action from the terrace atop the guest house where my wife Toni and I had been staying with our infant son, Ellis, for the preceding six weeks. We initially thought it was another manifestation, a continuation of the anti-government protests that had rocked the country three days earlier. Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, who is officially 85 but is widely believed to be in his early 90s, triggered the rage when he tried to push through legislation aimed at helping ensure that he and his son, Karim, would prevail in the election slated for February 2012. Karim Wade currently heads no less than four ministries—energy, transportation, infrastructure, and state; and as revealed by Wikileaks, the outgoing U.S. ambassador referred to him as “Mr. 15%.” On the day of the vote, demonstrators threw rocks at the National Assembly building; elsewhere, government ministers’ homes became the targets. Fearful of attacks directly against them, Wade and the assembly dropped the legislation.
Yet on Sunday morning, the burning tent did not appear to be a government site of any kind, so we weren’t sure of the crowd’s intent. When the gendarmes turned them away at the airport wall, the protesters came through the auto junkyard, picking up tires that they then bounced across the adjacent soccer field back (and over) to the Route de Aeroport. While some spread the tires across the road, others gathered material to insert into them. The incendiary matter soon included stuff from our building’s garbage can from our building. Next thing I knew, a bag full of Ellis’s diapers was used to help set tires ablaze—a milestone in any young revolutionary’s life.
The flaming tires sent plumes of black smoke up towards our terrace, but the gendarmes’ response to the fires (as well as to the rocks being thrown at them) soon made the air even worse. On this otherwise sunny Sunday morning, we were now trying to take cover from tear gas. Toni took a wet wash cloth and headed downstairs with Ellis. It was the first experience with tear gas for each of us. Like most parents, we would have preferred to defer such hostilities until a later stage in our child’s development.
The conflict wound down by early afternoon, and for the rest of the day the many locals coming in and out of our building helped us figure out what had happened. The tent was home to a Nigerian-run Jehovah’s Witness church. The group was accused of trying to entice local teenagers to join by giving them money and, worse yet, by offering them alcohol, which is forbidden in Muslim Yoff. The tensions had been escalating, with local leaders holding meetings about the issue throughout the week leading up to the day of the blaze.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, I had heard someone in the neighborhood summoning people via loudspeaker—and it didn’t sound like the usual call to prayer. Apparently the local imam had put out the word to wreak havoc during the Sunday morning church service. Hundreds of young men eagerly complied. A quarter-mile away, angry locals also destroyed a restaurant, Piano Piano, that was seen as a haven of prostitution, with women from the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere rumored to be selling their goods for as little as eight bucks. On the last Sunday of June, the sinners were being cast out of Yoff.
In basic outline, the conflict first appeared to be a turf war, with the existing Muslim community hostilely defending itself against the encroachments of various foreign influences. But why did the protesters surge toward the airport or initiate the showdown with the gendarmes? Clearly there was some copycat behavior, as the recent rock-throwing battle outside the National Assembly had been shown constantly on TV over the past few days. Meanwhile, for the past few months, the Arab Spring had also been playing in many nearby theaters. But in a place with no recent history of political violence like Dakar, there needs to be a few more sparks than just angry young men amped up to fight.
Over the next 24 hours, the rage that had been simmering boiled over again. This time the catalyst had no connection to Nigerians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, booze, or prostitution. For the better part of Sunday through Monday, the power was out in Yoff (and many other places). A very common occurrence throughout the city and rest of the country, such outages are certainly an annoyance, especially on a hot, windless night when one is worried about mosquitoes and wants a fan to blow them away from the netting around the bed. And that’s just a tourist’s perspective—one can only imagine the multiple nuisances for locals who can’t afford generators (or don’t want to run them all the time).
That so much anger would be directed at the Wade regime seems perfectly understandable. The cost of living is high, but the government ministers are living well. The power keeps going out, and the minister in charge—Karim Wade—has not fixed an antiquated system based on diesel generators (and the fuel supply is reportedly low). The most dramatic statement of the Wade administration’s confused priorities is the $28 million Monument of the African Renaissance. Because it depicts people, many in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation view it as idolatrous; rumors of various sacrificial rituals, as well as Freemason influence, frequently surface in discussions of the monument’s origins. On top of the cultural and political insults, there is an aesthetic one—it’s an eyesore.
Things began to get real hot by early Monday evening. On her way home from the university, Toni got stuck in a taxi on the main highway, which was blockaded by anti-Wade protesters. Another smoke-filled fight ensued. Back at our place in Yoff with Ellis, I began to get frantic text messages from Toni, such as “Tear gas everywhere! We just locked ourselves in cab. Still stuck in traffic. The gas is bad!” No parenting manual I know of addresses such a situation. And the fact that I don’t speak Wolof or French made me triply terrified. Our pal Ndiaga took off on his scooter to see if he could extract Toni from the mayhem.
Toni’s taxi was eventually able to move through the blockade and make it home. But a few hours later, the Route de Aeroport would be barricaded again. Although the local leaders had this time discouraged them from doing so, the young men came out in full force again, illustrating the depth of their anti-Wade rage. There were reports that the mayor of Yoff, a Wade ally, had her home set ablaze. With summer just heating up, and the Wades defiantly clinging to power, every ride home in Dakar could be an adventure for the next several months.
That Monday night the burning tires were about 100 yards away from us, and presumably filled with some other baby’s diapers. The tear gas that fell on our terrace was more of a mist than a heavy shower. Ndiaga said that when he heard people on the street claim they were ready to burn down the airport runway, he talked them out of it, because we were leaving a few days later. Whether he had that much influence, I can’t say. But I do know that the three of us were very glad that the runway was still intact when we flew back at the end of the week.