I spend a lot of time making fun of myself on this site. I also spend a lot of time discussing some pretty silly things. My next post will be a prime example, I promise.
This one is different. I hope that, beyond all the silliness, a common thread has emerged from this website. I set out trying to counteract some commonly held misconceptions about this region, or at least to give a little nuance to an unfairly characterized corner of the world. Unfortunately, every now and then, violence happens. And therein lies the conflict for major western news outlets. To ignore these events is irresponsible, to give them airtime only falls right into much of the western world’s limited comprehension of this region.
This last week has not been a good one for Mali and Senegal. I arrived in Dakar two days ago. So far, I’ve had a great time, though this city hasn’t.
Since my arrival, Dakar has been a site of protest. Traffic has been insane. The city center has been packed daily. People without televisions have been sitting outside general stores, restaurants, or even homes staring as the news cycles images of protest, masked gendarmes firing rubber bullets, injured protesters limping or being carried to nearby medics. It’s been impossible to escape, the Africa’s Cup providing the only respite from an otherwise grim news cycle (Ghana won yesterday and advanced to the next round… hell yeah).
It hasn’t been hard to see whose side the news is on. Except for the state-sponsored channel, each professor or politician interviewed spoke of preserving Senegal’s now fragile democracy. So far, four people have been killed countrywide.
The precedent for abuse of term limits and electoral fraud in Africa is strong. It has retarded once prosperous, functioning democracies like Cote D’Ivoire and turned them into war zones where investors and NGOs fear to tread. Many Senegalese are sensitive to this, and see president Abdoullaye Wade’s party’s augmentation of his constitutional term limits as a dangerous step in that direction. This recent wave of protests has been in response to a supreme court ruling that upheld the decision. I can’t say I blame the protesters. The elections are at the end of this month. If he doesn’t step down and then wins the election, the situation in Dakar could get ugly fast.
The Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali has once again taken a violent turn. Rebels, many recently returned after fighting for Gaddafi’s military in Libya, have attacked six towns in the last two weeks. Their most recent attack has garnered the most attention. Niafunke is Ali Farka Toure’s hometown, and the site of a huge part of Mali’s musical tradition. I was also there less than a month ago which is pretty surreal.
In an interesting and related musical anecdote, the Festival Au Desert’s most anticipated act, Tinariwen, came onstage to rousing fanfare. Soon, however, the crowd lost a lot of its enthusiasm, as it became obvious that they were missing members. A drunk aussie behind me at one point referred to the group as “Tinariwen’s B team.” It turns out, their most recognizable member and principle singer Ibrahim ag Alhabib has joined the rebel forces.
Though many Tuaregs share the rebels’ separatist sentiment, most don’t advocate violence, and they’re certainly not accustomed to it. If the situation doesn’t calm down, Tuareg refugees could begin spilling into the rest of the country. Phil from Phil in the Blank has been in touch with our hosts from the Festival Au Desert. They’re ok, but needless to say unhappy and apprehensive about the future.
On the other side of the coin, the deaths of Malian troops in northern Mali have sparked a wave of protests in Bamako. Wives are understandably angry that the government is sending their husbands to protect these villages without adequate preparation or equipment. According to friends, much of the city has been closed, and it has been hard to find a bus out, since people are leaving en masse. The situation remains safe, but as always, potentially volatile.
Here’s hoping that these situations die down soon.
If only we could all reconcile our differences over football matches. Speaking of that, the second round of the Africa’s Cup starts in two days. I hope you’re as excited as I am.