In March, Senegal experienced unprecedented popular protests. Recently released from prison, activist Guy Marius Sagna, founding member of the Front for an Anti-Imperialist Popular and Pan-African Revolution (Frapp–France Dégage), argues in this interview with Florian Bobin and Maky Madiba Sylla that anti-imperialism is gaining ground in the country. While welcoming this upsurge in popular mobilization, he warns African progressives against the “manoeuvres of imperialism and its local henchmen” and contends that a sovereign Senegal can only be achieved “within a united and sovereign Africa.”
Florian Bobin and Maky Madiba Sylla: Guy Marius Sagna, you have been fighting for years for a sovereign Senegal: facing the neo-colonial status quo prevailing since independence, you call for blocking the road to foreign interference through “pan-African anti-imperialism.” Where does this political awareness come from?
Guy Marius Sagna: I was lucky enough to have an uncle, Ludovic Alihonou, who was a member of a left-wing organization, [African Workers Rally – Senegal], organized within the framework of a newspaper called Ferñent (“The Spark” in Wolof), in reference to Iskra, [official organ of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party]. So, it was these left-wing activists – Birane Gaye, Assane Samb, Fodé Roland Diagne – who took charge of my education from the age of 11-12. Later, militants like Alla Kane, Moctar Fofana Niang, Madièye Mbodj, Jo Diop, Malick Sy, Ousseynou Ndiaye, etc., were added to the group. We are the heirs of our glorious predecessors: from Lamine Ibrahima Arfang Senghor, Seydou Cissokho, Birane Gaye, the elders Alla Kane, Dialo Diop to Cheikh Anta Diop. We can go further back in history, with Aline Sitoé Diatta, [Biram] Yacine Boubou, and even our religious resistants Mame [Cheikh Amadou] Bamba, Maba Diakhou Bâ. Studying and reading people like Omar Blondin Diop will only give us the tools to better analyse history and especially the present and better guide us out of poverty and underdevelopment.
When you are raised by the left, your understanding of life is that the misfortune of the majority is made by the happiness of an overpowering minority. To understand why there is so much homelessness and poverty in France – the same France that claims to be helping us while letting its own people freeze to death – it is because there is a system called capitalism, which can only function through the oppression of the majority in the capitalist centres and the oppression of the majority in the peripheries, to speak like Samir Amin. This is the vision of life that I have inherited, a political vision that it is the people who make history and that it must be taught that no one else will come to save them.
This is why, for decades, we have been standing alongside unpaid workers, like public kindergarten teachers. My first imprisonment in 2012-2013 was part of this struggle: five days in prison in Tambacounda [in the southeast of Senegal] alongside nine teachers. We had blocked the national road to Tambacounda following months of unfruitful struggle. And since 2012, nearly a thousand kindergarten teachers have been trained and paid thanks to these struggles. So yes, freedom comes only through struggle. We have also stood by other fighting actors, like arbitrarily dismissed contractual Senelec (National Electricity Company of Senegal) workers, who were able to be recruited again. We stood by workers like those at the PCCI call centre (PCCI is a multinational outsourcing company), who went 14 months without pay. And that battle was won. In this struggle, we have been beaten, detained several times, inhaled tear gas.
When big businesses like Auchan and Carrefour were setting up in Senegal, there existed no regulation for supermarkets. We had to fight and say “Auchan dégage” (Auchan get out), with, of course, content to it: we asked the state to suspend their contract and make an impact assessment of what would be the consequences. “Auchan dégage” was also to hold a conference on domestic trade, to see what went wrong and why Senegalese markets are the way they are: what is the share of responsibility of citizens, municipalities, retailers, the state and how to have Senegalese markets that meet the needs of its people. Because it is neither Lidl, nor Walmart, nor Leclerc, nor Auchan, nor Carrefour that will transform Senegal: they are going to come, skim off the profits and take them back abroad. Of course, many of our people will follow these benefits out of a bled-dry Africa: that is the tragedy of immigration.
Facts have only reinforced my worldview. Facts may contradict theory, but in my personal experience, this theory, this political vision of life, inherited from my worthy predecessors, has only been reinforced, refined by the tragic reality of the Senegalese people. We fight while being Gramscians, that is to say having the pessimism of analysis: we give blows to the neo-colonial system, but this neo-colonial system will not remain inert to our blows. It will not accept that it can be struck like that. While having the pessimism of analysis that neo-colonialism is going to do everything, imperialism will be more and more ferocious–we maintain an optimism of the will. The optimism of the will is to know that whatever imperialism does, whatever the alliance between imperialism and Africans who accept to be its servants do, the peoples can be strong enough to transcend this, and ultimately win.
The popular uprising from March 2021, expressive of a generalized resentment toward the country’s ruling political class, is an illustration of this power balance you describe. Throughout February and early March, dozens of Pastef-Les Patriotes opposition party activists, members of the Frapp movement – yourself included – and various citizens were arrested and imprisoned for their political activities [Fraapp is Front for an Anti-Imperialist Popular and Pan-African Revolution]. What is your take on the situation in Senegal?
I think that what happened recently is an uprising, a revolt, not a revolution. Now, many uprisings, many revolts can lead to revolution. And an organization like Frapp is trying to contribute to the advent of this revolution. What happened recently is at least two things. First, it is expressive that neo-colonialism, imperialism, is afraid because there is an unprecedented situation in Senegal. Never in Senegal, since 1960, has a candidate been campaigning against the CFA franc, against the EPAs (Economic Partnership Agreements), against foreign military presences – let’s say against the neo-colonial system. This is the first time in Africa, in a country formerly colonized by France, at least in West Africa, that a candidate has 16 percent of the vote while campaigning openly against imperialism. And I think that President Macky Sall knows that if nothing is done fundamentally, the fifth President will be called Ousmane Sonko, [which means] the victory of an anti-imperialist political family. They understand the danger; they know that those fighting still have a lot of room to manoeuvre and that the political parties that imperialism relies on are much more discredited. And this discredit will grow increasingly worse. [Sonko is a leader of the Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party and an MP; his arrest on 3 March triggered a wave of youth protest that Guy Marius Sagna is referring to].
The second thing to decipher is that the awareness-raising campaign against imperialism has made great strides in Senegal. This way of going out in the street, of mobilizing, is unprecedented in Senegal. And it is the result of work to which several organizations have contributed: so-called nationalist, patriotic, pan-African, anti-imperialist organizations. When we created Frapp, we said: “We want to contribute to putting questions of sovereignty – economic and monetary sovereignty, but also popular and democratic sovereignty – at the heart of the political, economic and social debate.” We must radically transform the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world; Africa must stop being the rest of the world’s wallet. But we must also transform the relationship between the people, the citizens and the elites who come to power. We have states held hostage by elected officials who are not servants [of the people] because of the political system.
I believe that democracy is for the people to choose: either in the ballot box or in the street. For me, when the people of Burkina Faso ousted [Blaise] Compaoré [in October 2014], that is democracy. But for me also, if a people oust Macky Sall and elects a pan-African through the ballot box, it would prevent deaths. But everyone knows that a class as a class never abdicates. The member of a class can commit revolutionary suicide, to speak like Amílcar Cabral. But a class as a class never commits suicide. The parasitic Senegalese bureaucratic bourgeoisie, subservient to imperialism in general, will never willingly accept that Senegal enters the camp of pan-Africanism, of anti-imperialism. Imperial France will never accept that its former colonies leave its private preserve. Senegal is Françafrique’s “democratic showcase”; Ivory Coast is Françafrique’s “economic showcase.” We are the pillars of Françafrique. If only one of these two countries leave, Françafrique collapses, the CFA Franc collapses. That is what is at stake. So, organizations like Pastef or the Frapp are a danger.
France, imperialism in general, sees that this private preserve is slipping away. And throughout these past years, we have heard France and its supporters in the media say: “there is an anti-French sentiment.” In reality, it is not an anti-French sentiment; it is an anti-imperialist sentiment. What country does not wish to be free? Yes, we have a deep desire for freedom. Not, like France or the United States, to oppress other peoples… An anti-imperialist, a consequential pan-Africanist, wants to be free and be sovereign but not oppress others. On the contrary, to work so that they be free.
Malcolm X explained that when Black people start becoming conscious, the first step is to hate White people. When populations also begin to be anti-imperialist, they hate its external aspects, hence the ransacking of Auchan, Total, of French symbols. It’s the same process. It’s not bad, but you have to quickly raise your consciousness and understand that there are Whites who are as oppressed as Blacks, that it’s the same system. You have to refuse division and manipulation of racial, religious, ethnic or national sentiments aimed at weakening and dividing workers and peoples in struggle. When the ordinary, conventional voices are no longer able to hold down workers and peoples, to make them accept their oppression, the oppressors – if you study history of humanity – have always resorted to using division through manipulating ethnic religious and racial sentiments. So that today, they prevent people from looking to neo-colonialism, and that Peuls come and say: “you, the Wolof, are the cause of my situation”; that Sereers use Joolas as scapegoats. That’s why someone like Karl Marx said to the White workers: “the White worker will never be emancipated as long as the Black worker is oppressed.”
Imperialism and its local henchmen – the bureaucratic bourgeoisie led by President Macky Sall – will manoeuvre. I think that, in some ways, the religious leaders saved Macky Sall. If it was not for them, he might not have spent an [extra] night in Senegal. But with the March uprising, it’s the first time in a very long time that an African people from one of the countries formerly colonized by France has blocked the ruling bureaucratic bourgeoisie against an opponent. Look at what happened in Ivory Coast or Guinea. The voices of the revolution, liberation or emancipation are unfathomable. Perhaps this was the preview to a much more significant struggle to come. For me, what happened recently is a step in the very long struggle of the Senegalese people… This is the umpteenth stage. And there is reason to be hopeful with the people and the youth.
In response to the protests that rocked Senegal in March, the government used live fire and marauding militias to crush the movement, recalling the single-party state’s violent methods 50 years ago. In addition to the hundreds injured, fourteen people died in less than a week. Many accounts have also painted a chilling picture of prison conditions. What can you tell us about political repression in Senegal today?
First, I often hear people say that [Leopold Sedar] Senghor left us a state, [but he] left us a neo-colonial state. And for there to be a neo-colonial state with solid foundations, it was necessary to go through this repression and “reduce resistance to its simplest expression.” This is what President Senghor tirelessly did. I believe he had the best profile to continue to make Senegal a “little Paris”; to perpetuate the cooperation agreements; to make our Constitution the twin of the French Constitution; to leave the CFA franc untouched; to make our official language French and to continue, from the cradle, to dominate the Senegalese in their minds. France needed to leave to stay better. When we see what we are living, it gives you the impression – even if today there is social media and all that – that almost nothing has changed. We are almost in the same positions, the same contexts as in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1950s, some said “yes to independence” and others “no to independence” or that we should remain in the French sphere. Today, there are still those who say, “France get out,” “Auchan get out,” that we must get out of the CFA Franc and those who say that the CFA Franc is a good currency.
Yes, because of our actions, our activities and our struggles, we face acts of repression that remind us of what our predecessors experienced decades ago. First, it is often very difficult to get permits to demonstrate …We have been invited by people in certain localities in Senegal, and I was surprised to hear the locality’s sub-prefect say that they had to ask him for authorization to invite me and that he gave it before I could come. It is no longer participating in a banned demonstration that gets you into police custody or prison, but the simple fact of taking a letter and going to police headquarters to inform the prefect, who then takes the liberty of banning or not.
In police stations, you are also a victim of many other things. I remember being slapped hard by prison officers there. I arrived at court, the guard who was doing the search told me: “Guy Marius, you are back again. You really are an asshole.” And when I told him that he “was much more of an asshole than I was,” I received a slap in the face. In one of the central police station’s cells, we are sometimes dumped there and, to urinate, we are forced to use the same water bottles we drink out from. But we understand that one of the functions of defence and security forces in a neo-colony like Senegal is frightening the population. And so, subjecting demonstrators and protestors to such treatment that they no longer feel like resisting; that they surrender, that they become afraid, that their parents and their families become terrified. You regularly hear that comrades are tortured. The latest is one of the protesters arrested on February 8 and 9, 2021: they took him out of his cell at the central police station and brought him upstairs. There, they kicked him in the testicles. And then the Senegalese police threatens … those who would accuse them of torture.
This is why even ordinary citizens who are not fighters, or are arrested in a context other than resistance, are victims of the fact that our defence and security forces are neo-colonial, the heirs of colonial France. This is how we must understand that a citizen like Pape Sarr, simply accused of stealing a sheep, was tortured in the Thiaroye police station, diluent poured on him and electrocuted, before catching fire and dying like a mummy in his bandages at the hospital [in July 2018]; Seck Ndiaye found [dead] in his room, beaten by five police officers [in June 2018]; Abdoulaye Timera hit by a police car on the Allées du Centenaire [in April 2018]. And so far, for all these cases and others, no justice, no truth…
I worked at the regional hospital in Sédhiou, one of the two or three poorest regions in Senegal, and discovered the system and mechanism through which its different directors embezzled money. Since 2014, when I spoke publicly about it, I have been pushed to the sideline by the Ministry of Health. So, since 2014, I have had no office, no place to work. The Senegalese State prefers to have me in the street rather than in work, so I don’t see things to denounce and they can keep me in a precarious situation, preventing me from thinking and acting optimally for the anti-imperialist and pan-Africanist struggle. But our worthy predecessors were victims of the same methods. These are the same practices inherited from the colonial past, which are, in fact, not a past but more than ever a feature of contemporary reality.
You just mentioned anti-imperialism and pan-Africanism. In line with the long history of theorizing and implementing the pan-African ideal, the “United States of Africa,” as Cheikh Anta Diop spoke of it, what is your vision of it in the early 2020s?
I think that today, necessarily for all African states, Senegal included, there will be no way out of underdevelopment and poverty without sovereignty. In other words, sovereignty is today a sine qua non condition, a necessary condition, so that we can get out of the situation where 64% of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) collapse in Senegal before their third years. How can you solve the problem of unemployment when Senegalese SMBs have such a high mortality rate? Being sovereign will also allow us to solve scandals such as four women dying every day from pregnancy or sixty children under five dying every day from minor illnesses such as acute respiratory infections, i.e. coughs, colds, diarrhoea, malaria. That’s more than 25,000 children [per year]. Elsewhere, we would have spoken of genocide. Yes, the imperialist system is genocidal.
So, we need to be sovereign in Senegal, in Gambia, in Mauritania, in Mali, in Burkina Faso, etc. We need to escape imperialism and have states that guarantee and ensure monetary sovereignty, commercial sovereignty, military sovereignty—all sovereignties. Even this language that we use, French, we have to escape from it. Our children – whether Wolof, Jaxanke, Bassari, Koñagi, Puular, Joola, Sereer – must be able to learn in their languages. Because a language is first and foremost a vision of life. By educating our children with a different vision of life, we make them little French people. And so, instead of wearing Ngaay shoes [leather sandals], like the ones I’m wearing, we prefer wearing Italian or French. Instead of eating fondé [millet porridge], using our millet, sorghum, corn, we will prefer eating camembert. We must therefore wrest this sovereignty.
In order to be viable and sustainable, the project of a sovereign Senegal will only be done within a united and sovereign Africa. How will sixteen million Senegalese citizens be able to face three hundred million Americans, a state with a billion Chinese or some three hundred million of the European Union? Our micro-states cannot guarantee it in the long term. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania, or Senegal and Guinea, decided today to have a federal state. If it is on the scale of ECOWAS or of West Africa, it could work. We should not underestimate anything. The problem is that progressives are not at the head of these different states, and we don’t know when they will be. So, we can’t say, “We need fifty-four states to be united.” That’s why everyone has to fight, and if everyone wins in their state, we will win everywhere.
We need a sovereign Africa, disconnected from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, from the World Trade Organization, from fisheries agreements and other EPAs with the European Union, from foreign military presences – whether French or American. An African unity that can have a common policy in terms of employment, agriculture, education. A currency that serves the fight against unemployment and allows us to put enough credit in the hands of our farmers and employers—people cannot claim that “since the others have not yet left the CFA franc, we cannot leave.” A policy that allows us to give markets, when possible, to Africans and not export our jobs by giving our markets to foreign companies. And even where we do not yet have the capacity, signing agreements so that, very quickly, there is a transfer of technology. But Senegal’s sixteen million inhabitants, Gambia’s two or three million inhabitants, what weight can they have against these mastodons to impose a rapid transfer of technology?
But we must be careful with institutions like ECOWAS. I am one to think that even French Equatorial Africa and French West Africa [the French colonial division of Africa] were also a type of African unity. But African unity serving imperialism. It is not this African unity that we seek – an African Union whose headquarters are financed and whose microphones are listened to by China, whose budget, like that of ECOWAS, comes more from the European Union and the United States.
To be pan-African for me today is necessarily to be anti-imperialist. Their vision of uniting Africa is to serve imperialism, but also African bourgeoisies. For me, Afro-liberalism, with agreements like the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), is not pan-Africanism. Free trade is a law that allows big fish to eat small fish. It is an open boulevard to Western capitalist companies and multinational corporations in a context where we talk about companies under Senegalese law… yet its capital and owners are not even African.
Whoever may implement free trade, it will be destructive, dramatic and tragic for the majority. Tragic as our youth dying in the Sahara desert, the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea; like the fact that 54% of the Senegalese population can neither read nor write; like the fact that we import 64 billion [CFA Francs] of dairy products every year and export our jobs through them, maintaining our farmers, their children and their families in poverty…
To get out of this tragedy that is neo-colonialism, it is urgent today to be sovereign: a sovereign Senegal in a sovereign and united Africa.
Florian Bobin is a researcher in African history studying post-colonial liberation struggles and state violence from the 1960s and 1970s in Senegal.
Maky Madiba Sylla is a Senegalese artist and filmmaker, co-director of the documentary El Maestro Laba Sosseh (Linkering Productions, 2021).
Featured Photograph: Guy Marius Sagna during a press conference in Dakar on March 25, 2021, the day after his release from prison, courtesy of Seyllou Seyllou (AFP)