Economics and politics for liberation: an interview with Ndongo Sylla

In an interview with ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig, writer, researcher and activist Ndongo Samba Sylla speaks about his work, French imperialism in Africa, and the struggle for economic and political liberation in Senegal and the continent. Ndongo continues Samir Amin’s search for anti-capitalist political alternatives, grounded in a radical analysis of trends and developments across Africa, and the Global South.  

Leo Zeilig: Comrade, can you introduce yourself to readers? Please tell us a little about your background, activism, and work.

Ndongo Sylla: I was born in Senegal and educated there, primarily at the Prytanée Militaire de Saint-Louis. After I obtained my baccalauréat, I was offered a grant-aided place at a prestigious French military academy, with the assurance of becoming an officer in the Senegalese army after five to six year, but I decided instead to study social sciences in France, an option that also fitted better with my burgeoning ‘career’ as a French-language Scrabble champion (four world titles between 2000 and 2016).

I’ve always been fascinated by the issue of work from philosophical, sociological and economic perspectives. On the strength of my master’s thesis, a critique of the concept of ’employability’, I was recruited by one of my tutors to assist on a project evaluating the European Employment Strategy, while my subsequent doctoral thesis in economics examined gender inequalities in the Senegalese ‘labour market’.

After returning to Senegal, I worked first as a technical advisor to the Presidency of the Republic (2006-9), then as a consultant for Fairtrade International and now at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, where I am currently the Senior Programme and Research Manager.

Leo Zeilig: You have worked on a broad array of areas in radical political economy, and African politics and economics. How would you describe your research and writing, and its motivation – what are it overriding elements and purpose?

Ndongo Sylla: My writing has focused in part on topics relevant to my professional career. It was natural to write about Fair Trade as I was briefly active in this field, while my interest in social movements has grown since I joined the Foundation. My writing also tackles issues I’ve considered over the years. For example, as work is so central to modern societies, can we apply the Western model of decent wage employment to developing countries characterised by stark under-utilisation of labour and sustained population growth? What does the word ‘democracy’ mean? What is the relationship between democracy and development? How does the CFA franc work and what problems does it pose in a development context?

In each case my aim is first to understand the issues, then to form my own opinions and test the dominant narratives. So I need to challenge Eurocentric approaches, mobilise more critical perspectives and engage in dialogue with them. No matter how complex the subject, I always try to write clearly and intelligibly. Heterodox economics and alternative approaches that question prevailing intellectual orthodoxies are already marginalised, and hermetic language only reinforces this. Thus I would argue that my approach is generally consistent with an economics for liberation perspective.

You are also engaged in various radical initiatives in Senegal, where you live and work – not least “Economic Saturdays”. Am I correct in describing these ‘Saturdays’ as radical (and frequently Marxist) study classes in political economy? How were they formed and what do they signify?

In March 2013, with financial support from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the Senegalese economist Demba Moussa Dembélé and I launched ‘Economics Saturdays’, a monthly forum for economic discussion and debate. We first met on 15 October 2012 at the Senegalese Social Forum, at an event marking the 25th anniversary of Thomas Sankara’s assassination. We remarked how neoliberal economic thought dominated teaching, research and public policy in Senegal, and how Dakar lacked any kind of platform for heterodox views on political economy.

Alongside Marxist and pan-Africanist intellectuals and activists, we welcome students, civil society activists, politicians, journalists, comrades from the North etc. We’ve been honoured to invite personalities like Samir Amin, Cornel West, Mamadou Koulibaly (former Minister of Finance and President of the National Assembly of Côte d’Ivoire). The papers presented at ‘Economics Saturdays’ appear in collected volumes under the title Deconstructing the Neoliberal Discourse. We’ve published five volumes to date covering a wide variety of subjects including local problems, global issues, topical questions and tributes to prominent individuals.

For a number of years, you were a close comrade and collaborator with Samir Amin. Can you describe your collaboration, and how Amin’s writings have influenced your work? What are the main questions and issues that Amin helps us with today – how does his understanding of political economy, and Marxism in Africa and the Global South, help us to elucidate the nature of the current epoch?

Samir Amin had his ‘headquarters’ in Dakar, where he’d been Director of the Institute for Economic Development and Planning and Executive Secretary of CODESRIA. The Third World Forum, which he ran until his death, is also based in the city. His prolific output, the positions he held, and his involvement with the great struggles of his day undoubtedly make him the most influential economist among progressive African intellectuals. He paved the way for the majority of us. One of his greatest strengths is that he produced a fertile body of thought rooted in the history and concerns of the Global South: he asked the right questions and suggested fruitful directions for intellectual debate and political action.

We first met in Dakar in early 2013 and often afterwards at conferences in the city. He gave the inaugural address at our ‘Economics Saturdays’ and spoke there many times. He reviewed my work on fair trade and democracy, which I regard as a huge honour. Our last intellectual correspondence concerned Moishe Postone’s monograph, Time, Labor and Social Domination, a significant contribution that, based on the Grundrisse, offers a new interpretation of Marx’s thought.

What can Amin teach us today? His central idea views capitalism as a historical system (which is thus doomed to disappear) based on polarisation between nations and between social classes within a nation. For this and other reasons arising from the specific development paths taken by the western nations and Japan, the nations of the periphery are unable collectively to ‘catch up’. This does not imply that the periphery cannot make economic progress, simply that economic development here must be differently conceived. This view has since acquired empirical support in the literature on unequal ecological exchange.

Amin believed that the nations of the periphery must strive to escape the role assigned to them by the international division of labour. Rather than prioritise exports of primary and low-wage products, they must focus instead on expanding domestic demand. Industrialisation must be based on agricultural development, especially of peasant agriculture, but also on local technical innovation and on a coherent relationship between the industries producing capital goods and those producing mass consumption goods. To achieve this, peripheral countries need greater control over centralising and subsequently allocating their economic surplus. In other words, they must reject the dictates of free trade and financial liberalisation. In terms of domestic politics, work is required to tilt the class structure towards an anti-compradore alliance. Regionally, we must encourage new forms of regionalisation in line with national development plans. And globally the countries of North and South must ally to challenge the power of the ‘financialised monopolies’ that, in his view, should be nationalised. He outlined a vast political project that to me remains relevant in the context of what he describes as the ‘long march towards socialism’.

You have written powerfully about the continued imperial control of countries in West Africa, subjected to the straitjacket of the French imposed and directed CFA franc. Please explain the issues and tell us why this remains a vital question for the sub-region’s development, and possibilities of radical and socialist change linked to a removal of the CFA franc.

The CFA franc is a colonial currency still circulating in 14 African countries, mostly former French colonies. For many years a taboo issue, since 2015 certain intellectuals and pan-Africanist movements, on the continent and in the diaspora, have brought it into the public domain, as French journalist Fanny Pigeaud and I discuss in our book on the subject (English version). My thanks goes to ROAPE for publishing my first English-language article on this subject, which has since been quoted often as an introductory text.

It is fair to say that in recent years the advocates of monetary liberation have won the intellectual debate around the CFA franc. Most of those interested in the subject acknowledge its anachronistic and colonial nature, the severe restrictions imposed on its users, and their fairly disastrous long-term economic performance. The most important task now is one of political strategy: how best to escape this monetary straitjacket?

Some favour abolishing the CFA franc but doubt the ability of African leaders, given their perceived or actual shortcomings, to manage an independent currency. Others suggest avoiding an exit to national currencies, relying instead on the projected ECOWAS – Economic Community of West African States, a grouping of 15 countries including the eight using the West African CFA franc – common currency, the ECO, whose planned launch in 2020 has been postponed to 2027. As the ECO was conceived within neoliberal parameters as a ‘tropical euro‘, I would prefer a system of solidarity-based national currencies. Each CFA country should, if it wishes, have a national central bank that would issue the national currency. Rather than a monetary union, we would have economic and monetary cooperation: a regional or even continental payment and settlement system; a pooling of part of the foreign exchange reserves; and common policies for food and energy sovereignty.

I believe that reform of the CFA franc must occur in the broader context of ‘delinking‘: regaining national control over currency, finance and economic resources, and transforming the economic structure through industrialisation and the expansion of domestic demand, in particular via an ecologically sustainable agricultural development policy and a full employment strategy. On these points in particular, I believe it is essential to combine the ideas generated by Modern Monetary Theory with those on the need for ‘delinking’.

Can we now talk about Senegal? Senegal’s radical politics have forced the pace of change many times before, most remarkably, in compelling Leopold Senghor, the first president to call for the French to intervene after a mass uprising across the country in 1968. Behind the transition in 2000, which saw the ruling socialist party defeated after forty years in power (and the election of president Abdoulaye Wade) was a social movement ready to take to the streets for the change that they wanted. And once more, in 2012, when president Wade faced the anger of the streets in the ‘Y’ en a marre’ [we have had enough] movement. Ndongo, can you tell us about the social movements in Senegal, and their relationship and independence from political parties?

In the volume I edited on social movements in West Africa (English-language edition), I identified five major logics of protest: liberal (campaigns to defend minority rights), corporatist (e.g. some of the campaigns led by trade unions, students), proletarian (e.g. working-class campaigns against the high cost of living or land grabs), republican (e.g. campaigns for public accountability, respect for the Constitution) and cross-cutting (combining different elements of the above).

In Senegal, as so often in West Africa, republican campaigns mobilise the greatest numbers and attract the widest geographical and political support. In general, during these campaigns, social movements and ordinary people, as guardians of political legitimacy and the public good, offer autonomous support to opposition parties. Neither necessarily shares the political agenda nor the ideology of the opposition parties, but they accept a conjunctural alliance in the name of the common good. This has often been the case in Senegal. The ‘Y’en a Marre’ movement, which embodied the face of protest against Abdoulaye Wade in 2011-12, contributed indirectly to his replacement at the ballot box by Macky Sall in 2012. Today, however, this movement and its leaders are experiencing a rocky relationship with the Sall regime.

I would argue that the Senegalese have always been actively and appropriately involved in the major moments of national life. They’ve acted as a democratic brake on despotic excesses from Senghor to Macky Sall and have facilitated two peaceful transfers of political power (in 2000 and 2012). However, we should not be too idealistic. In my own, highly critical, view, the social movements are not radical enough in their demands. Being a radical, we should note, is to tackle issues at the root. Being an extremist, by contrast, is to surpass all reasonable limits. The extremist is the enemy of the radical.

The cyclical recurrence of the issues that provoke popular mobilisations, e.g. the presidential ‘third term’, demonstrate this lack of radicalism. In other words, no institutional or sustainable solution has been found to a problem that provoked previous campaigns. The social movements also often operate in ‘reformist’ mode, improving a dysfunctional system rather than laying the groundwork for an alternative democratic politics. Even while acknowledging the limitations of the political parties, they seldom question the electoral system that underpins the power of those parties. By failing to challenge the ‘right to govern’ of the dominant political parties, they cede the political initiative. Once in power, former opposition parties are not obliged to implement the reforms advocated by the social movements.

In summary, while the social movements play an important role as political regulators, in practice they’ve done more to resolve conflicts within the political oligarchy than open up new horizons for a genuine democratic politics. However, given the inequalities and suffering linked to the Senegalese ‘model’ of growth without development, we can expect that they will become more radical in their demands. This is especially true of their economic demands, such as access to decent employment, which the politicians continue to ignore.

Can you explain why Macky Sall is so despised across Senegal? No one, except for the state media, has a good word to say for him or for his coalition, Benno Bokk Yaakaar. Taxi drivers, shopworkers, informal traders, students and trade unionists are united in their disgust at what they see as a government that taken from them, massively enriched himself and delivered nothing except prices rises and crippling poverty.

Domestically, Senegal’s current president, Macky Sall, is opposed by progressive movements, political parties and intellectuals alike. Yet he remains the great darling of the West, a status that gives him an important advantage in suppressing dissent. It is common knowledge that Western diplomacy and media are usually very ‘tolerant’ of the repressive measures deployed by ‘friendly’ regimes against their people and their political opponents.

Although relatively unpopular in Senegal, since 2007 (when he was prime minister) Sall has topped the poll each time he has stood for election. The explanation for this apparent paradox lies partly in the Senegalese electoral system, which – as in most countries around the world – is not designed to reflect popular preferences. Young people and urban dwellers, who in general vote for opposition parties, are under-represented in the electoral register. In Senegal, the 18-20 age group represents 11 per cent of the voting age population (over one million), but just 1 per cent of that population (under 70,000) are listed in the electoral register.

The opposition normally wins in the capital, Dakar. However, its majorities are kept low by the modest increase in the size of the electorate. The population of the Dakar region grows by almost 60,000 adults a year. Between Macky Sall’s election in 2012 and re-election in 2019, the potential electorate thus could have increased by almost 400,000. Yet official figures suggest otherwise, with an increase of less than 130,000 voters in the Dakar region over this period, and indeed a fall of 18,000 in the department of Dakar, which accounts for over a third of the regional population. By contrast, in rural areas and departments that favour the current government, the electorate has often grown significantly since 2012. Thus the choice made by urban dwellers, young people and intellectuals voting to reject the current regime is easily counterbalanced by the less populous departments that vote in its favour.

Control of the electoral register, so acquiring an advantage even before the election takes place, is a venerable secret jealously guarded by any regime that aspires to longevity and sometimes leads to a significant gap between majority opinion and the final poll.

Currently Senegal in being rocked by protests and major political upheavals. For a time, demonstrations were called by the opposition coalition Yewwi Askan Wi, and the leader of the opposition, Ousmane Sonko, to protest the violation of the constitution and the electoral law by the president Macky Sall. Ahead of legislative elections at the end of July this year, the ruling party interfered with the list of candidates, refusing to allow many to stand. Can you describe what is going on? 

In late July 2022, Senegal saw the most contested legislative elections in its history. Through an error of its own making, the main opposition coalition (Yewwi Askan Wi) had its list of incumbents rejected by the Constitutional Council. On 17 June 2022, in protest against this decision, the coalition organised a demonstration that was banned and suppressed by the government which argued that the country should not be held to ransom by a handful of individuals. Three deaths were recorded that day.

Looking at the state of the radical left, social movements, and the opposition, do you think that the movements from below need to find their own voice, independently of opposition leaders, like Sonko, even when these leaders seem to speak of popular transformation? How seriously do we take Sonko’s national development project?

In recent years Ousmane Sonko has become the phenomenon of Senegalese politics. The former tax and property inspector became known to the general public as a whistleblower over issues of financial transparency. He became a member of parliament in 2017 and came third in the 2019 presidential elections with 15 per cent of the vote. Subsequently, he has gathered political momentum and established himself as the leader of Senegal’s political opposition. After initially presenting himself as a ‘pragmatist’ who transcends the usual ideological divides, he has gradually developed his pan-Africanist credentials and given a more left-wing focus to his political discourse.

A rape allegation still pending before the Senegalese courts was the pretext grabbed by the current regime to drive him permanently from politics. This attempt to eliminate a political rival failed when Sonko called on the Senegalese to resist tyranny. Against a backdrop of the various frustrations caused by measure taken to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, young people responded in a massive nationwide mobilisation over five days in March 2021. The situation spiralled out of control, demanding a political solution beyond the capacity of an overwhelmed police force. Macky Sall broke his silence and released Sonko in an attempt to bring calm. Since then Sonko’s popularity has continued to grow, especially among young people and members of the diaspora. They believe in his project to set Senegal on the road to transparency, good government and a form of development based on reclaiming the instruments of sovereignty, including the currency.

Sonko is thus the champion of everyone who aspires to a Senegal with greater autonomy from France, including some left-wing parties and movements. For his supporters, he represents the hope of building a new Senegal that might extend its example to the rest of the continent. For his fiercest opponents, notably the proponents of the neocolonial order, he is the greatest threat they have faced. Tensions seem likely to remain high between now and the February 2024 presidential election. Macky Sall still refuses to say if he intends to stand, although he is now in his second, and in principle final, term of office.

Looking across the continent, how do you assess the role of French imperialism in recent developments?

In the post-independence period, French imperialism in Africa has been organised around the CFA franc, a system of trade preferences, diplomacy (with French advisers in presidential cabinets), and regular military interventions. Today, French imperialism is in crisis. The relative decline of France within the world economy is visible in its own ‘backyard’, where it has lost market share to new economic competitors (notably China). Given the failure of repeated French military interventions, countries such as Mali and the Central African Republic have turned instead to Russia as a diplomatic and military partner.

While Africans have nothing against ordinary French people, they are increasingly expressing their opposition to French policy in Africa. They want to break from a French neocolonialism made all too apparent by French officials making derogatory and often racist remarks about African leaders, African women and so on. On the streets and social networks of francophone Africa, more and more young people are chanting ‘France Dégage!’ (‘France Out!’). In Niger and Burkina Faso, young people have blocked the passage of French military convoys. In Senegal, where France still dominates foreign direct investment, the premises of major French companies (like Orange and gas stations of Totalenergies) were ransacked and looted during the March 2021 demonstrations.

In the context of the current ‘revolt against Françafrique‘, the French government and sections of the French media are seeking to caricature popular African desires for emancipation as ‘anti-French sentiment’, co-opting in support a number of public intellectuals of African origin. These intellectuals offer a ‘postcolonial’ discourse that distances itself from anti-imperialism and remains ‘critical’ within the limits allowed by the former metropolis. They are there to serve as a screen for the ex-metropolis regarding the growing desire of African peoples for self-determination. Often their tactic is to marginalise the outstanding and ‘canonical’ intellectual figures of continental Africa, or to misrepresent or dilute their thinking. Some are active in developing the Afroliberal project – Africanising neoliberalism by invoking pan-Africanist jargon.

France can sense that Africa is slipping from its grasp. Desperate and thus potentially destabilising or even brutal manoeuvres on its part cannot be discounted.

Much has been made of the French intervention – which has recently ended – in Mali. The crisis in Sahel is a combination factors, that link climate change, jihadist terrorism and capitalism. What are the most useful ways of understanding these developments?

Mali summarises many of the ills suffered by post-independence African countries. These include underdevelopment within a neocolonial framework, pursuit of neoliberal policies, a mixed record on regional economic integration, failed state-building, and communal conflicts over land and climate change. A review of its balance of payments speaks volumes. Landlocked Mali suffers from significant deficits in services, exacerbated by monopoly pricing. Although this huge country needs major investment, austerity is generally the norm. This is reflected in a balance of trade approaching equilibrium because imports are relatively low. Similarly, repatriation of profits and dividends often reaches significant levels. Deprived of monetary sovereignty, and with little access to international financial markets, Mali remains reliant on development aid. And recently some of this aid has been diverted to meet the military expenditure of countries like France in their fight against terrorism in the Sahel.

In this context, Mali’s recurrent military coups are a symptom of the disconnect between the legitimate aspirations of its people and a prevailing political and economic framework that marginalises them. Endless talk of the need to ‘return’ to ‘constitutional normality’ represents a defeat of the progressive imagination, as it is precisely this ‘constitutional normality’ that has caused breakdown of the civil constitutional order. Something more is needed: a more democratic, more inclusive framework which is impossible to reduce to elections that normally exclude a significant proportion of the population. The paradox is that ‘transitional governments’ are often more inclusive and transparent in their conduct than the elected governments that alone are deemed legitimate! Like many African countries, Mali needs a democratic revolution –  a restructuring of political power in favour of popular interests – and also a pan-Africanist regional integration framework.

Of course, none of this absolves NATO, the US, France and Britain of their responsibility for Mali’s descent into hell. Their destruction of Gaddafi’s Libya was the immediate cause of the spread of jihadist terrorism in the Sahel.

Finally, on the climate emergency, can you comment on this emergency in Senegal and West Africa and how you see it developing? How is it impacting the region directly, and in what ways is it articulated through the regions political economy, and political cleavages?

In collaboration with International Development Economics Associates (IDEAs) and the Politics of Money Network, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation is organising the second Conference on African Economic and Monetary Sovereignty, ‘Facing the Socio-Ecological Crisis: Delinking and the Issue of Global Reparations’, in Dakar from 25 to 28 October 2022. Delegates will be attending from the African continent and around the world, and it will also be possible to follow the exchanges online. I hope that many ROAPE readers will join us. In the meantime, they will be able to access the volume produced following the first conference held in Tunis in 2019.

Ndongo Samba Sylla is Research and Programme Manager for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. He is the editor and author of a number of books including The Fair Trade Scandal and a long-time collaborator and comrade of ROAPE.

The interview was translated by Maggie Sumner. 


  1. Fascinating interview of Ndongo Samba Sylla. I am a big fan of his work as usual. However, I beg to differ with this : ´Sonko is thus the champion of everyone who aspires to a Senegal with greater autonomy from France, including some left-wing parties and movements.’ Sonko is not my champion. Feminists and all those who want social justice are still waiting for the outcome of the rape trial Ousmane Sonko vs Adji Sarr.


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