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Civil society, manifestos and the ethics of engagement

Senegal and other African countries are the victims of state power that has become ‘over-centralised, personalised and trivialises the institutional safeguards that are supposed to keep it in check’, writes Amy Niang. Niang explores the available avenues for reversing this restraint on civil society’s political agency, and suggests it is the diaspora that has the potential to offer new perspectives and become an ‘incubator of political revolution’.

As a good number of African countries commemorate the 50th anniversary of their independence this year, the celebratory mode is – quite appropriately – a minority reaction. For in spite of significant democratic inroads, the absence of an effective and meaningful civil society remains an impediment to the emergence of mature democracies on the continent. Whilst spontaneous and more or less organised movements have secured portions of the public space, an exciting prospect is the possibilities offered by a more committed and organised civil society of African diasporas.

In Senegal, the danger of an orchestrated monarchical succession – after 50 years of dithering democracy – looms large in the context of ongoing tensions that beset public debates. Between disloyal political practices, diplomatic acrobatics and costly PR campaigns, all with the design to carve a niche for Wade Jr (Karim Wade), President Abdoulaye Wade has been exerting himself, stopping at nothing to impose an undeserving son onto 14 million unwilling Senegalese.

On the face of it, we are living tumultuous, yet exciting times. The proliferation of ‘manifestos’ from bona fide citizens to dejected former public servants, from disenchanted businessmen-cum-social entrepreneurs to female window-dressers keen on giving a concrete face to the new parity law, the phenomenon has swept the collective imagination; it also begs many important questions. Mind you, this is not another manifesto. It is instead an attempt to articulate the possibilities of a more engaged diaspora, one that is more conscious of, embraces and owns its role in the consolidation of civil society movements in Senegal and elsewhere in Africa. The string of manifestos is only the visible manifestation of a growing resentment toward Wade’s chaotic administration, his reluctance to admit intellectual and physical incapacities to run the country, and to resign from power. Now seems just about the time when the national interest should dictate individual action. However, some of the manifestos we have been seeing are turning out to be more of a colander of goodwill recriminations from narrowly vested interest than any constructive agenda for ways forward.

There is a need for the diaspora to organise, to cohere, to own its responsibility and to actively take part in bringing about another change in a country seething with unrest. A concept of civil society will always remain in vacuo in so far as it is bereft of any meaningful action. The diaspora played a tremendous role in bringing about change in 2000. People’s enthusiasm for change, and more importantly their resilience was their greatest renewable energy. That same determination in the struggle for liberation is being summoned today by a nation stampeded over and over by the man it had hailed a liberating hero. What motivated people then was a tremendous drive, almost a survival instinct – an obstinate desire to get rid of the PS (socialist party) regime at any price. 40 years under the latter, the realisation was abrupt that our leaders were merely a bunch of polite technocrats and administrators, trained to deceive and loot for themselves and for external interests. However ten years down the road, democracy has become fat, a smokescreen that satisfies external demands for democracy but ignores crucial issues of human development.

The sort of contribution I envisage for the diaspora is of a new genre. It would not be the co-optive type of initiative that repeats and overlooks the shortcomings of national civil society movements. It will need to conceive society through the prism of the everyday life of people, one that re-imagines a new nation, and recreates society by transcending traditional loyalties and modes of involvement based on particular identity structures, such as ethnicity, geographical or religious affiliation, socio-professional status, etc. The problems confronting civil society movements at the national level are obvious; they have to deal with practices that borrow a number of defects from our national institutions: extraverted and tuned to western donors and NGOs, prone to be captured by vested interest and inclined to play the role of sounding board for external voices. With an increased presence, and increasingly conscious of the limits of cyber-activism, the diaspora can help push the struggle in a fractured time. Mr Wade and his minions hold the country by the throat and will choke it to death if not stopped. Silence would amount to acquiescing to the status quo.


The new wave of political activism will have to contend with a more committed diaspora, one which does not confine itself to sending remittances and investing in real estate, but aspires to be at the vanguard of a needed social revolution. Already, the amplification of channels of contestation, in the form of advocacy and lobbying, has yielded positive results, especially in denouncing the messy management of the national budget, financial scandals and cases of corruption (Segura, Milicom etc). Now, the whole range of resources, intellectual, social and economic, needs to be deployed in order to transform the diaspora’s potential into actual impact. The most detrimental and most disastrous problem facing Senegal at the moment is the institutionalised corruption, pervasive, perplexing, unpunished, and which is only one aspect of the violence the predator-state exercises over its citizens. The result is huge economic disparities, endemic famine, constant power outage and hospitals no better than death lobbies. The ordinary citizen has a quality of life similar to that of a refugee. Integral to corruption is the question of power, one that is over-centralised, personalised and trivialises the institutional safeguards that are supposed to keep it in check. Endemic to the issue of power is a politics that operates under a zero-sum principle whereby the winning side captures all means of production and destruction.

With around 20 per cent of the Senegalese living overseas, a daunting – albeit relatively dormant – potential awaits deploying. The task is for the diasporas to stir energies overseas and at home and to communicate and exchange with national civil society organisations, with social actors and citizens at large, under the postulate of the transcending nature of trans-national citizenship, whether pan-African or else. Needless to say, the possibilities of the diaspora are not lost on the government. State’s attempts to tap into the beaming potential of the diaspora – to regulate, control and direct it – are nothing new. Recently, it has set up the High Council of Overseas Senegalese meant to capture the willing fringe of a divided diaspora or else scupper the initiatives of unfriendly or radical groups. Whilst registered and recognised associations abroad were given the opportunity to nominate 30 of the council’s 75 members, the remaining 45 were to be chosen… by the president himself. You would be forgiven for puzzling over for a minute why a representative body of the diaspora should have most of their members chosen, in person, by the president.

Civil society is a realm of contending social and political forces. There is thus a need to frustrate attempts to appropriate the resources of the diaspora by partisan politics that tends to reduce social movements to an ancillary role in the democratic movement. It should not be unreasonable to foresee the advantages of an engaged and critical discussion that questions the connections between power, corruption and the degradation of the quality of life and the dire condition of the citizen. The need for change was what brought Wade to power; the same urge needs to be summoned to bring another way. The diaspora may not always have an accurate sense of the everyday experience of the average Senegalese but it has the advantage of seeing things from a distance and confronting its African experience with practices and procedures that prevail elsewhere in the world. More importantly, most diasporeans are uncontaminated by the politics of the belly which characterises Wade and cronies.

Repossessing the public sphere should, then, provide the strongest motivation for meaningful civic action. This should mean the re-securing of the rights and capacities of ordinary citizens to exercise their most basic rights, to consolidate civil society as the sentinel against the authoritarian tendencies of oppressive regimes in Africa such as that of Mr Wade. The founding principle of a reformed civil society will have to be the redefinition of public morality on the basis of shared resentment towards the extravagant expenditures of the ruling segment, towards their policy failures and towards the lethargy of social forces that preach the good but connive with the exploitative class. Anger might just be the appropriate posture, and its deployment the proper channel to send the right message to Wade’s regime.

The repossessing of the public space is also a way to retrieve a (lost) morality that emerges out of the everyday life of ordinary people, in other words: a civil morality. The latter has informed, throughout history, the most important reforms and revolutions, from the American Revolution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For, as the state – in particular, power politics – has taken siege of the public sphere, the logic of partisan politics has come to enunciate and enforce a form of un-civic morality that embodies everything we believe has gone wrong in our societies. This approach sees the diaspora as incubator of political revolution; of an imagined political project. It sees the diaspora in the vanguard of an active citizenship that operates upon new paradigms, and as a force that refuses to be the register of change but rather puts its imprint on it.

The creativity and the resources of the diaspora are the repository of endless possibilities. However, there is ground to worry that the plethora of movements that have made it now a fashionable hunting ground; harnessing support within the diaspora, might inject the same ills that pervade political parties and some of the ‘movements citoyens’ (civil society movements) at home whilst reducing many gains to ineffectuality. What is now needed is a second liberation. The question is to decide where the revolution starts.


* Amy Niang is a PhD candidate at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.