Last Wednesday, April 6, I was invited to participate in a lunch discussion at the European Parliament in Brussels.
The invitation, extended by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, was part of a larger discussion about Africa’s role in a globalised world. I was asked to speak about Africa’s new talents, and as usual I focused on youth entrepreneurship, but the highlight for me was a chance to finally meet Aliou Sane and Serge Bambara.
Aliou Sane is a co-founder of Y’en a Marre (Fed Up), a group of Senegalese journalists and rappers who came together in January 2011 to rally the youth around a series of protests against President Abdoulaye Wade’s regime, which had begun to unravel in 2010 amidst accusations of incompetence, corruption and embezzlement. The government’s ineffective handling of chronic issues related to youth unemployment and power cuts became the main topics of Y’en a Marre’s outdoor, open forum debates.
I witnessed the formation of the Y’en a Marre movement.
I had spent a lot of time in Dakar in 2010 and 2011, working on one of President Wade’s pet projects, the festival of black arts and culture known as Fesman, and I witnessed the formation of the Y’en a Marre movement.
I tend to personally believe that Wade gets a worse rap than he deserves, and that he did achieve quite a lot during his two terms in office, but in early 2011 so many young Senegalese were telling me about Y’en a Marre that I could tell they might become a force. Even in its infancy, one could tell that their no-compromise approach and agent provocateur terminology were resonating.
I was mesmerised by the way they defended themselves.
There was something about the way they incorporated catchy rhymes when they riffed off their NTS acronym (which stands for ‘The New Type of Senegalese’) . There was something infectious about their hit single, Doggali (Let’s Finish). And I was mesmerised by the way they defended themselves —through spoken word— when they were arrested in the public square. The defiant tone, coupled with their calls for reform, all of that gave their protests the street credibility they sought.
Within a few months, President Wade was voted out of office, but Aliou Sane and his friends clung to their independence, refusing to endorse Macky Sall, Wade’s successor who is Senegal’s sitting president. The media reported on this story, and several documentaries on Y’en a Marre were produced in the last couple of years, but I was never able to meet any of the main protagonists, who are now mostly in their thirties.
Serge Bambara, better known as Smockey, is 43 years old. He, too, has been in the news a lot since October 2014, when Le Balai Citoyen, the organisation he’d co-founded in June 2013 with the reggae singer Sams’K Le Jah, was credited with playing a key role in the Burkina Faso uprising that led to the resignation and exile, on 31 October 2014, of President Blaise Compaoré, the strongman who had been in office for 27 years.
The main issue was that Compaoré had attempted to get Parliament to adopt a constitutional amendment scrapping presidential term limits. Because so few African states have experienced transfer of presidential and parliamentary power as a result of elections, with Senegal being one of few exceptions, in October 2014 the stakes were high for the overall democratic landscape in Africa.
Smockey’s face and raspy voice were everywhere.
Countless phone videos spread virally across social networks in the 48 hours that preceded the revolution, and Smockey’s face and raspy voice were everywhere, but as soon as Compaoré fled to Côte d’Ivoire, Le Balai Citoyen was thrust into the position of mediator, having to manage expectations as they negotiated with the military, the main opposition figures, and the young Burkinabè, who were determined to keep fighting for their constitutional rights.
With the tug of war between General Yacouba Isaac Zida (who was eventually named prime minister) and former interior minister Michel Kafando (who was ultimately chosen as the interim president) in full force, the general feeling among the population was that this revolution was about be confiscated by former insiders from Compaoré’s regime.
Le Balai Citoyen was all over television, radio, social networks, and perhaps because they had managed to organise themselves into dozens of chapters all over the country, Smockey’s share of voice seemed disproportionately larger than that of other youth movement leaders who were instrumental in bringing about change in Burkina Faso.
‘We were right there when it was all going down.’
I found it interesting that both Smockey and Aliou were accused of taking too much credit for the political change in their countries. Even though, in Senegal, most of the criticism was directed at Fadel Barro, the better known founder of Y’en a Marre, Aliou became a target, partly because of his eloquence, easy smile, and ability to give juicy interviews to foreign journalists.
Over lunch, Smockey grabbed the mic and held it as if he were an MC performing in a dancehall. ‘We were right there when it was all going down,’ he said. ‘We went up to the military, and demanded that they put themselves in a position where they could negotiate with political parties and the organisations that were working towards the establishment of a true democratic system. Because we wanted the transition to be well set up, we also went to lobby diplomats from other nations who were in Ouagadougou. Some agreed to work with us, but others, like the French ambassador, didn’t want to deal with us in the beginning.’
As soon as Smockey finished his step-by-step, chronological account of the transition process, clearly positioning himself as a key player in the mediation, Aliou seized the mic and shifted the focus to his home country. ‘In Senegal, we saw, early on, that a new citizen conscience was emerging all over Africa. All these movements that are being formed, they matter, and their objective is democracy. We are here to call out all those heads of state who try to change their country’s constitution so that they can stay in office forever.’
‘Soon you’ll have European Union observers in those countries putting their stamp on elections.’
He went on, even though some of the European parliamentarians were clearly uneasy with his verve. ‘It’s contagious, we saw it in Senegal, you saw what happened in Burkina. Right now, you see what’s happening with Denis Sassou Nguesso (in Congo Brazzaville), with Paul Kagame (in Rwanda), pretty soon you’ll have European Union observers in those countries putting their stamp on elections, even though the democratic process has been flawed from the start.’
After lunch, there was a debate on one of the main stages of the European Parliament. The talk was between Smockey, Aliou, and a third activist who, from their camaraderie, seemed to be a friend —or at least a trusted co-conspirator— of both men. Floribert Anzuluni is the 33-year-old leader of the Front Citoyen 2016 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Floribert, a Canada-trained former banker, was in Brussels to talk about the persecution the ‘Front’ collective of Congolese activists (which includes his own Filimbi movement and a sister organisation called Lucha) have been facing as they have become more vocal about an absolute opposition to president Kabila’s suspected desire to change the constitution in order to be elected for a third term.
His collective was inspired by the Y’en a Marre and Balai Citoyen movements.
He said his collective was inspired by the Y’en a Marre and Balai Citoyen movements, which is why the Congolese invited them to Kinshasa in March 2015 for a workshop, a press conference and a concert ‘for democracy.’ When the Senegalese and Burkinabè showed up, everything seemed to be going well until the day of the planned events. On that day, March 15, 2015, despite the fact that the Front has obtained all the necessary permits, the police showed up and arrested over 40 participants, including members of Y’en a Marre and Balai Citoyen.
‘For us, for all of us, it’s really important to demonstrate peacefully,’ said Floribert. ‘We know exactly want we want, we’re not about our own egos, the dialogue needs to happen peacefully. The forces that are supposed to be in charge of the nation’s security must understand that we are only about democracy. We just won’t accept any attempt to play with our constitution.’
According to all three activists, the events that unfolded on that day strengthened the bonds between the three organisations, and the spirit of transnational African cooperation is more alive than ever. African elections are hit or miss, and the 2015 electoral cycle showed that for every successful democratic transition like the ones in Nigeria or the one in Burkina Faso, where President Kaboré was fairly elected after the runoff vote, popular opposition is all too often repressed before and after the vote, as in Burundi.
Listening to Aliou, Smockey and Floribert, it seems that the upcoming presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo is being positioned as the litmus test the have all been working towards.
The concept of an electoral African democracy will begin to take shape.
Since independence, only 18 African heads of state have lost re-election, so with incumbents tending to win most elections, success in the DRC will be very easily measured. If Kabila does agree to step down later this year, the concept of an electoral African democracy will begin to take shape, and Aliou, Smockey and Floribert will no doubt take a fair amount of credit for advancing the cause of African liberation.