The Senegalese exception

A Muslim West African country enjoys unique relations with Israel and offers a model for the region.

Ambassador Paul Hirschson points at the Cape Verde Islands as he describes the five West African countries where he represents Israel (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Ambassador Paul Hirschson points at the Cape Verde Islands as he describes the five West African countries where he represents Israel
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Israeli Ambassador Paul Hirschson is busy hosting a Shabbat dinner for the local Jewish community in Dakar.
He says the traditional kiddush, and Israeli diplomatic cadets mill among the guests.
Here are French Jewish expats, American Jews who work for NGOs and international organizations, and Israelis who have married locals. About 25 people have showed up, although Hirschson estimates the community is about twice that. An Arab-Israeli woman is there as well, because the Israeli embassy doesn’t just cater to the Jewish community. Jim Teicher, the director of the Cyber Smart NGO, which provides “21st-century skills for education” to local communities, is one of those present. An American from New Jersey, he has made a life here for himself and his wife.
When we arrived two weeks ago, the Israeli ambassador was at the airport meeting a group of diplomatic service cadets from the Foreign Ministry. Israel was the fourth country to recognize Senegalese independence in 1960. Our two countries enjoyed a fruitful and good relationship. Israeli politicians such as Golda Meir and Shimon Peres paid visits to Dakar.
Then in 1973, at the request of the Arab states that had just fought a war with Israel, dozens of African countries severed relations with Israel and Israel’s policy of cultivating good relations with sub-Saharan Africa fell into tatters. Relations were rekindled in the 1990s when the hope of peace enshrined in the Oslo Accords reopened many areas that had given a cold shoulder to the Jewish state, to refresh relations.
Senegal is unique in its relations with Israel because it is a Muslim country, has a seat on the UN Security Council and chairs the UN’s Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.
That means it is perfectly positioned as a kind of bridge between Israel and the Arab and Muslim states.
It is also strategically placed between neighboring West African states, such as Mali and Mauritania, that have been threatened by Islamic extremism. The recent al-Qaida attack on a hotel in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast, that killed 19 people cannot be ignored.
The visit by the cadets, who are looking forward to being posted throughout the world as their training wraps up, gave an opportunity to see firsthand how an ambassador cultivates and maintains relations with an African state and how Israel is perceived here. It also was an opportunity to see how Dakar is struggling to advance itself as a beacon of regional stability and democracy.
For Hirschson, the gem of Dakar is “Africa in one city – the development and the problems.” Born in London, Hirschson grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Israel where he worked in the business sector before joining the ministry in 2004. After a three-year posting to Israel’s consulate in Miami, he served in the ministry’s spokesman’s bureau.
In 2015 he received his appointment as ambassador to Senegal. He is also ambassador to the Gambia, a small state shaped like a tongue whose borders run along the Gambia River. Hirschson additionally represents Israel in Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde islands.
“It’s a fascinating area, because just in this small area you have former British, French and Portuguese colonies, and all the devastation that happened out of that and you get a grasp of the complexities,” Hirschson notes.
Senegal is in a unique geographic and cultural region.
It is an African country neighboring Arab Mauritania to the north. To the east, it joins the Sahel, the large eco-climatic zone that separates the Sahara desert from the other climate zones of Africa. Senegal is therefore a kind of transition point between cultures and climates. Some people here, when discussing Israel, say they share similar issues with Israel in bordering more chaotic states, with extremists, and being a bridge of cultures.
A ‘WELCOME HOME’ poster beckons on the side of a small stall selling tourist items. It is incongruently placed on its side, and shows a large photo of US President Barack Obama and Senegalese President Macky Sall. The stall is one of a few that line a boulevard leading to a giant bronze statue called the African Renaissance Monument.
Rising 49 meters atop a small hill overlooking the water in Senegal’s capital of Dakar, the statue is reputed to be the largest in Africa. It was constructed by a company from North Korea and unveiled in 2010 by former president Abdoulaye Wade. Although the statue was supposed to celebrate the success of Africa in the 21st century “standing tall and taking destiny into our hands” as Wade said at the time, it became a center of controversy. Protesters complained that it was a waste of money at $27 million, and that its style was not Senegalese but more along the lines of North Korean Communism. Wade’s son Karim was jailed for corruption in 2015.Today, at night, the lights of Dakar’s 1864 lighthouse Le Phare des Mamelles, built on a hill across from the Renaissance Monument, shines its beacon eerily into the night.
These two hills, Les Mamelles – which literally means “breasts” – frame and overlook the capital of this West African state. They also tell a story about its history, from the French colonizers who built the lighthouse, which overlooked this former capital of slavery, to the great monument shrouded in controversy.
When Obama came here, he said he started his trip in Dakar because it is a symbol of success.
“Senegal is one of the most stable democracies in Africa and one of the strongest partners in the region. It’s moving in the right direction with reforms to deepen democratic institutions.” In a short visit here, it became clear just how much of that statement is true.
Driving from the airport to the plateau – the business and government center of the city – one is reminded of these contrasts. Dakar itself is shaped like a fist sticking out into the ocean.
The knuckles form the beaches and cliffs along the Atlantic. On one knuckle to the northwest is an area where the US embassy is located, and a massive resort called King Fahd. At the second knuckle to the north is the Mamelles lighthouse and the airport. On the third, one drives along a coastal area called the Fann.
Here is a house-museum dedicated to the first president of Senegal Leopold Senghor, and a property owned by the US embassy that has been converted into a sports center for diplomats. Nearby is the Radisson Blu, the same international hotel chain that was a victim of a terrorist attack in neighboring Mali last year.
Evidence of the fear of terrorism is the armed security checkpoint examining cars at the entrance to the hotel and nearby shopping mall.
Wages in Senegal can be as low as $1 an hour for a salary of around $200 a month, but in Dakar wages balloon to 10 times that. That’s why Hirschson’s “Africa in microcosm” statement about Dakar rings true. It has deep poverty and wealth among its Senegalese citizens.
It is also a regional hub for international aid organizations and NGOs.
These are the groups talking sustainable development and capacity building for the region. Hirschson, who prides himself on his private-sector background, jokes that he’s learned the lingo since moving here. “I can discuss terms like ‘bottom of the pyramid’ now.”
This city is also a center of many major regional embassies. Like Israel, some countries do not maintain an embassy in every country, but rather a regional embassy that serves several. Senegal is seen as a stable base of influence in this region.
Military aid, especially from France, flows via Dakar to the interior, such as the ongoing mission in Mali to defeat Islamist extremists. The Americans support a massive regional military exercise named Flintlock. In February 2016 when it began in Thies, about an hour east of Dakar, more than 1,700 personnel participated from 30 countries.
An annual event in West Africa since 2006, US Africa Command notes it is “designed to foster regional cooperation to enable our African partners to stabilize regions of North and West Africa, reducing sanctuary for violent extremist organizations.” This is evidence of how seriously the world powers take the need to shore up security here, especially after the attacks in Bamako, Mali, last November, in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso in January, and in Ivory Coast in March.
NOT FAR from the Radisson is the campus of the Universite Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) of Dakar. This is the largest university in Senegal, with some 100,000 students.
The campus entrance is unassuming for such a major institution. Across from one of the administration buildings, hundreds of Senegalese are running back and forth along the beach. Fitness is a national obsession here. Mostly men can be seen at all hours jogging or doing other sport on the beach and in the parks, more than in any other country I’ve been to.
Like many other things, this is part of what makes Senegal unique.
Prof. Ibrahima Thioub, the rector of UCAD, describes this as a “Senegalese exception.” It’s not a term he invented, he says; he is referencing anthropologist Donal B. Cruise O’Brien.
“We have never had a successful coup, we never had a military regime, never a deviation from democracy, and we experienced all the time in the territory a long-lasting electoral system since the first election in 1848.”
Thioub, a historian by training with a keen interest in African slavery, says that although there has been an uninterrupted democratic tradition, it has not all been perfect.
“It was a kind of hybridization of French and local culture.”
From 1920 to 1946, the colonial authorities suspended local democratic government. After independence in 1963, there was a referendum, and a one-party system was put in place until 1974.
“We had no coup; we had a very short time of a one-party system, whereas other countries had such a system that lasted longer. So we have a vibrant democracy and we have had one president for 20 years and then another, then Wade and now since 2012 Sall, and he will have his two terms [and so on].”
Senegalese point out that their country shares much history with the neighbors, including French rule that offered similar rights to people in Mauritania, Benin, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic and French Congo.
In short, Senegal was part of a much larger regional framework, but since 1960 it has gone one way, while many of the others have gone a different way. Obama emphasized that in his speech in 2013, describing the “desire of Senegalese to resolve disagreements through dialogue and not conflict.”
To understand the roots of this “exception” that involved dialogue and democracy, Thioub and others point to the tradition of tolerance, negotiation and openness that underpin Islam in Senegal.
“Our first president was a Christian; thanks to the support of the Islamic brotherhoods we have a different system than in Mali, Guinea or Mauritania. The first socialist system in those countries [after 1960] destroyed religious traditional frameworks and ruling groups.”
Society initially became more secular under socialist regimes and the embrace of the French concept of “enlightenment” and “secularism,” but the long-term result was chaos, dictatorship and eventually, in some places, the rise of Islamist extremism.
THE MAN who embodied the Senegalese achievement was the first president, Leopold Senghor. Born in 1906 to a prosperous family near Dakar, he was educated in French Catholic missions and went to France to study in higher education at the age of 21. He became a poet and philosopher. Even as president, that was his true interest. A pioneer in the concept of négritude, he wrote about how the values of the West penetrated Africa during colonialism.
“Our ambition was to become photographic negatives of the colonizers, ‘black-skinned Frenchmen,’” he said in 1961. He sought a path forward that would include indigenous African concepts.
Toward that end was a transition to independence that would not be a radical break with the past. French advisers remained, French companies dominated, French troops and French culture. Martin Meredith in his history of Africa notes, “in Dakar, the French population actually grew after independence.” He blended this with an alliance with the powerful marabouts or religious leaders of local Sufi Muslim Brotherhoods.
Senghor decided to resign in 1980. His successor Abdou Diouf was defeated in elections in 2000.
“You cannot understand Senegal’s exception unless you understand the Brotherhoods,” says Thioub.
There are four Sufi Brotherhoods known as Qadiriyya, Tijaniyya, Mouridiyya and Layene. The Qadiriyya originate in Iraq and is the oldest, while the Tijaniyya is the largest and originates in Morocco. The Mouridiyya is a very active local brotherhood founded by Amadou Bamba in the late 19th century. The Layene is much smaller.
Thioub describes the history of Senegal as being one dominated by the European slave trade until 1848, when it was finally abolished. The slave traders based on the coast for 300 years caused the rise of “predatory regimes” in the interior led by Africans who traded the slaves. When the French abolished the slave trade they sought to “civilize” Africa, and Thioub notes the irony here. They had uncivilized it through their predatory slave trading, and then sought to reform the horrors they created. The reform the French thought up was nut production, particularly peanuts, so that Senegal would become an exporter of nuts, rather than people.
The response to the European infiltration and the remnants of the warlike predatory regimes was that “young people raised the banner of jihad. As a peasant I have two choices, join the colony, join the predatory regime or the jihad.” What happened in Senegal is that a fourth revolution took place.
“At the time you had a new wave of the Sufi groups, who said the problem was not to fight for power, or material goods, but to make the greater jihad, not killing other people, but to kill the passion in yourself, to kill the material needs, to kill the expectation of power. You are the enemy of yourself and fight against material desire. To get access to light of God and you should be reeducated,” says Prof. Thioub. The Sufi brotherhoods sought to replace violence with an interreligious community and education.
“They stabilized society and created a new identity.”
The image of Bamba, the leader of the Mourids, in his simple white outfit adorns many rural shops today, a living symbol of the adoration and love many have for these ascetic figures.
Bamba founded a city far in the interior in 1887 called Touba. There his followers carved from the savanna a giant mosque and living space. The Great Mosque completed in 1963 has a minaret rising 87 meters, one of the largest in the world and the largest in Africa.
“Linked with a tradition of debate and open society, with the brotherhood, you have this society where violence is low compared to other countries,” concludes Thioub.
THE FINAL story of the brotherhoods and Senegal’s democracy is not over.
The professor notes that in some ways the culture of peaceful negotiation is both a weakness and a strength. Senegal’s economy based on ground nuts is not flourishing. Many Senegalese have joined a massive diaspora throughout the world, and with Europe closing its doors to migrants that poses problems. There is poverty among the youth. There is also a threat of radicalism.
The brotherhoods tamp down on this extremism by disciplining those who preach violence or support for extremism.
They also establish fraternal chapters abroad to keep Senegalese connected, rather than being seduced by al-Qaida or Islamic State.
Still, a handful of Senegalese have joined extremists in Libya and elsewhere – even educated young men who announced their decisions on Facebook. Four imams were arrested in Senegal last November for preaching extremism.
As Senegal confronts fears of radicalism and terrorism exported from neighboring states, it is also making advances on women’s rights. One of the country’s innovations was to pass a law in 2010 mandating that political parties have gender parity in their ranks. Currently 43 percent of the parliament is women, one of the highest percentages in the world. A symbol of that success is Amsatou Sow Sidibe, a former adviser to the president of the coun- t r y and an academic.
The parity law that mandates political party slates be half women was formulated in her office. She also participated in a trip supported by MASHAV, the Israel agency for international aid, to Israel’s Golda Meir Center in Haifa, which sponsors Senegalese women.
“It is rare to have a party headed by a woman, so in 2012 I ran for president, more as a provocation and to dare to challenge the custom,” she says at a meeting in her modest home. Outside a man is playing a traditional Senegalese stringed instrument and the music wafts through the door.
“We have excellent relations between Israel and Senegal, including on security and social [issues] and economic [relations] – also between us and the West.
In general, the issue is an economic problem, Poverty is one of the main issues. There are a lot of youth and we need to address unemployment. Many women live in need. There is progress, but a long way to go,” she says, sketching out the country’s struggles.
Sidibe recently resigned as a presidential adviser because of a referendum the president put forward that called for a change in the presidential term from five to seven years. The controversial referendum ostensibly reduces the power of the presidency and “strengthens the rule of law” according to posters supporting it, but some feel it is a waste of time and money. Nevertheless, Sidibe sees Senegal steering the path between stability and security successfully.
“I think that the people of Senegal are affable and don’t want conflict. Their personality is opposed to it, against the concept of political authority, and they can easily say no to power. We have this referendum problem, for instance. The people don’t want the referendum,” she argues. Yet despite contentious debate over it, violence will be avoided, she says.
A SHORT drive across town to the plateau area, on a tree-lined wide street, former prime minister Aminata Toure welcomes us to her spacious salon.
Walls are lined with art, Arabic verses and the statue of a Senegalese anti-colonial fighter.
“Economics is the main issue we are dealing with.
Making sure young people have employment, that is a worldwide issue, we are part of the worldwide struggle.
There is a relationship between instability and youth unemployment.
That is the first threat to security and social stability,” she says.
Toure advises the current presidential cabinet and she notes that one of the key strategies they have is to improve the standard of living in rural areas.
Inroads in universal education for boys and girls are one issue. “In a conservative country that is a good sign of progress and rates are improving.”
They are also trying to tackle corruption and to attract foreign investment.
Tourism, which she says was once one third of the economy, has declined. Even though Senegal did not have an Ebola crisis – only one case made it across the border – tourism was devastated. Toure, who describes the relationship with Israel as good, wants to look towards self-sufficiency in rice production.
“We are a big rice consumer and we import half of what we eat, which has an impact on our currency and foreign currency balance. That is a good way to give people employment and income.
We have made huge progress in the past four years and do new extensive experimental farms increasing yield and productivity.
We want to have the drip-irrigation system.”
It is drip irrigation where the Israeli relationship has recently been pioneering new efforts to train Senegalese towards new and modern farming methods based on the Israeli experience of success. Hirschson receives a request to meet with the agriculture minister on March 10 at the last minute, and we drive over to a building titled Ministère de l’Agriculture et de l’Équipement rural.
In Dakar traffic it’s about 25 minutes from the plateau. The day is hot and we stop for coffee across the street.
Senegal seems particularly bereft of a coffee-making culture, and most places offer either Nescafe or watered down “American” coffee. Colorful public buses, each decorated individually, ply the streets. A horse-drawn cart comes by. It’s Dakar, but rural life is not far away.
Agriculture Minister Dr. Papa Abdoulaye Seck greets the small Israeli delegation in a dark purple suit. Among the Israelis are Tammy Erann Soussan, of Israel’s MASHAV and a consultant MASHAV has sent named Omar Zeidan.
“Our philosophy is to train the trainers,” notes Hirschson.
He has embarked on a partnership project with the Italian Cooperazione allo Sviluppo Maeci and the Senegalese Agriculture Ministry Papsen training center, to launch a model farm program that will see 4,000 farms supported. The concept is to group these farms in 70 locations in three regions. Farmers will receive 1,000 sq.m. each and training in using drip irrigation. A training center at Bambey, about two hours east of Dakar, will train people in the work, and partnership with universities will also provide support. It’s a complex plan, and although the educational partnerships were directly with Israel, the financial support for most of the farm project requires tenders and long-term planning. After Hirschson has briefed the ambassador, Zeidan, the consultant who has been out to see two of the model farms, gives his assessment.
“I saw the demonstration units at Touba-Toul and Darou Fanaye. Touba-Toul is green and onions are planted and farmers are doing well. At Darou Fanaye they are removing weeds and getting the information.
It was impressive. Knowledge transfer is the factor in technology, and this I most believe will benefit the farmers. It requires the public to push and to teach and train.” Erann Soussan agrees.
“Everywhere I go these days I see people trained in agriculture in Israel, and they say Senegal is ready to take off with drip irrigation. So we are on the verge of taking off, even in the most rural villages, they all say they have heard of the drip irrigation and they want it.”
When Seck finally gets a chance to speak, he notes he has been busy with the referendum but wants to thank the Israelis for their work.
“It is good dynamic cooperation and it has high impact.
Your country is in a difficult environment, but you make the difference due to knowledge, technology and willingness to transform the environment, so if someone goes to Israel without training, it is easy for him to strengthen himself and say that it is possible to transform.”
He says that there is clear evidence that farmers will get higher yields from being trained, but the key is that they are able to sell on the market. They will see on one side a field with this technology, and another without it, and one is more successful. Seck says that many development projects have not worked in Africa, and that he hopes this one will “see the light.”
A DRIVE out of Dakar reveals the degree to which this country faces major development challenges. As one leaves the capital, there are major industrial projects and new housing developments, but the longer the drive, the more the streets in the towns become dirt, the cars give away to more horse-drawn carts by the road and people selling vegetables and fruits. Mosques give way to small loudspeakers atop a building. This is the rural Senegal that the Israeli drip irrigation could benefit.
Majestic baobab trees line the road and dominate the landscape. The dirt here is dry and dusty. Many people pasture animals, including regal cows and goats. Agriculture seems almost nonexistent, despite the stories of massive groundnut production. People are scraping by and it seems in some villages many of the young men have gone to work in Dakar.
At Touba-Toul the Israeli irrigation model farm is a green field amongst the khaki dusty bush. Lines of green onions poke from the earth. The men and women farmers crowd around to see the visiting delegation.
Alione Diouf, the local coordinator for the project, is in his 50s, but looks decades younger. He’s put 200,000 km. on his SUV driving back and forth to the model farm projects. Diouf is another success story of the MASHAV-Senegal connection. Training with Dov Pasternak, a well-known agronomist in Israel, he studied at Ben-Gurion University and he’s worked in nine countries in Africa.
“We want to change the mind-set of the farmer. We want them to come here and, without having to use a watering can all day, see the success,” says Diouf. In the old days, the farmers would spend 70 percent of their time watering. Now they can weed and do other things while the drip irrigation does its work.
“The revolution is discipline, running a business and not just for personal consumption,” adds Hirschson. He notes that the concept is that these farmers will see profits from their production and that eventually there will be a critical mass of Senegalese who adopt these methods and partner with Israeli companies and investors, and the system will grow from just sustainable development to self-sustaining market-driven answers.
At the Shabbat dinner, American NGO head Teicher points out that one of the problems Senegal faces is that many NGOs simply dump technology on people without seeing if there is a way to maintain the donations.
“We saw this and we wanted to give scalable solutions and create tools with knowledge at the grass roots that are bottom up.”
His model might be symbolic of the larger success story of Senegal. It is in many ways a country that pioneered a bottom-up approach, rather than a dictatorial top-down one. It’s a pillar of stability, built on its brotherhoods, democracy and negotiation. These have brought it relative economic success compared to its neighbors and made it an island of stability. Its open-minded approach, as a Muslim country that supports the Palestinian cause but has warm relations with Israel, is evident of this approach.
It is indeed an exceptional country.