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‘The West forgets that the Russians were with us in our liberation struggles’

Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop reflects on the protests currently shaking his country, which he believes is heading toward ‘moderate Salafism’

José Naranjo
Boubacar Boris Diop
Boubacar Boris Diop in his home office last week in Dakar.Marta Moreiras

Boubacar Boris Diop, 76, is a leading Senegalese writer. As a journalist, editor and essayist, he’s everywhere. From the rooftop of his house in his native Dakar, surrounded by books and under a huge portrait of the Senegalese author Cheikh Anta Diop, our interview discusses a convulsed Africa where jihadism, the new military regimes, Russia’s advance, the French presence and political Islamization are at the center of the continent’s debates. But the conversation inevitably turns toward the crisis in Senegal, where protests have led to 16 dead, 357 injured and 500 arrested. According to Diop, that’s the result of the authoritarian drift of a “panic-stricken” government.

Question. In your book La gloire des imposteurs [The glory of impostors], there is a 2013 exchange of letters between you and [Malian politician and writer] Aminata Traoré in which you are both very critical of the French military intervention in Mali. You were stigmatized for it, but today anti-French sentiment is more widespread than ever across West Africa. Do you feel that time has proven you right?

Answer. That was at the same time as the Arab Spring, the people had risen up. It was all so beautiful. The dictator Gaddafi, that monster, was going to fall, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali had fallen [in Tunisia], and in Mali it was not long before the jihadists arrived in Bamako, took the city and took over the whole country. But we said: calm down, things are not that simple. To begin with, the story of the jihadists advancing on Bamako was false and that was the main argument that convinced young Malians [to support French intervention]. They also said that Gaddafi was bombing his people, and it was all lies.

French policy in Africa is archaic. France never wanted to decolonize, and now it’s being stoned in the back to [make it] leave.

Q. If it wasn’t to stop the jihadist advance, why did the French intervene in Mali?

A. France is intervening as part of a global strategy because Mali is part of its sphere of influence. When [France’s 2013] Operation Serval was launched, many were angry with those of us who dared to say that it was not that simple. The irony is that today those same people are going to say to Aminata Traoré: “Sorry, you were right; you had more foresight than us.” French policy in Africa is so archaic that it is doomed. France never wanted to decolonize and now it is being stoned in the back to [make it] leave.

Q. Where does this generalized anti-French sentiment come from? Are we facing a generation that dares to change how it relates to the world?

A. It’s what I call “the wild people of social media,” young people who don’t read newspapers, don’t know The New York Times or Le Monde, and relate only with each other. There are hundreds of thousands of them; it’s a massive effect. In 1956, [thinker] Aimé Cesaire said that the West was doomed because it lies and the peoples it has subdued know it. Libya, the Iraq war, the chaos in Syria... all that has made the West fragile, has weakened it. It has already lost Asia and Latin America and now it is losing Africa. I don’t know if that will [happen] in five or 10 years, but the process has begun and it is irreversible.

Q. Is it awareness, a sort of decolonization? How would you describe it?

A. It is a rather widespread awareness with bastions that resist change, such as Senegal, Ivory Coast and Chad. France knows that if it loses these three countries—Chad for military reasons, Senegal for its intellectual symbolism, and Ivory Coast for economic reasons—it’s over for them. They have already lost Mali, Burkina Faso and Central African Republic, but they think they can survive that. But I insist, it is a widespread awareness.

Libya, the war in Iraq, the chaos in Syria, these have all weakened the West. It has already lost Asia and Latin America and now it is losing Africa.

Q. The coups d’état that have shaken the Sahel in the last three years have a strong anti-Western component. What do you think of the military coming to power?

A. I deeply admire Assimi Goita and the military junta in Mali, as well as the young [military, interim president] Ibrahim Traoré in Burkina Faso. But let’s avoid simplifications. If you have a political, civilian, totally corrupt class and, before them, virtuous people (be they businessmen, military or gendarmes) who love their country and are committed to its independence, you have to support them. The uniform is neither a curse nor a blessing. Ghana was a horror before Jerry Rawlings [a military man who seized power through two coups before being elected head of state in 1992]: he came in, took power, normalized Ghana and left. There is a way of thinking—[it’s] so profoundly idiotic that it is not even worth dignifying with a response—that claims that Thomas Sankara [in Burkina Faso] and Jean-Bedel Bokassa [in Central African Republic] were the same because they were both military men who seized power. These people don’t understand history at all.

Q. But rights, such as freedom of the press, have been rolled back and there are reports of massacres of civilians, like in the Malian town of Moura.

A. The United Nations report on Moura is a real outrage, a machination. The fact that it has the UN stamp on it does not mean that it is respectable. In Africa, the UN has long since lost its respectability. But let me say something about freedom of the press. Thousand Hills Radio, [which incited genocide in 1994] in Rwanda, emerged in a context of democratization and democratic openness, just like Kangura, a totally racist newspaper that urged people to kill [other] human beings. I can’t speak for all Africans, but, personally, that whole history of freedom of expression doesn’t impress me at all. I live in Senegal, and I am very happy to be able to criticize the president, but at the same time I remain clear-eyed. As a writer, I can express myself; someone from civil society or a lawyer can; well-known people, great sportsmen... in short, the elites. There are 17 million of us, but those who [can] express themselves are not more than 3,000 or 4,000. That’s the freedom of the press. There are a lot of people who just have to survive, who cannot be treated when they are sick or send their children to school. I am no longer talking about prosperity but about dignity. If we’re letting people live like wild beasts to satisfy the fantasy of an insufficient and minority part of the population’s freedom, that doesn’t impress me. Which is the best-functioning country in Africa right now? Rwanda, there is no doubt about it.

In Africa, the UN lost its respectability a long time ago.

Q. And it is not exactly a democracy.

A. I wouldn’t say it is a democracy. If I were a Rwandan citizen living in Rwanda, I would not be able to say the things I say in Senegal. At the same time, why would I have to say them if I had a head of state that I respect because he is not ethnicist, he is not corrupt and he is aware of the weight of history on his shoulders? That is Paul Kagame. Thanks to him, that country is functioning.

Q. The West is reproaching African countries for remaining neutral in regard to the conflict in Ukraine, for not condemning Russia. At the same time, there is a growing presence of Wagner Group mercenaries on the continent. Is Russia gaining influence in Africa?

A. Nelson Mandela once said to a Western journalist: “The problem with you all is that you want your enemies to necessarily be our enemies.” When Westerners try to demonize Russia in Africa they forget that in our collective memory of liberation struggles, it was the Russians who were there. Regarding Wagner, let’s consider the facts. Who is talking about [the private military company] Blackwater in Iraq? Or the French Army’s Foreign Legion? We are led to believe that this is the first time in history that mercenaries have been used. Everybody has been doing it forever. Countries working with Wagner have no choice: between Macron and Wagner, the Malians choose Wagner and I understand it. And finally, when this war broke out, Ukraine did not allow Africans to leave the country [neighboring states refused them entry]. And then they want us to have sympathy for [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy. I don’t quite understand this inability of Westerners to put themselves in someone else’s place, this extraordinary lack of empathy.

Q. What future do you foresee for Africa in 20 or 30 years?

A. I am more pessimistic than optimistic. There is a Wolof proverb that says that the wind that blows a leaf into a hole will not be the same wind that blows it out. I read the world through Senegalese society, and I see that the most powerful, strongest and determined forces of change, both in Senegal and in the Sahel, are fighting for our society’s Arabization in the name of the Muslim religion. We are heading toward a Senegalese society of a moderate Salafism [ultra-conservative branch of Islam]. Public opinion has been powerfully shaped. If we were to organize a normal, transparent, fraud-free referendum on applying sharia law today, 90 to 95% of Senegalese would vote yes.

Q. Do you really think so?

A. I am quite sure. Of course, the Senegalese are not in favor of cutting off hands or heads every Friday; they would be in favor of a renewed Sharia. For the moment, the brotherhoods [religious organizations that defend moderate Islam] are the counterweight. But I wonder what life remains for them.

Q. Nigerian activist Moussa Tchangari said, somewhat bitterly, that the only option for change that is growing in the Sahel is jihadism. He was implicitly referring to the failure of leftist options.

A. I agree; secularism is disappearing. We are in a period of regression, which is going to make progress very difficult. If you defend secularism, you will be accused of being an atheist, a freemason, allied with the whites. That is why the leftists of the past do not like Ousmane Sonko [the Senegalese opposition leader, who was sentenced to two years in prison last week], because he is a symbol of the youth that we could not conquer. Sonko has a religious discourse; we must not forget that.

Q. After Sonko’s conviction, Senegal is going through one of the most delicate moments in its recent history. How do you analyze what has happened in the streets, all that violence?

A. It is unheard of. First, because of its violence. Second, because of its intensity; it looks like it is going to keep going. And finally, because of its impact, even the national soccer players and wrestlers have come out to denounce what is happening.

Q. The government says that the armed civilians seen in the protests are members of “hidden forces under foreign influence who want to destabilize the country.” What do you think about that?

A. It’s much more serious than that. I fear that they will declare a state of emergency to delay the elections [scheduled for February 2024]. The regime has realized that it has lost, that it is morally bankrupt, and it is panicking. I am not saying that it is a bloodthirsty dictatorship, but the authoritarian drift is evident. President Macky Sall must clarify whether or not he will run in the elections. Personally, I don’t think he will, he cannot, but he is afraid to say so because of what might happen in his own camp.

Q. How did such a situation occur in a country known for its stability?

A. People always talk about Senegalese democracy, but I don’t think it was ever real. Now, the regime has gone too far in [its] manipulation, mystification and hatred. A change will entail settling scores. And that is why those in power are not going to give in. Deep down, I do not rule out [the possibility] that these elections will not be held. Sonko’s popularity is such that the regime may consider it suicidal to hold an election, with or without Macky Sall.

Q. What do you think of Sonko and his enormous appeal among young people?

A. The risk for him is thinking that he is popular and that this is enough. For all his virtues, I don’t think he is ready to lead a country. The rape accusation [of which he was acquitted] was an outrage. All the maneuvers to prevent him from running for office have been odious. The problem is that Macky Sall and his entourage are so amateurish that they have made him into a victim, a martyr, and no one has been able to seriously question him about his government program. That rape story has made political debate impossible and has made Sonko the most popular politician in the history of Senegal, which does not mean [he’s] the most capable. He is innocent, he should be able to run, I believe in his personal integrity, but he does not yet have the [ability] to lead this country.

Q. You have been denouncing this authoritarian drift in Senegal for some time.

A. We have to stop electing monarchs in Senegal; there is an enormous concentration of power in the hands of one man. This is a factory for dictators. It worries me that Sonko does not talk about that....I don’t think there is a dictatorship in Senegal—that would be an exaggeration—but there is autocratic, personalistic power.

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