Summer 2010 Catch-Up: Senegal’s Electricity Crisis

After being away from this site for some time, I’m going to ease back into blogging by summarizing a few big stories from the last two months or so. This approach will help me and readers to catch up on news, and will also give me the chance to take a slightly longer view of events than I usually do in day-to-day blogging. I’ve decided to start with Senegal’s electricity crisis.

Senegalese citizens have periodically protested power shortages for years, and the IMF urged the country to “revamp” its electricity infrastructure last fall, but this summer has seen an outpouring of public anger over problems with electricity supply in Dakar and elsewhere. Although cuts in service typically occur between July and October, the shortages are worse this year. In mid-July residents took to the streets in several major cities. At least one protester died in Dakar, reportedly at the hands of police. The electricity crisis has major political significance: From the beginning of the protests, complaints about the national power firm, Senelec, went hand in hand with criticisms of the administration of President Abdoulaye Wade.

The outages also have a broad economic impact, inconveniencing small businesses, interrupting household activities, increasing families’ expenses on fuel, and potentially harming the rice harvest.

The government’s reaction has not defused criticism. Explanations for the cuts have varied, with officials citing fuel quality concerns, “cashflow problems,” aging facilities, and a need for new plants as factors in the crisis.* Popular anger has prompted a wave of finger-pointing among elites, with some parliamentarians demanding answers from the administration. Trade groups, Muslim leaders, and intellectual organizations have organized boycotts and further protests.

At the end of July, the government unsuccessfully attempted to halt the protests. An official ban in late July disrupted one planned march, but this Saturday an opposition-led rally denounced the administration even as government spokesmen insisted that the electricity supply is returning to normal. If that promise holds true, the protests will almost certainly cease. But if the crisis continues, the protests – and the opportunity they give the president’s opponents to link the electricity crisis to broader criticisms of the regime – will almost certainly expand.

It seems unlikely to me that the Senegalese electricity crisis, should it continue, will threaten the existence of the present regime. But it has wounded the administration’s legitimacy. The crisis, moreover, resonates with broader feelings of discontent about governance in Senegal, a trend that could strongly affect the elections in 2012.

One last and pretty obvious point: Problems with electricity, because they cause havoc in so many people’s daily lives, can activate particularly intense forms of popular disgust with politicians. That’s true even though some places in Africa “have it better” than others. Even if the problems are relative they still matter to people a lot. Having now spent time in both Dakar and Kano, I can say that the power situation in the former is much better than in the latter. But the issue arouses strong political feelings in both cities. The frequent conversations I had in Kano about the electricity crisis there almost always included mention of politics and government corruption, and I imagine similar conversations are going on right now in Dakar. People in both places are upset, even when they adjust their expectations to new lows in service. The governments that fail to provide electricity where it is demanded risk incurring major, long-term resentment from citizens. There are only a few problems with infrastructure (water supply comes to mind) that are more disruptive than power cuts.

*One explanation obliquely placed some responsibility on China. I will be curious to see if blaming China (rightly or wrongly) for economic problems features more frequently in African politics as China’s presence on the continent grows.

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6 thoughts on “Summer 2010 Catch-Up: Senegal’s Electricity Crisis

  1. Very interesting. A few things here jump at out me:

    1) Senegal’s efforts to ramp up electricity generation seem to be split between coal and biofuels. A deal was signed in 2008 to bring a new 124MW coal-fired plant on line by this year, about 30 kilometers from Dakar. At the same time, this 2009 U.S. State Department guide (PDF) to commerce in Senegal says, “Senegal has embarked on an aggressive effort to produce significant quantities
    of biofuels, initially to run electricity generation units. It also is conducting a pilot
    project, using sugarcane-based ethanol.” These dual strategies reflect the differing nature of the country’s short-term and long-term energy needs. In the short term, the priority must be placed on increasing generating capacity as soon as possible, to put an end to the shortages, which as you mentioned, can be devastating on both small businesses and the public alike. But in the long-term, there is a need to develop biofuels or some other domestic fuel source, to avoid a dangerous dependence on other countries. There is some talk among the Tom Friedman’s of the world of less-developed countries ‘leapfrogging’ 20th century energy sources and going straight to cleaner and renewable sources as they ramp up generation. While this would be ideal, Senegal’s challenge makes it clear that this is anything but easy, especially in countries that aren’t able to meet current demand.

    2) This Wikipedia page shows the extent to which countries like Senegal get by with very minimal electricity, or conversely, the extent to which European and North American countries waste it. For example, as of 2005, the average American used as much electricity as 80 Senegalese or 100 Nigerians. In addition to food, land and water shortages, ensuring access to reliable electricity in less-developed countries promises to be one of the most difficult challenges of the 21st century.

    • great points all. I hadnt thought about the biofuels, that could definitely be revolutionary – and could be a big opportunity for brazil to do more business in w. africa.

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