Congratulations to Senegal, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of independence yesterday! Looking at pictures and videos of celebrations made me really miss the country and my friends there. And the occasion also got me thinking about what independence means.
Dominating headlines, though it was reported weeks ago, was the announcement of a transfer of military bases from French to Senegalese control (yes, the statue got some play as well). The French military presence in Senegal will decrease from some 1,200 soldiers to around 300. Several news outlets parsed the announcement and its timing as, in Al Jazeera English‘s words, a “largely symbolic move” which, the BBC added, “appeared designed to boost national pride in a country that sees itself as shaking off the last vestiges of colonialism.” Talks are continuing between the French and the Senegalese regarding the details of the transfer.
President Abdoulaye Wade‘s words are worth quoting at length:
Pour lui, la présence des bases militaires françaises au fil des années est ’’parue de plus en plus incongrue et a été souvent ressentie, par nos populations, singulièrement les jeunes, les cadres et l’armée, comme une indépendance inachevée’’.
’’La spécificité de nos relations historiques, fondées sur l’histoire, la langue et certaines valeurs communes fondamentales, nous conduit à aménager, avec la France, un nouvel espace de coopération’’, a souligné le président Abdoulaye Wade.
[Forgive any errors in translation: “For [Wade], the presence of French military bases over the years ‘seemed more and more incongruous and has often been felt by our population, especially the youth, the officers, and the army, as an unfinished independence…
‘The specificity of our historic relations, founded on history, language, and certain common, fundamental values, leads us to create, with France, a new space for cooperation,’ President Abdoulaye Wade emphasized.”]
I understand why news outlets characterized the transfer as “symbolic,” but symbols are important. As Wade’s words indicate, and as much of the reporting confirms, the move toward greater Senegalese control resonated with much of the country’s population. As Africans and outsiders ponder the meaning of a half-century of independence this year, there is a lot to be depressed about. But things are also happening that give Africans pride, and outsiders should acknowledge that too. Speaking of which, Secretary Clinton made a very nice statement about Senegalese independence.
In closing, I leave you with a video (in French) about Senegalese who fought in French wars. As Wade says, the history remains even if the “space for cooperation” is changing. Many of these former soldiers are old now, and one day they won’t be around. But they remind us, and will remind us after they’re gone, that the histories of Europe and Africa are deeply intertwined, and that Europe has many debts to Africa, some of which it has still not fully acknowledged.