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.