Recently I have become preoccupied with watching how the Arab protests influence political conversations and activism in sub-Saharan Africa. The Arab protests have attracted attention and commentary across Africa, but their impact varies by country. Some countries’ political climates have made them particularly receptive to revolutionary tactics and ideas.
This intersection of regional currents and local problems has occurred in Senegal, which suffers from rising costs of living, an electricity crisis, and a widespread feeling that President Abdoulaye Wade is trying to prepare the way for a “dynastic” transfer of power to his son. It still seems unlikely that Senegal will see an Egypt-style protest movement, but last week’s self-immolation of a former soldier shows that events in North Africa have resonated deeply with some segments of the population in this West African country.
Oumar Bocoum doused himself in flammable liquid and set himself alight outside President Abdoulaye Wade’s official residence on Friday, in a protest mirroring several immolations across the Arab world in recent weeks.
Bocoum was believed to be one of a group of former soldiers seeking an increase in their pensions. Some of them have threatened to set themselves on fire if their demands are not met.
Weekend newspapers reported that Bocoum parked his scooter in front of a nearby administrative building before heading to the palace. He succeeded in torching himself despite guards’ attempts to stop him.
Newspapers reported that he was carrying a piece of paper on which was written “Work or Die”.
The BBC adds that another man fatally burned himself in front of Wade’s palace in 2008, but Bocoum’s actions will potentially receive greater attention in the wake of the revolution in Tunisia. A number of journalists and politicians in Senegal have commented on the incident already, with one opposition leader saying the act sends a “plurality of messages” about “despair” and “frustration” in the country (French).
With widespread discontent among youth, former soldiers (Fr), religious leaders (Fr), and others, Bocoum’s suicide has wider implications than the death of just one man. Again, I don’t see this as the start of a Senegalese revolution – but I do see it as a dramatic warning to President Wade that he must take Senegal’s interlocking crises with the utmost seriousness.