The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is offering some advice to Senegal that seems politically tone-deaf to me. Senegal, as of April, has a new president: Macky Sall, whose triumph over two-term incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade caused jubilation in Senegal (Sall won nearly two-thirds of the vote in the second-round runoff) and reinvigorated confidence in Senegalese democracy abroad. Sall’s victory reflected longstanding disappointment among voters, especially youth, with Wade as an individual – critics accused Wade of corruption, incompetence, and authoritarian tendencies toward the press and other opponents. But the disappointment also owed to deep complaints about economic stagnation in Senegal. Complaints touched on joblessness among youth, the country’s recurring power cuts (which hurt businesses, especially small ones), and other economic woes. Whether you agree with them or not, my impression is that many Senegalese citizens looked (and still look) to the government to take a major role in solving these problems.
The IMF, in its latest press release on Senegal, stated that IMF officials meeting with Sall’s government earlier this month had urged Senegal to cut subsidies on electricity, reduce government spending, and postpone “some non-priority capital expenditure.” Reuters sums up these developments with the headline “IMF Urges New Senegal Government to Tighten Belt,” which seems apt to me.
The IMF, in a way that reminds me a little of the debate over removing the fuel subsidy in Nigeria earlier this year, uses language that suggests government expenditures could be more efficient, and subsidies more targeted. Undoubtedly this is true. But reducing expenditures means reducing expenditures. It seems that the gains that come through “efficiency” and “targeting” are never large enough to offset the reductions represented by the overall cuts. I am not an economist and many of the economic arguments are over my head. But the politics seem simple to me: If Sall wants to stay popular, he will in the medium term need to show that he can make a difference on the economic issues that affect ordinary people’s lives; the most straightforward paths to this involve government spending on these issues, especially electricity and youth job creation. If the government tightens its belt and the economic problems continue, his popularity seems likely to fall. The youth protests that shook Senegal in 2011 and 2012 were not pro-Sall protests; they were anti-Wade, but they were also in opposition to the economic and political status quo in Senegal. I would not at all be surprised, if economic conditions for ordinary people remain stagnant, to see protests re-emerge. Finally, this is not the 1980s, but the IMF should take more cognizance of the fact that many Africans have a negative view of the IMF’s historical role on the continent, and that many of them view the IMF as not just an economic institution but a political actor.