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By: Fabrice de Pierrebourg / L’actualité

The memory is still painful. Sitting under a makeshift shelter amid imposing multicoloured pirogues, Abdoul Aziz Sène struggles to hold back his tears when the conversation turns to his 25-year-old son, who was lost at sea two months earlier. 

With no job and no future prospects, Massene, a fisherman like the rest of his family, was trying to reach the Spanish archipelago of the Canary Islands, 1,500 km north of his village of Fass Boye, alongside a hundred other young people from the coastal region of Dakar, Senegal. They had all crammed into a wooden pirogue designed for fishing, which drifted on the Atlantic Ocean for just over a month after running out of fuel. 

The quest for the European El Dorado turned into a nightmare. Of the 101 officially reported passengers, 38 survived, rescued in mid-August by a Spanish fishing boat off the coast of Cape Verde. 

These miraculous survivors described the agony of their comrades, starving, dehydrated, their stomachs eaten away by salt water, their skin and eyes burnt by the sun, some descending into madness to the point where they had to be tied up with rope. “My son, like others, ended up throwing himself into the water [to drown],” continues Abdoul Aziz Sène. 

Eyes downcast, young fishermen tinker silently with their net beside the septuagenarian, dressed in an immaculate long, white tunic and wearing a small black cap. No one dares speak as the respected figure continues his tale. 

The gravity of the moment is broken only by the call to prayer broadcast over the loudspeaker of the mosque’s pistachio-green walls, in a message that barely drowns out the incessant roar of the ocean waves. 

The number of drownings of young Senegalese dreaming of a better life has increased in recent months. According to the International Organization for Migration, the number of pirogues that departed Senegal in July and August was up 114% over the previous two months. At least 105 migrants have died in a dozen shipwrecks, and 125 are considered missing. These figures are “underestimated as a result of data collection difficulties,” notes the UN agency. These tragedies, which have turned the ocean into a marine graveyard, have left the country dismayed. They have also fuelled discussion. 

These pirogues that steal away from the beaches at night, to evade the officers who track down migrants and smugglers, are the reflection of a youth oscillating between disillusionment and anger, prepared to do anything to escape the economic problems that Senegal has faced since the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit the local tourism industry particularly hard, but also since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These two events, as elsewhere in Africa, have “caused a major shock” to the country’s economy and its inhabitants, particularly the most vulnerable, notes the World Bank. Already grappling with a poverty rate of 37% in 2020, Senegal reported inflation of 14.1% by the end of 2022, “its highest level in decades,” according to the financial institution. The prices of food, including bread, rice, oil and fish, which are highly prized by the Senegalese, jumped by almost 22%. And they continue to climb. 

With unemployment hovering around 23% for the past two years, more and more young people are resigning themselves to braving the seas to try their luck in Europe. Some will fly to Nicaragua — the other promised land of the Senegalese, if social networks are to be believed — as a stopover on the migrant route to the United States. 

Others still will fall into crime. This phenomenon is on the rise in the greater Dakar region, home to almost a quarter of Senegal’s 18 million inhabitants. According to the latest census (October 2023), half the country’s population is under the age of 19 and 75% are under 35. 

The economic difficulties are compounded by political upheavals in the run-up to a presidential election (February 2024), which is already turbulent following the arrest and imprisonment of Ousmane Sonko, 49, the main opponent to the regime of President Macky Sall, 62, who has been in power since 2012. Sonko has a strong following among youth, mainly because of his anti-system, anti-corruption rhetoric and support for Senegal’s economic sovereignty. He was charged with fomenting insurrection and undermining state security. The dissolution of his party over the summer sparked violent protests across the country. 

Disillusionment, despair, poverty and anger are all elements that, according to many local stakeholders and experts, could create fertile ground for extremist groups already active in a number of West African countries, including neighbouring Mali. 

Located three hours from Dakar, Fass Boye has a population of around 10,000. Traditional fishers live here in isolation at the end of a small, rutted road, partly covered with ochre-coloured earthen boards and where traffic is scarce. 

The first thing that catches the eye are the hundreds of brightly painted pirogues lined up on the fine sand, facing the ocean, under an azure sky. It looks like an idyllic postcard scene. 

The fishing licences granted by a government commission over the past few years to European and Asian industrial fishers, accused of plundering fish stocks with their factory ships, sounded the death knell for the livelihood of the Fass Boye fishermen, even before the start of the economic crisis. By extension, this has signalled the end of all the small businesses dependent on this sector. 

Fish such as Nile perch, scorpion fish and yaboy (sardinella) now rarely appear in their nets, the result of the overfishing of local marine resources repeatedly denounced by various international organizations, including Greenpeace. “Gone are the days when fishermen would return three times a day with their pirogues loaded with fish,” recalls Abdoul Aziz Sène. 

A fisherman stands in front of a boat on a beach.
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Abdoul Aziz Sène, unemployed fisherman from Fass Boye.

“Work no longer puts food on the table,” laments Cheikh Diop, a 37-year-old fisherman. “Life used to be good. No one thought about leaving. We barely had to travel two nautical miles to fill our nets. Now you have to go up to 150 km out and spend a week at sea. Once again... There’s no hope for young people here.”  

His younger colleagues nod in agreement. One of them is eager to show us a video released by the Union nationale de la pêche artisanale du Sénégal, filmed on board a foreign trawler with its deck submerged in fish. “It makes me sick,” he says. “And all with the government’s complicity!”  

A little further on, young fishermen are stretched out nonchalantly in the sand, in the shade of a pirogue. Some are smoking cannabis. There’s nothing else to do. 

“I haven’t been out to sea for three months,” says Baye Ndiaye, 25. “On a good day, I would earn 6,000 to 8,000 CFA francs [CAD13 to CAD18]. That doesn’t even cover the household costs and expenses. Now, my goal is to leave for Europe to help my family. I have friends in Spain who work in the fields. Their work is three times less difficult than mine.” 

A group of men sit on the beach
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Baye Ndiaye (centre), 25, with fellow fishermen in Fass Boye.

Nothing seems likely to deter him. Not the danger, and not even the pain of having lost friends at sea. And not the length of the journey. It can take six to eight days, depending on the boat and its motor. If all goes well. “I don’t mind spending a long time at sea,” he says. 

And the journey is costly. The price demanded by smugglers to organize it can be as much as CAD1,700 (the equivalent of a year’s work at minimum wage). Half as much, sometimes, when you’re a fisherman. “Because we can help with navigation,” explains Baye Ndiaye. “It’s risky, but we have to do it,” he continues. “The government doesn’t help us young people.” 

So, when tragedy struck this summer, the young people of Fass Boye rose up in revolt. This was an unprecedented event in the normally peaceful little fishing port. They ransacked everything that represented State authority, including coastal surveillance and fishery department buildings. Two months later, the walls of the buildings are still blackened, the windows shattered and the offices littered with papers and communications equipment. The youth also clashed for many hours with the officers sent to restore order.  

They were angry with the government for not having mobilized its sea and air rescue resources to try to find their friends’ sinking pirogue when the alarm was raised. “After 15 days with no news, we contacted the Ministry of Fisheries and the prefect,” recounts Abdoul Aziz Sène. To no avail. “What makes me sick is this State, which gave no response to this tragedy off its coast, abandoning all these young people, including my son, to their fate.” 

Research by Babaly Sall, a professor at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, in the north of the country, shows that, “in 7 out of 10 cases, it is the lack of work and income that is the cause of this violence, which is rising dramatically among Senegalese youth.” 

For three years, he collected the testimonies of Senegalese people over the age of 15 as part of an initiative supported by Ottawa’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) on “Youth and strategies for resilience to violence and criminality in West Africa.” The professor is concerned about the “palpable economic and political frustration among an increasingly young population, under constant stress and just waiting for an opportunity to erupt.” He adds: “Either they go somewhere else, by taking a pirogue, or they stay here, feeling trapped in a cage, boiling over and at risk of resorting to violence.” 

3 young children and a man walk past a wall of graffiti.
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Hopeful graffiti.

All of these factors are known to provide fertile ground for radicalization. Jihadist groups rely on endogenous factors, such as poverty, gaps in education and political frustration, to recruit young followers and destabilize the countries in which they take root. 

A researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a think-tank based in South Africa, Ella Jeannine Abatan has been studying violent extremism on the African continent, particularly in the Sahel, for the past decade. She has also examined the keys to recruitment. More specifically, she coordinated a groundbreaking research project running from 2019 to 2022, in partnership with IDRC, and designed to equip “policymakers” in their search for solutions. The project focused on the often trivialized role played by women in two jihadist groups active in West Africa — Boko Haram and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Katibat Macina in Niger and Mali. 

According to the expert, Senegal is “vulnerable” to radicalization because of the economic and political tensions that are shaking its youth and its sense of community. “We must avoid creating hotbeds of tension that can be exploited by violent extremist groups,” she advises. “The country needs to learn from what we’ve already seen elsewhere.” 

She goes on to note that the most widespread error is to consider the absence of terrorist attacks, as is the case in Senegal, to mean the absence of a threat. A number of factors call for vigilance. Since 2012, around one hundred Senegalese are said to have joined the ranks of groups affiliated with the Islamic State group, particularly in Libya, and with Al Qaeda. Some have returned. 

Then there are the clandestine gold mines near the Malian border, which could be infiltrated by extremist groups looking for funding and new recruits. Senegal shares 419 km of border with Mali, the focus of a deadly insurgency by jihadist groups since 2012. This reality also affects Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania to varying degrees. 

“No country is immune. Exceptionalism can’t last forever,” says Ella Jeannine Abatan, alluding to the often-vaunted “Senegalese exceptionalism” and its sense of community. The reputation of relative social and political stability — Senegal being free from coups d’état, which are so common on the continent — has indeed stuck to this democratic West African country since it achieved independence in 1960. 

In Médina Gounass, people also dream of pirogues, even though they can’t see the sea. From this poverty-stricken commune in Dakar’s northeastern suburbs, the horizon looks more like a depressing ocean of electrical wires and fibre-cement roofs. 

The neighbourhood, barely a square kilometre in size, was “created” in the 1960s by farmers and ranchers from the countryside who flocked there in search of work in the factories of the metropolis. Most of them never left, and eventually chose to bring their families. Over the years, their temporary wooden shacks have gradually given way to equally makeshift permanent structures. They are nestled in the midst of a maze of dirt roads, sometimes less than a metre wide, not lit at night, and surrounding two retention ponds intended to solve recurrent flooding problems, but filled with foul-smelling water and garbage. 

Life is not rosy in Médina Gounass. Unsanitary conditions, acute poverty and insecurity undermine the daily lives of the 36,000 people — more than a third of whom are under the age of 18 — who survive in this makeshift habitat lacking in public facilities. There is only one school (primary) and one clinic. 

A young family walk through a neighbourhood in the north of the capital, Dakar.
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
The Médina Gounass neighbourhood in the north of the capital, Dakar.

Here, the informal sector, made up of odd jobs, is the bedrock of families’ survival. Out-of-school children and teenagers also contribute. They work in stalls, cutting wood, working metal or carrying heavy water containers. 

“Because of the poverty, there’s more and more crime, and it’s starting at the age of 15,” says Gamane, 37, a local social and sports organizer. “We need to help our youth, find them work, show them that there are other options in life outside of crime.”  

Mada Sene, a 46-year-old community development worker, is on the ground every day in this slum “immersed in inextricable instability.” He notes that “all forms of violence — robbery, assault, rape, sexual abuse, etc. — exist in Médina Gounass, and some increased during the pandemic, namely as a result of the lack of work, in addition to the fact that families of 20 or 25 were confined to small living quarters.” 

Mada Sene recently participated in a research project on youth violence in Dakar, conducted by the Institut africain de gestion urbaine (IAGU) with financial support from IDRC. In its final report, the IAGU notes that “the phenomenon of urban insecurity continues to worsen, causing concern among the public, researchers and decision-makers alike. The perpetrators are getting younger and younger…with an average age of between 15 and 35... While women are considered to be the primary victims, they are also increasingly involved in cases of urban violence (infanticide and drugs, among other offences).” 

Abdou Fodé Sow, 69, former teacher and now community facilitator, who also collaborated on this research, is distressed to see more and more “young people spending their days sitting in the street drinking tea, or stealing, taking advantage of people and using drugs.” 

“Idleness and ignorance are scourges.” He adds, however, “There’s a saying in Senegal: ‘a child must turn out well,’ meaning be able to help their parents later on.”  

Mada Sene and Abdou Fodé Sow stop in the yard of Ndeye Callafaya. It’s a welcome break in the scorching heat of early October, accentuated by sticky humidity. For the past decade, this energetic 45-year-old mother has spent her days listening to and helping young people in her area, on a voluntary basis. “My door is always open,” she says, sitting on a small wooden bench. “Médina Gounass is like a village. We help each other. And I’m a mom to everyone.” 

A woman and two men sit on a bench
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Mada Sene, Ndeye Callafaya and Abdou Fodé Sow, in Médina Gounass.

Every day, she witnesses various acts of delinquency, ranging from simple theft — “even old scrap metal sold for 200 CFA [50 cents]” — to acts of extreme violence. “Recently, next door to me, a 14-year-old boy slashed another teenager with a machete over nothing more than a cup of tea!” 

But she’s not giving up on her mission. “The delinquents could be our own children,” she points out. She also tries to convince youth who have left school to learn a trade or become entrepreneurs, for example by opening a small business, “rather than sitting around doing nothing.” Or thinking only about leaving in a pirogue, like her own 19-year-old son. Young people are attracted by promises of wealth that abound on social networks, as Abdou Fodé Sow explains. 

“These young people are abandoning their families to die at sea,” laments Ndeye Callafaya, desperate and shocked in equal measure. 

Momar Kane, the 72-year-old imam of Dakar and an imposing figure, prefers to remain optimistic about the risk of extremist contagion. With a doctorate in social work from Université Laval in Quebec, he became interested at a very early age in “Senegalese-style [Sunni] Islam,” practised in a country that is 95% Muslim. He describes the model as “open, tolerant and mindful of coexistence,” based essentially on four brotherhoods (Tidiane, Mouride, Qadiriyya, Layène), some of them very old, adhering to the Sufi mystical belief system. Each has its own rites and is headed by a caliph who exercises religious and sometimes political authority (voting instructions) over his followers. This model is the antithesis of the “very strict” Islam of Salafism (a doctrine associated with several extremist groups) and Wahhabism, propagated by Saudi Arabia. Momar Kane is pleased that fundamentalist Islam remains “marginal” among Senegalese youth. 

Two men stand side by side
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Imams Momar Kane and Oumar Kane.

Many of the Senegalese people we interviewed during our visit believe that the brotherhoods exert a beneficial, and in particular stabilizing, influence on society in times of turmoil. A little too much for the taste of some young people, who “criticize them for being too aligned with the government,” explains the imam. 

On a daily basis, Momar Kane, who describes himself with a mischievous grin as an “imam dépanneur” — a double allusion to his time in Quebec and his role as a replacement at the mosque in his neighbourhood, HLM Grand Yoff, in Dakar — also sees that young Senegalese are feeling increasingly “desperate” because they have no prospects for the future, “even among graduates.” 

After leaving the imam’s mosque, we pass two young vendors with their arms loaded with limes, cashew nuts and rolls of paper towels. Because of the crisis and the cost of living, they hope to have earned “just enough to buy food” by the end of the day. Resigned, they dream of escape or the accession to power of Ousmane Sonko, who “represents the future,” they say, before continuing on their way. 

Moustapha, 21, also roams the neighbourhood with small dollar packages of peanuts that he makes “to help his farmer parents” in Casamance, far to the south. “But I want to go to Europe, no matter where it may be.” 

Two young fruit vendors, in Dakar.
Fabrice de Pierrebourg
Two young fruit vendors, in Dakar.

For Professor Babaly Sall, it’s imperative to “implement public policies, particularly in terms of employment, that are more oriented towards those under 20, so that these young people feel useful to society,” he asserts, before concluding: “Let’s trust them instead of deciding for them and managing everything in a gerontocratic way.” 

This report was produced with the collaboration of Magib Gaye and the support of IDRC. 

This article was initially published in the January/February 2024 issue of L’actualité. 

Top image credit: Fabrice de Pierrebourg