June 22, 2006
Bad governance at home fuels African migration
By Nick Tattersall
"BEVERLY HILLS," Senegal -- Young fishermen playing table football in the sand look up wistfully as another plane bound for Paris roars over their rubbish-strewn beach.
Mothers dressed in bright cloth wraps lounge beside polystyrene cool boxes, brushing away flies in the fetid air as they wait for their sons to return with the day's catch.
Senegal is meant to be an African success story: one of the continent's most stable democracies, religiously tolerant and a major recipient of foreign aid as a result.
But the tree-lined avenues and tower blocks of downtown Dakar belie the discontent of its teeming suburbs, where young men pass languid days contemplating a jobless future.
"Each day we hear about the millions that our country has but nothing of it comes here. Each day we are told lies," said Saliou Seck, 26, one of thousands of young Africans to have risked their lives trying to get to Europe to find work.
"I went to the cybercafe and saw in Spain they need workers. The government knows that but they won't give us visas ... That's why young people are leaving in pirogues," he said, referring to the rickety wooden fishing boats that have carried almost 10,000 Africans to Spain's Canary Islands this year.
Seck, a muscular fisherman in a basketball shirt and baggy shorts, has tried several times to get to the Canaries, risking a voyage that has killed hundreds of his compatriots when they ran out of food or their boats broke up in rough seas.
On his last attempt, he was forced to take control of the boat when the captain lost his nerve and became ill.
"We saw death. There were big waves, like buildings, to the right, left, in the middle, behind us. They were all crying, grown men, they were saying Monsieur, Monsieur we want to go back or we will die," he said.
The locals call this beach on the outskirts of Dakar "Beverly Hills." Next door lies the "Cote d'Azur," more thick-skinned humor from the Lebou fishermen who work among the rotting bones, goat droppings and horse manure on the sand.
"It's agony, brutal, seeing the plane each day and knowing you will never get a visa," said Cheikh M'Boup, 40, who buys and sells fish but complains of falling prices.
"What hurts the most is that we have endless strength to work. But here you can't find work. It's a disaster."
It wasn't meant to be that way.
President Abdoulaye Wade, an economic liberal, swept to power in 2000 with massive support from unemployed youths hungry for change after four decades of socialist rule, telling his supporters it was "necessary to work: work hard."
Six years on, unemployment is estimated at over 40 percent -- a worrying statistic in a country where half the population is under 18 -- driving some of its most dynamic youths to make increasingly desperate attempts to breach "Fortress Europe."
With no oil reserves or huge deposits of gold or minerals, Senegal has seen strong economic growth, luring foreign investors to its tourism and service sector. But obstacles to investment remain -- including stifling bureaucracy and corruption -- and most people benefit little from foreign funds.
In the fishing communities and working-class neighborhoods of Dakar there are murmurs about the duty Europe's former colonial powers have to help provide work after reaping the benefit of African labor and natural resources.
But most say their own government bears the primary responsibility for creating jobs.
"Look at the ministers' sons, they have new cars, new houses, new clothes. 'The enemies of Africa are Africans'," said one man, quoting the lyrics of Ivorian reggae star Alpha Blondy.
From law students at the Cheikh Anta Diop university to hardy men learning the fishing trade from their parents, many young people bemoan the government's lack of priorities.
Government officials do not know or are reluctant to give unemployment figures. The most recent data available from the national statistics office dates from 1988.
With presidential elections next year and an Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit to host, Wade's government is focusing on "feel-good" infrastructure projects designed to make Dakar look more glamorous.
The showpiece is a four-lane coastal highway costing upwards of $30 million which will allow politicians and delegates to bypass the open sewers and mountains of rubbish piled up on the streets where much of the city's population lives.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Wade laid the foundation stone in April of the $250 million "Gaddafi Tower," which will house a five-star hotel, conference center, offices and shops.
"There is money in this country but the government does not know how to manage it," said fish seller Abdourhamane Badiane, 20. "We don't need these roads. We need jobs."
Senegal hosted experts from Europe and Africa for a summit on illegal immigration this month at a luxury hotel sticking up on the horizon a few miles from "Beverly Hills." But few officials ever visit the beaches from where pirogues leave.
"We have our traditions. We have respect. We are ready to work to our last breath. We have our dignity," said Seck. "The government does not see this. We are people who want to work."