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Fireballs and lights: Senegal's president promises a brighter future

Since Macky Sall was elected president in 2012, Senegal’s economic growth rate has risen to more than 6%, one of Africa’s fastest, and electricity has been extended to thousands of villages in poor areas.

Senegalese President Macky Sall delivers a speech during his coalition's election campaign meeting at Lamine Gueye stadium in Kaolack, Senegal on 12 February 2019. Picture: AFP

DAKAR - In a campaign video featuring images of fireballs and flashing lights, Senegalese President Macky Sall is depicted in front of an express train, a motorway, a glass high-rise and then a sports arena.

The video montage, describing Sall as an innovator, visionary and entrepreneur, draws attention to big-ticket construction projects in a $16.5-billion development programme which he hopes will win him votes in a presidential election on Sunday.

“It is driving us at great speed into modernity,” Sall said at an inauguration ceremony for the TER high-speed train line which was hastily arranged for last month although the express will not run until at least mid-2019.

“We have chosen to make a technological leap, propelling us directly to the forefront of progress”.

Many Senegalese share that dream, but not all are convinced Sall’s plans will benefit most of them.

Sall, 57, is widely expected to be re-elected. Since he was elected president in 2012, Senegal’s economic growth rate has risen to more than 6%, one of Africa’s fastest, and electricity has been extended to thousands of villages in poor areas.

But the coastal West African country of 15 million people has an average income of less than $200 a month — its main exports are cement, fish and phosphates. Horse-drawn carts compete with cars for space on the rubbish-filled streets of the capital, Dakar.

Many of Sall’s showpiece building projects, including Diamniadio — a futuristic city being built from scratch on a patch of semi-desert along the Dakar peninsula — are half finished, with reinforcing bars poking out of concrete shells.

To pay for the projects, Senegal has borrowed on international markets, most recently with a $2.2 billion Eurobond in March last year, and from China.

Western countries, the World Bank and other lenders pledged around $14 billion in loans in Paris last December to fund Sall’s Emergent Senegal Plan.

The IMF has maintained a “low” risk rating on Senegalese debt, but urged it to keep a lid on borrowing. The fund said in January that trying to speed up projects before the election had strained public finances.

Asked whether Senegal had overspent, World Bank Senegal director, Louise Cord told Reuters: “it’s difficult to make these decisions. The biggest decision a government makes is how to allocate its resources,” but that “it’s also important for a country to have a vision of where they want to go.”

But many Senegalese question whether building projects such as a shiny new conference centre will benefit the average citizen as much as it will benefit Senegal’s tiny elite.

“Sall has got his priorities all wrong,” opposition candidate Ousmane Sonko, who is popular with Senegal’s chronically under-employed youth, told a rally in December.

“He thinks that a priority for a country as poor as Senegal is to put up buildings at Diamniadio and an overpriced train.”

“A CERTAIN ELITE”

Laying the track for the $1.1-billion, 36km (22-mile) rail link from Dakar to Diamniadio displaced thousands of people. Many say they have yet to receive promised compensation.

Thirty-four-year-old Cheikh Wane, whose hardware shop was bulldozed, said hundreds of people in his district of Mbao have been waiting for payouts since 2017.

“With this project we have lost jobs. A lot of young people lost out. They are against this project,” Wane said, walking on the tracks where his business once stood.

Diamniadio is meant to free up Dakar’s gridlocked roads by moving the nerve centre of the capital, which is home to more than 3 million people, off the spindly peninsula at Africa’s western-most point. Some government buildings have already relocated there. Others will follow.

The government says the made-to-order city will help Senegal become a competitive business hub and predicts its industrial park will create about 50,000 jobs.

Diamniadio’s industrial park opened in December with six foreign companies and one Senegalese firm. Excited by the prospect, fashion entrepreneur Sophie Zinga, 32, applied to build a clothes factory and dressmaking school at the park.

She was turned down.

“It’s a project only for a certain elite, or companies that have a lot of money,” she said. “It’s not something that the Senegalese youth or small and medium businesses have access to.”

Other residents speak more enthusiastically of Sall’s plan.

“What I like best about this project is the sewage system,” said Ibrahima Diouf, 55, a security guard at Diamniadio, pointing at newly laid pipes in a trench. “In the suburbs, it’s a total nightmare ... Here, in this new city, it’s like they’re saying ‘Welcome!’.”

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