From Activist to President: Why Youssou Ndour Shouldn't be President of Senegal

Don’t get me wrong, I like Youssou Ndour. I have met him. I think he is a man of high calibre with extensive influence in Senegal and an international profile. His music has spoken to an entire generation and been heard around the world. He has never hesitated to raise his voice about social injustice and matters that touch the Senegalese grassroots. He is an entrepreneur who has invested in his country, creating jobs. In short, Youssou plays a positive role in Senegalese society.

But after weeks of speculation, I was surprised and disappointed to hear him announce on his own TV station his decision to stand for president of Senegal. It’s not that I think his apparent ambition is bad in itself. But I think that his candidacy is unlikely to succeed. And if it did, I do not think he is the right candidate for the job. If he won, his role would become more difficult, more overtly political – in the bad sense. He is far more valuable to Senegal as an activist than as an officially elected politician.

Civil society in Senegal is weak. It lacks direction and is full of nostalgia for the post-colonial renaissance of “l’Afrique noire”. People dream of change but there are few credible actors of change. Senegalese politics is a corrupt and shambolic family-run affair, with 173 parties jostling for power and influence. Certain political leaders don’t even understand their own manifestos, some of which are written in France and sent to them. Senegalese society is also dominated by a deeply entrenched class system, in which a small number of wealthy families and religious leaders carry great influence. The wider population, in particular the younger generation, are also weary of self-serving politicians and their unkept promises. The sad fact is that the country is divided and has never fully recovered since the departure of Léopold Sédar Senghor thirty years ago.

The class system is one of the biggest obstacles Youssou Ndour would need to overcome. Growing up as a young girl in Dakar, I used to see him regularly when he visited my Aunt Fatou Sall’s home. She was a wealthy and influential woman in Senegal and a fan of Youssou’s music. Her faith in him prompted her to contribute financially to his career. Many of his songs pay tribute to my family in Senegal. This patronage and that of other tightly-linked “good-blood” families in the past is a problem today; he needs their support but they will see him as opportunistic and greedy – not to mention under-qualified – and their backing would in any case weaken his independence and therefore his credibility.

The same goes for the religious leaders. No candidate is credible without their support. But to obtain it he would inevitably corrupt himself.

Then there is the Diaspora. Money talks in Senegal, and the Mourides and Tidjanes brotherhoods contribute 800 million FCFA to the Senegalese economy every year. And they have also supported his career in the past.

And finally he would need to attract the younger generation. They are being inspired by developments elsewhere in the world – the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring in particular – and are beginning to flex their muscles by demonstrating, and not just on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Their support would be essential, but it would not sit easily with that of the old elites.

One thing that all these forces have in common is a doubt about his qualifications to do the job. Senegalese people were disappointed yesterday by his interview on TV5, when he failed to elaborate clearly on his policies. This is a legitimate concern and one he tries to address in his declaration. But a failure to lay out coherent policies will quickly sink his chances.

I believe his desire to stand has sound motivations, but I am not sure if his celebrity status will enable him to attract enough votes to win. Also, his need for support from entrenched secular elites, religious conservatives and the young would force him into fatal compromises. Finally, there are legitimate doubts within the Senegalese middle class and the youth about his ability to do the job.

Youssou Ndour is a unique figure in Senegalese culture. Most activists in Senegal are penniless and relatively powerless, but Youssou Ndour has the ear of many; a musician with entrepreneurial acumen, activism in his heart and mind, and positions on the advisory boards of various platforms for change and African development that enable him to influence policy while retaining political independence. Senegal wants and needs him. But he is far more valuable to his country in the role of a prominent and politically independent activist than as a president. I hope he will stand down.

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