Boubacar Boris Diop, last week in his office at his home in Dakar.Marta Moreiras
Boubacar Boris Diop (Dakar, 1946) is one of the Senegalese writers of reference. Journalist, editor and essayist, he never hides. From the roof of his house in Dakar, surrounded by books and under a huge portrait of the Senegalese author Cheikh Anta Diop, the interview navigates the choppy waters of a convulsed Africa where jihadism, new military regimes, the advance of Russia, the French presence or political Islamization are at the center of the debates. But it is inevitable that the conversation will end up reaching the port of the crisis in Senegal, with protests that have caused 16 deaths, 357 injuries and 500 arrests. They are, according to Diop, the consequence of the authoritarian drifts of a "panic" government.
Nine Killed in Senegal Protests After Opposition Leader's Prison Sentence
Question. In your book The Glory of the Impostors (translated into Spanish by Catarata and Casa África), you collect an exchange of letters between you and [Malian politician and writer] Aminata Traoré in 2013 in which you are very critical of the French military intervention in Mali. They were stigmatized for it, but today anti-French sentiment is more widespread than ever in West Africa. Do you feel that time has proved you right?
Answer. It was the time of the Arab Spring, the peoples had risen. It was all so nice... The dictator Gaddafi, that monster, was going to fall, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali had fallen [in Tunisia], and in Mali it was very close for the jihadists to arrive in Bamako, take the city and take over the whole country. But we said: calm down, things are not so simple. From the outset, the story of the jihadists advancing on Bamako was false and that was the main argument that made young Malians wave French flags. They also said that Gaddafi was bombing his people, and they were all lies.
French policy in Africa is archaic. France never wanted to decolonize and is now being stoned in the back to make it go
Q. If it was not to stop the jihadist advance, why then did the French intervention in Mali take place?
A. France intervenes within the framework of a global strategy, because Mali is part of its area of influence. When Operation Serval [in France, in 2013] began, many were angry with those of us who dared to say that it was not so simple. The irony is that today they are going to say to Aminata Traoré: "Sorry, you were right, you have seen beyond us." French policy in Africa is so archaic that it is doomed. France never wanted to decolonize and is now being stoned in the back to make him leave.
Q. Where does this widespread anti-French sentiment come from? Are we facing a generation that dares to revise its way of relating to the world?
A. It is what I call "the wild people of social networks", young people who do not read the newspapers, do not know The New York Times or Le Monde, and relate only to each other. It's hundreds of thousands, it's a massive effect. As early as 1956 [the thinker] Aimé Cesaire said that the West was doomed because it lies and the peoples it has subjugated know it. Libya, the war in Iraq, the chaos in Syria... all this has weakened the West, weakened it. It has already lost Asia and Latin America and now it is losing Africa. I do not know if it will be in five or 10 years, but the process has begun and is irreversible.
Q. Is it an awareness, an effective decolonization? How would you define it?
A. It is a rather diffuse awareness with strongholds that resist change, such as Senegal, Ivory Coast or Chad. France knows that if it loses those three countries — Chad for military reasons, Senegal for its intellectual symbolism, and Côte d'Ivoire for economic reasons — it is over for them. They have already lost Mali, Burkina Faso or the Central African Republic, but they think they can survive that. But I insist, it is a diffuse awareness.
Libya, the war in Iraq, the chaos in Syria, all of that has weakened the West, weakened it. It has already lost Asia and Latin America and is now losing Africa.
Q. The coups d'état that have shaken the Sahel in the last three years have a strong anti-Western component, what do you think of the arrival of the military to power?
A. I am a deep admirer of Assimi Goita and the military junta in Mali, as well as the young [military, interim president] Ibrahim Traoré in Burkina Faso. But let's avoid simplifications. If you have a political, civilian, totally corrupt class and, in front of them, virtuous people (whether businessmen, military or gendarmes) who love their country and are committed to its independence, you have to support them. The uniform is not a curse or a blessing. Ghana was a horror before Jerry Rawlings [a military man who seized power with two coups before being elected head of state in 1992]: he arrived, took power, normalized Ghana and left. There is a way of thinking – so deeply idiotic that it is not worth even contradicting – that Thomas Sankara [in Burkina Faso] and Jean-Bedel Bokassa [in the Central African Republic] were the same because they were both military men who took power. These people have understood nothing of history.
Q. But there is a retreat of freedoms, such as that of the press, and reports that speak of massacre of civilians, as in the Malian town of Moura.
A. The United Nations report on Moura is a real infamy, a machination. That it has the UN seal does not mean that it is respectable. The UN has long since lost its respectability in Africa. But let me say something about freedom of the press. The radio station of Mil Colinas, [which incited genocide in 1994] in Rwanda, emerged in a context of democratization and democratic openness, as did Kangura, a totally racist newspaper that urged the killing of human beings. I can't speak for all Africans, but, personally, that whole history of freedom of expression doesn't impress me at all. I live in Senegal and I am very happy to be able to criticize the president, but at the same time I remain lucid. I, a writer, can express myself; someone from civil society or a lawyer can; The well-known people, the great athletes... The elites, in short. We are 17 million, but those who express themselves are no more than 3,000 or 4,000. That is freedom of the press. There are so many people who really have to survive, who cannot be cured when they are sick or send their children to school. I am no longer talking about prosperity, but about dignity. If, in order to satisfy the fantasy of the freedom of an insufficient and minority part of the population, we let people live like wild beasts, that does not impress me. Which country is performing best in Africa right now? Rwanda, there is no doubt.
The UN has long since lost its respectability in Africa
Q. And it's not exactly a democracy.
A. I wouldn't say it's a democracy. If I were a Rwandan citizen living in Rwanda I wouldn't be able to say the things I say in Senegal. At the same time, why should I say them if I have a head of state that I respect because he is not ethnicist, he is not corrupt and he is aware of the weight of history on his shoulders? That's Paul Kagame. Thanks to him, that country works.
Q. The West reproaches African countries for remaining neutral on the conflict in Ukraine, for not condemning Russia. At the same time, there is a growing presence of the mercenaries of the Wagner group on the mainland. Is Russia gaining weight in Africa?
A. Nelson Mandela once told a Western journalist, "The problem with you is that you want your enemies to necessarily be ours." When Westerners try to demonize Russia in Africa, they forget that in our collective memory of liberation struggles it was the Russians who were there. Regarding Wagner, let us consider the facts. Who talks about Blackwater in Iraq? Or the Foreign Legion of the French Army? We are led to believe that this is the first time in history that mercenaries have been used. Everyone has always done it. The countries working with Wagner have no choice: between Macron and Wagner, Malians choose Wagner and I understand that. And finally, when this war broke out, Ukraine did not allow Africans to leave the country [neighboring states denied them entry]. And then they want us to have sympathy for [Ukrainian President Vladimir] Zelensky. I do not understand very well that inability to put oneself in the place of the other that the Westerner has, that extraordinary lack of empathy.
Q. What future do you predict for this Africa in 20 or 30 years?
A. I am more pessimistic than optimistic. There is a Wolof proverb that says that the wind that makes a tree leaf enter a hole will not be the same that will make it come out. I read the world from Senegalese society and I see that the most powerful, strongest and determined forces of change, both in Senegal and in the Sahel, militate for an Arabization of our society in the name of the Muslim religion. We are heading towards a Senegalese society of a moderate Salafism [ultra-conservative branch of Islam]. Public opinion has been powerfully worked. If we organise a normal, transparent and fraud-free referendum on the application of Sharia today the Senegalese would vote 90 or 95 per cent yes.
Q. Do you really believe it?
A. I am very clear about that. Of course, the Senegalese are not in favor of cutting off hands or heads every Friday, they would bet on a renewed Sharia. At the moment, the counterweight is the brotherhoods [religious organizations that defend a moderate Islam]. But I wonder what life they have left.
Q. The Nigerien activist Moussa Tchangari assured with some bitterness that the only alternative for change that grows in the Sahel is jihadism. In his words there was an implicit reference to the failure of left-wing options.
A. I agree, secularism is disappearing. We are in a moment of regression that is going to complicate progress a lot. If you defend secularism, you will be accused of being an atheist, a Freemason, close to whites. That is why historical people on the left do not like Ousmane Sonko [Senegalese opposition leader, sentenced to two years in prison last week], because he is the symbol of that youth that we could not conquer. Sonko has a religious discourse, we must not forget.
Q. Following Sonko's conviction, Senegal is going through one of the most delicate moments in its recent history. How do you analyze what has happened in the streets, all that violence?
There are [in Senegal] images of the police using children as human shields, it's a real shame.
A. It's something never seen before. First because of its violence. Secondly because of its intensity, it looks like it will last. And finally because of its impact, even the players of the national team and the fighters have come out to denounce what is happening.
Q. The government says the armed civilians seen in the protests belong to "hidden forces under foreign influence who want to destabilize the country." What do you think?
A. It's much more serious than that. I fear that they will declare a state of emergency to delay the elections [scheduled for February 2024]. The regime has realized that it has lost, that it has broken morally, and is panicking. I am not saying that it is a bloodthirsty dictatorship, but the authoritarian drifts are evident. President Macky Sall must clarify whether or not he is standing for election. Personally I think he won't, he can't, but he's afraid to say it because of what might happen on his own side.
Q. How did such a situation come about in a country known for its stability?
A. There is always talk of Senegalese democracy, but I think it was never real. Now the regime has gone too far in manipulation, mystification and hatred. A change will involve settling scores. And that's why those in power aren't going to budge. Basically, I do not rule out that these elections will not take place. Sonko's popularity is such that the regime may consider it suicidal to organize an election, with or without Macky Sall.
Q. What do you think of Sonko and its enormous pull among young people?
A. The risk for him is to think that he is popular and that is enough. For all his virtues, I think he is not ready to lead a country. The rape charge [of which he was acquitted] was an infamy. All the manoeuvres to prevent him from standing for election have been odious. The problem is that Macky Sall and his entourage are so fond that they have turned him into a victim, a martyr, and no one has been able to seriously question him about his government program. That rape story has made political debate impossible and has made Sonko the most popular politician in Senegal's history, not to say the most capable. He is innocent, he should be able to come forward, I believe in his personal integrity, but he does not yet have the skills to lead this country.
Q. You have been denouncing this authoritarian drift in Senegal for some time.
A. In Senegal you have to stop electing monarchs, there is a huge concentration of powers in the hands of one man. That is a dictator's factory. I am worried, for example, that Sonko does not talk about this. I don't think there is a dictatorship in Senegal, that's exaggerated, but there is an autocratic, personalist power.
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