Torrential Rains Unearth Political Divisions Within Senegal and Without

Despite a financial situation that he describes as difficult, shop owner Momodou M’Baye stands resolutely at the doorway of New Africa Music and Video in Harlem. Without a deluge of customers to interrupt him, he speaks at length regarding political events in his native Senegal.

“I wouldn’t say that the situation is dangerous. There’s no danger but [Senegalese President] Macky Sall’s latest decisions aren’t good,” he contends.

Back home, torrential rains have battered Dakar since mid-August and caused floods that killed 13 people and displaced at least 5,000 others. The rising waters also unearthed artifacts that were buried several thousand years ago and brought Senegal’s more recent political divisions to the surface along with them.

In response to the human and material losses, Senegalese President Macky Sall cut short a trip to South Africa and proposed to scrap the senate and the vacant vice-presidency in order to, as he put it, divert approximately $15 million in savings to invest in flood prevention.

Less than a month later, the national assembly voted in favor of his proposal despite resistance from the senate. The decision left 100 senators, most of which were handpicked by Sall’s predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, jobless.

Inevitably, questions concerning the true motivation of Sall’s plan surfaced and some have accused him of using a natural disaster in order to weaken the opposition and serve narrow political interests. Meanwhile, proponents of the move maintain that the senate wasn’t fulfilling its duties and that the unaffected national assembly is a more representative chamber of government. Such debate has spread across oceans, all the way to 116th St. in Harlem, between St. Nicholas and Eighth Avenue.

The area, known as “Little Senegal,” hosts the largest concentration of the approximately 20,000 Senegalese nationals that call New York home. Although 82.5 percent of voters from the community reportedly opted for Sall in 2011’s hotly contested presidential election runoff, opinions on the street regarding his latest actions vary widely.

Speaking deliberately in French, the aforementioned M’Baye expressed concern not only about the ramifications of the choice but also the way it was announced.

“Sall should’ve spoken to the senate first and asked everyone’s opinion before proposing such a bill. He made his statement in front of journalists as soon as he landed in Dakar. The senate is filled with Senegalese citizens just like him, it is part of the government,” he said.

“For example, I have a colleague in my shop. We both work here. I wouldn’t take a decision without him. First we talk, then we decide together.”

A US-based coordinator for president Sall’s Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition that won 119 out of 150 seats in the last legislative elections, disagreed.

“The majority of the outgoing senators were appointed by Wade. They were collecting money and doing little else,” said Fallou Guyen while conceding that the senate could return someday if the circumstances permitted it.

Others such as Mbacke Diop, a limousine driver, took issue with the negative perception that some Senegalese residing in Harlem have of the previous president and his allies.

“Most people here who were against [former President Abdoulaye] Wade haven’t been back to Senegal in a long time,” he said.

“A lot of them don’t have papers and can’t return so they didn’t get a chance to see all the good that he did during his time as president. Macky Sall still has a long way to go to reach his level.”

Dieyna Niang, a former international business student who recently moved to the neighborhood from Oklahoma, denied Diop’s claim arguing that Sall’s move is a popular one back home because the body is seen as wasteful and corrupt. “Floods or not, there shouldn’t be a senate,” she insists.

However, her main concern, like many both in Senegal and New York, is finding a sustainable way to deal with the yearly inundations.

“Even though it makes sense to use the savings to help those who lost their homes, the floods won’t be fixed by this sum,” she said. It will help a little in the short term but next year it will be the same thing all over again. What part of our government are we going to dissolve then?”