I’m in Senegal on assignment for PRI’s The World and PBS Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders. I had just finished my interview with Senegalese rapper Djily Baghdad, who helps lead the rapper-activist organization Y en a marre (fed up), and had agreed to meet him at the rallying point in central Dakar where he was ready to join the now-daily advance to la Place de l’independence. Cassandra Herrman, my producer, had asked Djily where he was performing in Dakar this week. Ominously, Djily answered, “There’s no party time anymore. It’s fire and riot time.”
The routine at these almost daily rallies goes like this: crowds gather, including local activists like Y en a marre and the civil society activists in M23. They chat, rail against incumbent President Aboulaye Wade, and exchange the latest news until one or more of the opposition candidates running against Wade arrives. Youssou N’dour often shows up as well. Here’s what Youssou told me from the top of his car about why he came down to the anti-Wade rally.
That was the scene today. Spirits were high. Music was blasting, everything from the Y en a marre anthem, a classic Youssou mbalax tune, and Bob Marley. The crowds grew rapidly, from a hundred to perhaps 2,000. They were dancing, one guy even crowd surfed.
It all seemed quite peaceful. There was even one of those archetypal moments where a protestor offered a Senegalese flag to a truck of policemen, and said to them “Nous sommes tous des senegalais.” Then, as the script has often played out in Dakar the past few weeks, several rocks flew at the police in their trucks blocking the way to the Place de l’Independance. It’s unsure who threw them, but increasingly it’s thought that it could be agents provacateurs who are trying to wind up the riot police. The police did strike back quickly: numerous concussions of tear gas grenades shook the air. Panic followed. Protestors in flip-flops ran in tight packs in all directions, stumbling, falling, losing their shoes, darting into side streets. And in less than a minute, the entire crowd was dispersed.
Later, after the sun set, I heard the unfortunate news that Youssou N’dour’s foot was injured by one of the tear-gas cannisters. It’s not serious. But it shows that in this country that’s known mostly peace since independence, things can devolve very quickly.