After protests, Senegal’s virus-battered economy in spotlight

Dakar, March 18 (AFP/APP): An eruption of protests in Senegal has shone a spotlight on simmering frustrations over joblessness and a year of coronavirus restrictions.

Usually seen as a haven of stability in volatile West Africa, Senegal was rocked by a week of clashes between opposition supporters and police in early March. At least five people were killed in the unrest, sparked by the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, a government critic popular with Senegalese youths.

But many argue that anger also boiled over because of deepening poverty in the nation of 16 million people, especially among the young. “Senegalese people are fed up because they’re hungry,” said Gorra Sarr, 42, who sells colourful handmade bags at a craft market in the capital Dakar.

He explained that tourists no longer visit the once-bustling market yet many craftsmen still commute to their shops, at personal cost, in the hopes of making a sale. “It’s not easy, but we survive,” Sarr said.

Senegal’s economy was growing before the pandemic, with its GDP increasing 5.3 percent in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, despite the IMF forecasting a recovery this year after a slowdown in 2020, coronavirus restrictions have ravaged Senegal’s large informal sector, and growing numbers of people are struggling to make ends meet. About 40 percent of Senegalese people live in poverty, according to the World Bank.

– Increasing poverty –

Demba Moussa Dembele, a Senegalese economist, told AFP that he estimated about two million people had fallen into poverty since the onset of the coronavirus crisis.

The pandemic not only hit the hospitality and tourism industries, he said, but also slashed foreign remittances which represent about 10 percent of the country’s GDP. Huge flooding in September in several areas of Senegal, including in Dakar, also tipped many into poverty, Dembele said.

Senegal’s government responded to the pandemic by banning company layoffs, granting tax breaks to struggling firms, and distributing food. Still, the numbers of people who say they are struggling are stark.

Senegal’s statistics agency said in September that 85 percent of households saw their incomes drop since last March, for example. It also found that 36 percent of heads of household surveyed had stopped working, with about a third of that number pointing to the coronavirus crisis as the reason.

In another sign of economic gloom, Senegal late last year saw a surge in migrants attempting to reach Europe via a perilous ocean journey aboard rickety traditional canoes. At least 140 migrants died when one such vessel sank off the south of Senegal in December. Many of Senegal’s recent migrants came from coastal communities hurt by dwindling catches and virus-related restrictions on fish markets.

– ‘Despair’ –

Yves Nzale, the coordinator of an association of jobless Senegalese graduates, said there was little hope for young people in the country. Senegal produces about 300,000 university graduates a year, he said, of whom about 100,000 manage to find jobs. “Young people feel abandoned,” he said. “It’s a situation of despair”.

Senegal adopted a strategy in 2012 to combat poverty in the country, which involves infrastructure development and promoting investments, among other things. However Charles Robertson, the global chief economist at investment bank Renaissance Capital, said that the investment-led economic model had created growth, but not necessarily jobs.

“Senegal looks good in terms of macro numbers, but it won’t have felt fantastic for the man or woman on the street,” he said. Robertson explained, for example, that building bridges or roads tends not to deliver jobs in the short term.

He added that industrialisation usually brings jobs, but that Senegal is unlikely to become an industrial success story until it solves its low adult literacy rate of about 50 percent.

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