Africa Answers: Perspectives on President Obama’s Meeting with African Leaders

Last week, President Obama met with President Macky Sall of Senegal, along with President Joyce Banda of Malawi, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves of Cape Verde. Their discussion largely revolved around strengthening democratic institutions in their respective countries and Africa in general.

I sat down last Thursday with Abdoulaye Diagne—the director of the Consortium for Economic and Social Research (CRES) in Senegal, one of our think tank partners from Africa—to discuss the significance of last week’s meeting and new challenges facing Senegal. Below are Abdoulaye’s answers to my questions. CRES is a great resource on Senegal and economics in West Africa. You can follow them on Twitter at @CRESContact, or leave a comment below.

Julius Agbor 
Africa Research Fellow
Brookings Africa Growth Initiative

Julius Agbor: What is the significance of President Macky Sall’s meeting with President Obama in Washington, D.C. this week?

Abdoulaye Diagne: The meeting between President Macky Sall and President Obama is another demonstration of the excellent relations between Senegal and the United States of America. It is also a way for President Obama to support Senegalese democracy. The election of President Macky Sall is proof of the fact that the Senegalese people are ready for democracy, and that no one can hinder the free expression of universal suffrage in this country. Finally, this visit should be seen as an incentive by President Obama to his Senegalese colleague who is courageously committed to the fight against corruption and bad government.

Agbor: Senegal is one of the few French-speaking African countries to have had a successful democratic transition in which incumbent President was defeated in an election. What is your overall rating of the democratic process in Senegal?

Diagne: Democracy is firmly anchored in Senegal. In the 19th century, during the colonial period, the Senegalese were already voting in the four municipalities (Saint-Louis, Dakar, Goree and Rufisque) to elect their council members. From the start of the 20th century to the independence of their country in 1960, they voted to elect deputies to the French National Assembly. Following independence, elections have been held regularly at both national and communal levels. An electoral system that the government cannot manipulate has gradually been established. Over time, the Senegalese have gained faith that with their vote they can remove a president of the Republic that they no longer want. The rejection of violence to resolve political differences, to attain power, is widely shared across all social strata of the country. It is this deeply rooted democracy that explains the political stability from which Senegal has benefited since its independence, with no coup to interrupt the normal functioning of the institutions of the Republic. In truth, the main challenge facing Senegalese society is less that of the establishment of democracy than that of good government at all levels in the management of public affairs.

Agbor: What are the key challenges facing Senegal’s economy?

Diagne: Senegal currently has a relatively low growth rate (between 4 and 5 percent per year) and one that is very erratic. Moreover, inequalities remain very high (almost 55 percent of the population lives in rural areas, while the primary sector contributes less than 15 percent to GDP). The first challenge is thus to change this pattern of growth to make it stronger and more inclusive. This means that it must take place mainly in the rural sector. The second challenge is good government. Many public resources are lost due to corruption and fraudulent practices; development projects are not performed well. Fighting bad government at all levels of government is a national priority. Finally, Senegal must considerably improve the quality of its education, both internally and externally. This will undoubtedly occur as a result of the pacification of educational sector, which has been disturbed by incessant strikes by teachers, and by the introduction of educational reforms and of human resource management focused on increasing continuous cognitive learning by students. A complete reorientation of the education system towards science, technology and mathematics s and short-term vocational training is also imperative.

Agbor: China-Africa relations have intensified over the past decade. How do the Senegalese perceive the growing importance of China in Africa? Is Senegal getting a fair share from this growing relationship?

Diagne: Chinese investment in Senegal is still modest. The main achievement of China in recent years has been the construction of the National Grand Theater. On the other hand, Senegal increasingly imports from China a wide variety of manufactured goods, while exports to that country are very modest. The availability of low-priced Chinese products has helped reduce the cost of living for the population, especially the urban population, but has accelerated the disappearance of a large number of manufacturing businesses.

Agbor: The franc CFA monetary arrangement with France has come under intense criticism by renowned Senegalese and African economists lately. What is your take on this debate and what is the way forward for the franc CFA currency?

Diagne: Many criticisms of the monetary agreements between France and the countries of Central and West Africa are unfounded, because they have to do with considerations not based on facts but rather on anti-neocolonial policy positions. If we consider the UEMOA [West African Economic and Monetary Union], the management of the Central Bank is fully assured by country officials. Great efforts in the harmonization of fiscal policies have been achieved; there is a unified financial market. Monetary stability is unquestionable. In my opinion, the main issue is not that of whether the two monetary arrangements with France should disappear. Rather, the issue is that of moving towards the creation of a single currency in West Africa and Central Africa. As for West Africa, UEMOA would not be an obstacle to this goal. Quite the contrary! The experience of the Central Bank of the West African States (BCEAO) is unique and is a valuable springboard to the single West African currency. Just as the common external tariff established by the UEMOA formed the basis of the definition of the TEC [external common tariff] of the states of the Community of West Africa (which includes, in addition to the eight UEMOA countries, seven West African countries, including Nigeria and Ghana), the TEC will soon be in force. In anticipation of this big step towards West African monetary integration, the BCEAO will have to abandon the fixed exchange rate linking its currency to the euro. Exchange rate flexibility would improve the competitiveness of member economies without endangering the monetary stability that is so appreciated by the people and economic actors. I thus agree with the critics who question the fixing of the CFA and the euro exchange rates. But it is possible to move to a regime of flexible exchange rates that does not entail the disappearance of the two monetary unions.