Senegal and Haiti

18 January 2010

Senegal and Haiti

 By Gwynne Dyer

Is it megalomania or just a political stunt? Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade may not even know the answer himself, but his offer to let quake-stricken Haitians resettle in his West African country certainly qualifies as the most flamboyant response to the tragedy in Haiti.

“The repeated calamities that befall Haiti prompt me to propose a radical solution: to take measures to create, somewhere in Africa, the conditions for Haitians to return,” the 83-year-old Senegalese president said on Saturday. “They did not choose to go to that island. It is our duty to recognise their right to come back to the land of their ancestors.”

Well, some of their ancestors, anyway. The slave populations of all the Caribbean islands were deliberately drawn from different parts of the west African coast, so that they would speak a variety of languages and find it harder to rebel. But the vocabulary of Haitian Creole suggests that there were many Wolof-speakers (the most widely used indigenous language in Senegal) among the slaves of Haiti.

Educated Haitians also speak French, of course, as do educated Senegalese, so it’s not as though Turkey or Sri Lanka were to offer a new home to Haitians. But it is nevertheless mighty peculiar: just where does Abdoulaye Wade propose to put them all?

He does sound serious about his offer, and he says that large numbers would be welcome. His spokesman, Mamadou Bemba Ndiaye, explained that “The president is offering voluntary repatriation to any Haitian that wants to return to their origin. If it’s just a few individuals, then we will likely offer them housing or small pieces of land. If they come en masse we are ready to give them a region.”

Now, it’s true that 90 percent of Haitians would leap at the chance to leave their country, the poorest in all the Americas, but the destination they have in mind is Miami or Montreal. Senegal is one of the best-run and most democratic countries of Africa (though both qualities have been badly damaged during the ten-year rule of Abdoulaye Wade), but it does not feature prominently on Haitian wish-lists.

It is also true that most Senegalese feel that their country is quite full enough without a large influx of Haitians. There are fourteen million people in Senegal, and the population is still growing fast. There are ten million people in Haiti, and its population is growing fast too. Moving a million Haitians to Senegal would relieve the intolerable pressure on Haiti’s badly degraded land for less than a decade – and it would cause chaos in Senegal.

“If they come en masse we are ready to give them a region,” said the president’s spokesman, adding that it would be in a fertile part of the country rather than in its parched deserts. But there is no fertile region of Senegal that is not already fully populated by people whose families have lived there for many generations. Where is the president planning to put them?

So yes, it is a stunt, not a real offer, and what gives the game away is the fact that Senegal is offering “voluntary repatriation” to Haitians, not assisted passage. They are welcome to come to Senegal if they can find the money for the airline tickets – but how many Haitians can do that?

Abdoulaye Wade is big on stunts and dramatic gestures. His last one, now nearing completion, is an enormous bronze statue overlooking the capital, Dakar, that is higher than the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour. It is called the African Renaissance Monument, but it is being built by North Koreans. It actually looks like one of those Socialist Realist groupings of statuary, all windswept hair and eyes fixed confidently on the future, that littered the old Soviet Union. Only bigger.

Maybe he should build one overlooking Port-au-Prince too. It would be about as much use to Haitians as his offer of new homes for them in Senegal. Abdoulaye Wade is showing more and more signs of the “Big Man” syndrome that has wrecked so many African countries that once had quite functional governments. From Sudan to Zimbabwe and from Sierra Leone to Somalia, we have watched them fall into tyranny and chaos. Senegal may be next.

And what of Haiti? As hard as you might look for signs of hope amid the ruins, you will not find any. The earthquake is a dramatic interlude of natural disaster in a long history of tragedy whose sources were mostly human. What has devastated Haiti is politics, much of it imposed from outside by foreign governments: the French in the 19th century, the United States in the 20th and 21st. No honest and competent Haitian government has ever survived more than a couple of years.

The denuded land, the runaway population growth, the unskilled and illiterate population, the universal corruption: all these are due to failures of policy, not to some fundamental flaw in the character of Haitian people. But by now there have been generations of despair and neglect, and it is getting harder and harder to see how Haitians might turn it all around. No wonder most of them want to leave. But most of them never will.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Abdoulaye…next”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.