Echoes of 1968 unrest in Senegal student protests

by Malick Rokhy BA
1 / 2
Students throw stones at Senegalese police during a protest outside the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar on May 16

The student demonstrations that have rocked Senegal in recent weeks recall the short-lived but intense unrest which sprung out of the country's universities half a century ago, almost bringing down the government back in May 1968.

The spark this time was a fatality during a university protest on May 15 over the late payment of student grants.

Second-year student Mohamed Fallou Sene, 25, was killed as police quelled a protest at Gaston Berger University in the northern city of Saint-Louis.

His death sparked further protests near Cheikh Anta Diop University in the capital Dakar, while police also broke up demonstrations in the southern city of Ziguinchor.

As the unrest grew a higher education union began a strike in solidarity with the students before President Macky Sall called for an inquiry.

Sall, who is expected to stand for re-election next February, also announced in the aftermath of the protests that student grants will be raised.

However students at Sene's university were still on strike on Friday, demanding "justice" and for political heads to roll.

Back in 1968, the protests also began over the issue of grants and also led to the death of a student.

The demonstrations 50 years ago briefly threatened the administration of then president Leopold Sedar Senghor as students took to the streets, clashing with police and setting up barricades.

At a time when young people were protesting across the world, over issues such the Vietnam War and apartheid, students in Dakar accused Senghor, who took office in 1960 on independence from France, of being a "valet of imperialism".

After the student strike began on May 27, 1968, police moved in. One student died and several more were hurt, official records show.

But, far from growing out of the youth protests in France, the United States and elsewhere, "these events were sparked by political, economic and social crises within Senegal," says historian and former minister Abdoulaye Bathily.

- Short-lived, but left a mark -

Workers then declared a strike on May 30 and for a time "the government was tottering," says historian Omar Gueye, as Senghor condemned what he saw as malign fallout from the student protests in Europe.

Foreign students were repatriated and Dakar University closed as unrest worsened -- though the president could call on support of the army and influential Muslim religious leaders as well as French troops stationed at strategic points of the capital.

"Peasants came with rifles and arrows to defend Senghor and the country," recalled academic Ibrahima Wone.

Within three days the protest ebbed away, foreign students returned and exams went ahead in December.

Short-lived though Senegal's May 1968 unrest was, "it contributed to the development of democracy," says Mbaye Diack, who ran the national student union at the time.

By 1974, what had been a de-facto one-party state embraced a multi-party system, culminating in the arrival as president of Abdou Diouf, who succeeded Senghor in 1981.

Half a century later, "the university world is coming up against the same problems," hip-hop artist and researcher Youssoufa Sarr told a forum at the French Institute in Dakar last week.

"Students and activists blame Macky Sall for what the '68 students criticised Senghor for," he said.

Students throw stones at Senegalese police during a protest outside the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar on May 16

A barricade erected by students during clashes with police in Dakar on May 31, 1968