Senegal’s President Macky Sall has pitched his legacy on ambitious projects and the transformative potential of the oil and gas sector. But will the gamble pay off?
Walking the pristine streets of Diamniadio, a recently minted city situated a mere 30km outside of the hustling capital of Senegal, Dakar, one cannot escape a sense of amazement.
This metropolis, touted as the flagship project of Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, who was inaugurated in 2012 with a grandiose vision to revolutionise his country, flaunts a sparkling airport, opulent hotels, a modern convention centre, and a colossal football stadium, inaugurated just a few weeks after Senegal’s national football team etched their names in history by winning the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 2022.
But amid the towering edifices and the diligent workforce assembling unfinished structures, it is the prominent billboards displaying Sall’s portrait and the phrase “This is my legacy for the future generation” that catch the eye.
The slogan raises a burning question: Will Sall’s ambitious initiatives truly leave a lasting impression? At present it is unclear whether he will run for office again in 2024 – he has recently argued that the constitution allows him to run for a third term, but the opposition vehemently contest this interpretation. But if he steps down next year he will leave the country in the midst of vast transformational projects that he has undertaken over the past 12 years.
A newly built oil and gas industry, which is expected to contribute 5% of the country’s GDP, as well as the futuristic city of Diamniadio, are programmes designed to transform Senegalese peoples’ lives in the near future. But whether they are for the best is open to debate.
Sall’s international aura
Since taking office in 2012, President Macky Sall has pursued an international strategy aimed at positioning Senegal as a leading destination for foreign investment.
With gas exports set to begin in late 2023, Sall aims to use the $1.4bn revenues forecast to be generated by oil and gas in 2023-25 period to drive growth in other sectors of the economy.
As well as boosting the country’s GDP growth – projected at 8% and 10.5% in 2023 and 2024 respectively – the energy sector is also intended to boost employment through youth training programmes. In the past decade, foreign direct investment in Senegal has skyrocketed, from $272m in 2010 to $2.23bn in 2021, a 720% increase that reflects international interest in the country’s prospects.
Turkish construction firms, such as Summa and Limak, are heavily involved in large infrastructure projects such as the Blaise Diagne International Airport and other sports facilities, which will host the 2026 Summer Youth Olympics.
The “Plan for an Emerging Senegal” Sall’s policy road map to make the country a middle-income economy by 2035, has received support from international organisations such as the OECD and the African Development Bank, which tripled its investment in the country over the period 2016-2020.
Foreign leaders, including Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, have also travelled to the country to capitalise on Senegal’s resource potential in the light of Europe’s pivot away from Russian oil and gas.
But Sall’s focus on international development has come at a cost to his domestic policies, leading to increasing popular discontent. While Sall’s international profile has grown, his domestic popularity has followed the opposite trajectory.
On 15 March, about 5,000 Senegalese gathered in Dakar for a three-day protest to show support for aspiring presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko and express their opposition to a third Sall presidential term. This happened exactly one year after the country experienced mass protests leading to the worst episode of violence in years.
The 2022 legislative election held last August also marked the first time in Senegal’s political history that the incumbent party was on the verge of losing its majority in the National Assembly.
Sall’s coalition, Benno Bokk Yakaar (“United by Hope”), won a majority of only one seat after former mayor of Dakar Pape Diop joined the presidential coalition to “avoid institutional crisis”.
Despite Diop’s move, Senegalese society remains largely politically divided. Critics say that Sall’s market-oriented, internationalist economic policy has failed to meet people’s short-term imperatives.
A multi-dimensional study conducted by the OECD in 2018 found that Senegalese satisfaction with education and health services is among the lowest in West Africa. The goal of universal access to primary education has not yet been achieved, despite it being identified as an “imperative for the human development of Senegal” in a 2003 UNESCO study of Senegal’s education system.
Discontent against Sall’s policy has nonetheless been exacerbated by the various crises that his second presidency has faced, including a food crisis triggered by the Ukraine war (at the outbreak of the conflict Senegal imported more than 50% of its wheat from Russia).
This led Sall to negotiate directly with Vladimir Putin over easing the blockade of grain deliveries in the Black Sea last June in his capacity as rotating chair of the African Union.
The debt issue
Although President Sall’s efforts to attract foreign capital may have long-term benefits for Senegal, there are concerns that his high-spending economic policy could spark difficulties. The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio has risen significantly in recent years, reaching 73% in 2021, up from 31.6% in 2015, according to the Central Bank of West African States.
Projects such as Diamniadio and subsidies to the oil and gas sector may weigh on government spending and contribute to this debt burden.
Balancing mega projects and public needs
Is Macky Sall’s ambitious vision for Senegal in touch with the reality on the ground? That is the question raised by Sina Schlimmer, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), who visited Diamniadio and found a low level of enthusiasm for Sall’s futuristic city project.
“The discrepancy between the construction of mega infrastructures and the low level of appropriation of the urban site by public officials and property owners raises questions about the future of Diamniadio,” she writes.
While the development was designed to relieve Dakar’s traffic congestion and improve living standards for the capital’s poorest residents, the construction of new ministries and international agencies has made Dakar a “bedroom” for public officials.
Even the newly built toll road, managed by French engineering firm Eiffage, has “created an economic divide between those who could afford them and others who have to endure long hours in traffic jams,” the Senegalese economist Ndongo Sylla told Al-Jazeera last year.
The start of Senegal’s oil and gas industry is also raising concerns about inflated expectations and the need for cautious management.
The Natural Resource Governance Institute has warned of the dangers of over-optimism and unrealistic demands for financial returns from the sector, which could lead to later discontent if hopes go unrealised.
Good management of resource revenues will be key, the New-York based non-profit argues, and the Senegalese authorities should “increase transparency, strengthen macroeconomic policies for oil and gas revenue management, and improve the governance of its intergenerational fund and national oil company Petrosen.”
Source: African Business