Jaume Portell Caño – Five Reasons Why 20,000 Senegalese arrived in the Canary Islands

What is the point of having so many eyes watching if they only observe the victim on the ground?

Jaume Portell Caño is a freelance journalist specialised in economy and international relations, always in relation with the African continent. In 2018 he won the 10th Casa Africa Essay Award for “Un grano de cacao”, an analysis of the relations between Africa and the rest of the world through the chocolate industry, among other aspects.

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Somos capaces de escribir bellísimas crónicas sobre el dolor africano, pero apenas nos atrevemos a mencionar qué provoca el desgarro. No queremos mancharnos. Imagen: Cayuco de pesca por Joan Tusell

In 2006, more than 35 000 people arrived in the Canary Islands’ coasts from the African continent. In 2020, fourteen years later, the scenes are repeating themselves again and we don’t seem to have learned much. Nothing stops us from believing that in 2034 we will see the same images on television: thousands of very young Africans, comforted by Red Cross blankets and sandwiches after getting out of a boat.

The headlines are, as always, divided: some talk about an avalanche and wave their racist slogans; others grab this episode to make a nice song about diversity. We find countless examples of what Martín Caparrós has called “Gillette journalism”: clean, full of statements and neutral. Without ideology; that is, reinforcing the greatest of ideologies, the most conservative: the idea that not having ideas is always the most desirable way to express oneself to others.

Senegal will continue to export people because of factors that rarely appear in the press. If anything, they are mentioned in some lost paragraph, camouflaged under empty rhetoric of so frequent use: ‘inequality’, ‘injustice’, ‘disaster’. They are victims without executioners, accidental misfortunes, problems without cause or solution. We are capable of writing beautiful chronicles of African pain, but we hardly dare to mention what causes the tearing. We don’t want to get dirty. “Blame the West for Africa’s problems. But don’t be too specific,” said Binyavanga Wainaina in his legendary How to Write about Africa. Today I want to be specific with five reasons.

The first is food. Half of Senegal’ imports are for food and energy alone. One could understand that a country would spend a fortune on buying prodigious machines, state-of-the-art technology or fantastic inventions. Senegal spends it on buying rice, wheat, milk and fish. The country had and has the capacity to produce many of these products, but trade liberalisation and European subsidies have destroyed Senegalese traders. This is explained in a publication by Saiba Bayo and Ernst Krose on Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs): “At the beginning of this century, East and West African states had between 70% and up to 90% of their own chicken production. After a few years self-production has decreased to a level of 5 to 10%”. With the exclusion of chicken, Senegal was heavily dependent on fish for protein. The agreements with the EU have left small-scale fishermen out of work and Senegalese with less food. Anyone who talks about the opportunities Senegalese have to start up businesses at home is always ignoring this fact: European imports – subsidized and cheaper – will kill off any market.

The second is currency. Senegal uses the CFA franc, whose parity with the euro, a strong currency, makes exports more challenging – as they are more expensive for other buyers – and encourages imports – as they are cheaper. It is not surprising that Senegal, along with other West African countries, has almost always had a trade deficit: in other words, the country spends more than it earns. The CFA franc still links France to its former African colonies: the French have a veto on decisions on currency, and the banking sector is often in foreign hands. Economist Ndongo Samba Sylla accuses the local financial sector of acting as rentiers: they prefer to buy government bonds and earn interest rather than lend to traders. When they do grant loans, they give them to the larger companies, which are usually French. The circle is closed when these companies, thanks to the fixed parity of the currency, can safely repatriate profits: the free movement of capital imposed by the IMF forces Africans to let themselves bleed in exchange for receiving loans.

The third is oil. The country has already lost millions without a single barrel being sold abroad. The purchase and sale of such rights involved Aliou Sall, brother of the Senegalese president Macky Sall, and Frank Timis, founder of Timis Corporation, a Romanian businessman. Sall collected $25,000 a month from Timis Corporation, a company with no experience in the oil sector that was awarded a concession by the Senegalese state. According to a BBC report, it will be Timis who will collect the royalties and the Senegalese state will lose between 9 and 12 billion dollars. Aliou Sall was, according to Voz Populi, a “good political connection” in the banking business of Alberto Cortina and Alberto Alcócer in Dakar.

The fourth is gold. The Sabodala and Massawa mines are in the southwest, the poorest area of the country. They are currently owned by Teranga Gold, a Canadian corporation. The business has involved forced population displacements and even the killing of artisanal miners who did not want to leave the mines. Shares in the Massawa mine are 90% owned by Teranga Gold and 10% by the Senegalese state. The company itself plans to begin exporting 384,000 ounces of gold over five years beginning in 2021. In plain English: at current market prices, some 700 million dollars a year. The company’s board of directors includes Jendayi Frazer, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under President George W. Bush between 2005 and 2009.

The fifth is debt. The Senegalese state spends more than it earns; the banking sector and natural resources are owned by foreigners; it cannot be self-sufficient in food and has a market saturated with subsidized imports from the rich countries. With holes everywhere, favored by the repatriation of capital, Senegal borrows to save face. And it does so at prohibitive interest rates. In 2018, the country sold a 30-year bond at 6.75% a year. In total, to receive a billion dollars, it will end up paying over two billion dollars in interest. And then it will have to pay back the billion in principal. Who has Senegalese debt? Blackrock, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, HSBC, UBS.

Blackrock, the second largest investment fund in the world, has more than $100 million invested in Senegalese debt. It is also one of the owners of Teranga Gold. When hundreds of millions of dollars of gold leave Senegal, Blackrock wins and the country loses the millions with which it could pay off its debt with. When the country, after losing those millions, borrows money, Blackrock profits from the interest on the debt. The US fund controls 7 trillion dollars in assets: 290 times Senegal’s GDP, 5 times Spain’s GDP. To become more independent, Senegal could use its central bank to finance its debt, as the US, the EU or Japan have done for years, with interest rates close to 0%. But Senegal has no central bank because it does not control its currency. Over the years, cycles of growth, debt, decline and austerity follow one another, ending with cuts in health and education and endless rent extraction. Senegal pays in dollars, in raw materials, and in the ultimate sacrifice of a country: its people. Some die at sea, others arrive; and the plundering continues.

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