8 June 2017

Africa: What Others Say - Senegal's Sall Knows What Trump Doesn't

Photo: APS
Senegal President Macky Sall with Prime Minister of Israel Benyamin Netanyahu (file photo).
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Last week US President Donald Trump surprised even those who thought he wasn't crazy enough to do it.

He announced he would pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement.

The Paris Agreement was signed in December 2015 to much fanfare. Though some regions of Africa, including the eastern parts and the Horn, are only beginning to emerge from the worst drought in over 60 years, many tend to forget about the worst once the good times return, however briefly.

However, for some countries, there has been no respite. Last week I couldn't help but wonder what going in one country in Africa - Senegal.

To remind ourselves, countries at the Paris accord agreed to keep global temperature increase to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), and to purse efforts to limit it eventually to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.

Today 2100 is a good 83 years away. But it really is not that far away.

To appreciate that, we need to go a few months back. There was a National Geographic documentary The Years of Living Dangerously showing on DSTv.

The award-winning series has mostly American Hollywood stars travelling around the US and other parts of the world spotlighting the pain climate change is inflicting, and also where some clever things are being done to fight back.

One of the early episodes has American journalist and author Thomas Friedman (yes, he of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, The World Is Flat, and Longitudes and Attitudes fame), travelling to Paris where delegates are haggling over the climate deal.

The documentary then takes an interesting turn. Friedman finds some migrant from West Africa in Paris, young Africans who took that perilous journey to Libya and over the Mediterranean to Europe.

He talks to some of them from Senegal. Friedman then poses the question: why should young people flee one of the most peaceful, prosperous, and democratic countries in Africa?

He gets details of their relatives, and heads to the Senegalese capital Dakar. He finds the relatives vending Chinese-made bric-a-bac in the market. They tell Friedman climate change had wasted the land, and it was impossible to make a living from it anymore. They had left the villages, were accumulating a little money in the city, so they could pay for the ride out to Europe.

Friedman decides to go to their villages and see for himself. In a humourous moment, they refuse to go with him. The ride to the countryside is sobering. The desert is overwhelming Senegal. At the village, Friedman finds all the young men and women have fled.

What happens next is unexpected. Friedman drives back to Dakar and goes to meet the head of Senegal's climate agency. It is an unassuming building and you don't expect much.

The guy leads him to a computer mapping the climate in Senegal, and shows him what has happened. People are talking about keeping temperatures below 2 degrees, he says, but average temperatures in Senegal shot past that a while back. Friedman - and I guess most people who have watched that bit - is stunned. The nightmare reality of the future is already Senegal's present. It then becomes clear how climate change has changed Senegal's politics. In West Africa and the Sahel, climate refugees are being driven into terror groups to find a livelihood.

But it seems Senegal understands that to deal with it, you have to deepen democracy. It might explain why it took a very aggressive lead to eject the Gambia strongman Yahya Jammeh early in the year when he lost the election and refused to hand over power.

But mostly, it reveals disconnect it is creating in Africa. In November 2015, at one of the worst points in the migrant crisis, there was a European-African leaders summit on the problem in Valletta, Malta.

Senegal's president Macky Sall was the only significant African leader who attended. Many scorned his attendance, and on social media he was mocked as a French lackey.

Knowing what we know now, Sall seems to have been the most foresighted. Climate change had taught him a lesson many other African leaders finally understood in 2016 and 2017. This is the one that will finally do us in.

We will need all the help we can, and it is utter stupidity to be too proud about where we get it.

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