In order to foster greater understanding of African politics and growth, the African Student Union (ASU) hosted its first African Politics Colloquium Monday night in the Armstrong Student Center Pavilion. The event featured Ambassador of The Republic of Senegal to the United States, His Excellency Cheikh Niang, who facilitated discussion on the enhancement of Africa’s role in world politics, and specifics on Senegal’s culture and government.
Niang has held the ambassador position for five years, and was previously ambassador to South Africa. President of the African Student Union senior Fatimata Ndiaye said she recruited him as the event’s distinguished guest when she interned at his embassy in Washington, D.C. this past summer.
“I interned at his embassy last summer and was very impressed by the work he and his colleagues do at bettering relationships between Africa and America and increasing understanding of Africa,” Ndiaye said.
President David Hodge said Niang’s presence at the event is key to promoting Africa’s political role and general knowledge about its developing countries, in particular Senegal.
“Most of us in the United States are woefully unknowledgeable about these things occurring in Africa that we should know much more about,” Hodge said. “We should seize every opportunity that we have to learn.”
Senegal is small country lining Africa’s west coast, and one aspect Americans may not know, Niang explained, is it boasts a strong, democratic government, fueled by its young population of 14 million people.
“We have a very vibrant population, a very vibrant economic and politic atmosphere,” Niang said. “We are very stable … we have elections that are taking place in a normal way, no unstable elections like in many other countries. Everything is fair and clean, but many people don’t know about it, about the establishment of Senegal, and its tolerance.”
Niang added that Senegal’s similarities to the U.S. in terms of its political spectrum should prompt the creation of a better relationship between the two countries.
“We want the U.S. to play a major role in the political and economic sector,” he said. “First of all, we share the same values, independence … We are the only West African country to never have a military coup, where we have democratic elections. We share so many things [with the U.S.], we want you to be more engaged with us, so we can be more interrelated. But we are getting there.”
Nurtured by historic relations with France, Senegal’s primary language is French; however, six national languages are recognized, and Niang himself speaks five languages, including English. While Senegal’s population is 95 percent Muslim, Niang said a remarkable amount of religious and ethnic tolerance exists.
“The first president of our country was Christian, and he served for 20 years,” Niang said. “Now our current president is from an ethnic minority. When you are good, we believe in you. And then you are elected. We don’t have those kind of problems of tribalism and ethnic belongings like a lot of other countries do.”
To a question about Senegal’s tolerance of homosexuality, Niang said his country differs greatly from those like Uganda, whose harsh treatment of gays has attracted recent media attention.
“In our views, gays are always protected,” Niang said. “We have been having gays in our families in our society for generations … this is our home’s reality. I know in other countries, gays could be killed for who they are. But it is very different in Senegal. We believe that people can be different, which is quite the opposite from Uganda.”
Two issues in Senegal require improvements, Niang said, are agriculture and energy, two sectors that could flourish with greater American investment. Niang noted that last month, President Barack Obama established an initiative called Power Africa, which is meant to double the consumption of energy in African countries by providing more energy sources.
Niang said the U.S. could additionally help by instating a better market for Senegal products, like rice and mangoes.
In response to the discussion, Miami anthropology professor John Cinnamon said he was honored to learn about Senegal and its diplomacy.
“I am so proud of the African Student Union for putting this together,” he said. “This was an honor that we had the opportunity to do this. It increases knowledge about a part of the world that is generally unfamiliar to most and thus creates much stronger relationships across the world.”