(Photograph: Lunch under the mango tree in Fissel. Village Vice President Alpha Faye talks with University of Florida Professor Leo Villalon. First District Court of Appeal Judge Nikki Clark is at left.)
(FISSEL, Senegal) – July 20, 2011 - The Village of Fissel is more than 3 hours southeast of Senegal’s sprawling, car-choked capital, Dakar. Sitting in plastic chairs in a bare meeting room with no electricity, about three dozen citizens of Fissel gathered Wednesday afternoon for a mid-year report on the community’s budget, covering 42,000 people spread over miles and miles of African bush who live mostly off farming with hand tools and mule-drawn plows.
Outside, women were drawing their daily water needs from the well and loading the buckets onto a donkey-drawn cart. Inside, the concern was that people were not paying the taxes needed to provide for the health program and more sanitation and the other projects budgeted for the year. There are many tax sources. They in fact have collected more than expected in the tax on farm animals in the public pasture. But the head tax of 1,000 CFA – about $2 – is being paid by only about 42% of the villagers so far. Of course, this is a big improvement over the 10% payment rate two years ago, before the reform-oriented ticket was elected.
Alpha Faye is now vice president of the village. He was in Tallahassee in May as part of a State Department program on elections and democracy that now brought me to his town, under a program organized by the African Studies Center at the University of Florida. Fissel has become something of a model of local democracy in Senegal. At the national level there are demonstrations against the 11-year reign of 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade (rhymes with god), who wants yet another term. Wade is promoting construction all over Dakar, but none of the largesse reaches Fissel, an area that tends to support Wade’s opposition. Instead, the people of Fissel taxed themselves to pay for the things they need, like a new well and new voting equipment, including a fingerprint scanner and a computer-based camera for voter IDs. One part of the area, where the new well was going in, the citizens lined up and paid 100% of their head tax, because they wanted immediate results in a service they all needed.
Today, in a meeting conducted in the native Wolof tongue, there were some vehement speeches but clearly an atmosphere of people solving a problem together – the problem of inadequate collections of taxes to pay for the town’s needs. Later, as we sat under a sprawling mango tree eating chicken prepared by the town president’s niece and others, Alpha Faye said he was proud of helping create the “participatory democracy” in which the community worked together to determine its priorities and then agreed on the taxes to pay for them. But he was most proud that the discussion no longer was about whether someone was stealing the money. People trusted their new leaders. And the leaders sat through the hot afternoon and into the evening listening and talking about the situation. We were at dinner after 10 p.m. back at our hotel in Dakar when Alpha called to say that the meeting had ended.
No one demagogued about taxes being too high, or about waste, fraud and abuse, or about being left out of the largess from the capital. No one dragged in religion, even in this mixed Christian-Muslim area of a country that is 90% Muslim. Even when long-winded, the comments were focused on the problem and not on accusations about the political leaders. It was, on a continent so often unable to muster the basics of democracy in a credible way, a lesson of what democracy is supposed to be about – people working together to find common ground to make their communities more like what they want them to be.
Though Neil Skene is perhaps best known around Florida for his monthly column on state government for Florida Trend, he is vice chairman of MedAffinity Corporation, a Tallahassee-based company providing electronic health-records technology. He was the St. Petersburg Times bureau chief in Tallahassee during the Bob Graham administration and went on to be the editor of the afternoon paper in St. Petersburg and to serve on Times editorial board. Neil also has a national perspective on local government from 10 years as editor and president of Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C. Neil founded Classified Intelligence. He is a member of the board of directors of The Village Square.