A police station or a high school? Deadly clashes in Senegal as locals and gendarmes dispute land use

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Violent clashes between the gendarmerie and the Lebu community erupted on May 8 and 9 in Ngor, a district of Senegal’s capital Dakar. The conflict began over a land dispute: the gendarmes want a police station while locals want to build a high school. According to four eyewitnesses who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team, the gendarmes fired live bullets during protests. A 15-year-old girl lost her life, in circumstances that remain under investigation.

Images shared on social networks show violent clashes on May 8 and 9 in Ngor. The conflict broke out between the Lebu people, who have lived in the area for centuries, and the gendarmes, local police.

It began on the main street in Ngor, where residents had gathered to protest the evening of May 8.

Photo taken in the evening of May 8, 2023 on the main road of Ngor, Dakar, where clashes between the population and the gendarmes took place. Photo provided to the FRANCE 24 Observers team

‘We had to evacuate the injured by canoe’

The next day, clashes continued on the same street as well as a nearby beach. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke with several protesters who requested to stay anonymous for their security. They said the police used live ammunition against protesters.

Malick (not his real name) told us more:

When we arrived on the beach, reinforcements came. The gendarmes wanted to surround us. Some of the protesters got stuck and started to retreat into the water to avoid being caught. Some of us were able to swim, I was able to take refuge on a boat. The gendarmes first fired tear gas, then live ammunition.

Several videos taken on the beach show tear gas grenades exploding. In one video, at least five shots can be heard, though a ballistics expert we spoke to said it is impossible to determine from this video whether they were live rounds.

Video shared on social networks showing the clashes that took place on May 9, 2023 on the beach of Ngor, Senegal.
Video shared on social networks showing the clashes that took place on May 9, 2023 on the beach of Ngor, Senegal. © Observers

Death of a 15-year-old girl

A 15-year-old girl was killed during the clashes. A statement issued on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 by the Senegalese ministry of the interior said that the girl had been “fatally hit while in the water, probably by the propeller of a canoe”.

The ministry has not yet responded to our request for comment.

However, several of our Observers who witnessed the scene say the girl was in fact hit by a police bullet while she was taking refuge in the water.

During the confrontation, several protesters were seriously injured and had to be evacuated, explains Habib (not his real name), another protester:

The emergency services could not enter the village because the gendarmerie had blocked the way. We had to evacuate the injured by canoe to the surrounding communes, such as Yoff, thanks to the help of the Red Cross.

Video showing the evacuation of the injured on Ngor beach, on Tuesday May 9, 2023.
Video showing the evacuation of the injured on Ngor beach, on Tuesday May 9, 2023. © Observers

Several videos taken by residents, such as this one taken near the beach, also show officers violently beating residents.

Vidéo partagée sur les réseaux sociaux, montrant une personne à terre violemment frappée par des gendarmes, à proximité de la plage de Ngor, mardi 9 mai 2023.
Vidéo partagée sur les réseaux sociaux, montrant une personne à terre violemment frappée par des gendarmes, à proximité de la plage de Ngor, mardi 9 mai 2023. © https://goo.gl/maps/F5L3uJ3pa4QfghZt7

Residents also claim that gendarmes entered houses and discharged tear gas grenades.

‘We need to change the way we think about policing’

Thirty people were reportedly wounded in the clashes. Images provided to the FRANCE 24 Observers team by protesters attest to significant injuries.

In a statement issued on May 11, 2023, Amnesty International denounced “the excessive use of force by the gendarmerie in Ngor” and called “on the authorities to investigate the use of lethal weapons by the police“.

Locals, such as Mamadou Ndiaye, president of the citizen movement Ngor Debout, denounced the repression carried out by the police:

The gendarmes have beaten up protesters, shot at people, entered homes. This is not law and order. We don’t deserve that in a country like Senegal. We need to change the way we think about policing, to stop using grenades and live ammunition. We need more diplomacy when people demand things.

‘Ngor is the only district in Dakar that does not have a high school’

At the root of these tensions is a 6,000 m2 plot of land located in the heart of the village. Since the beginning of March, the gendarmerie has voiced its desire to set up a police station there, while the community wants to build a high school.

On Monday, May 8 the day before the clashes, the state said it would give 4,000 m2 to the gendarmes and 2,000 m2 to the municipality for a high school. Many residents, including our observer Habib, felt this decision was unfair:

Ngor really needs a high school: it’s the only district in Dakar that doesn’t have a high school and a CEM [Editor’s note: for Collège d’enseignement moyen, the equivalent of a secondary school]. Young people have to leave Ngor to study. Most people don’t have a car: they have to take transport. And they also have to eat at lunchtime. All this is expensive. Many stop going to school at 13 or 14 years old because of this. Education should be a priority.

‘The indigenous population gradually had to give up their land’

Oumar (not his real name), a resident of Ngor, says that the indigenous Lebu population has gradually had to cede its land to the state:

The indigenous population of Ngor originally lived from agriculture, but gradually had to give up their land. For example, the posh district of Almadies was built on agricultural land. Now ministers, deputies and colonels live there. 

Now there are no more fields. The local people have fallen back on fishing, but even fishing doesn’t work like it used to because of the pollution. Poverty is increasing. And there is no more space, people are forced to build new floors to be able to have housing.

The land at the heart of the dispute is all the more important in the eyes of the residents as it has a spiritual value. It is known as “Arrêt Mame Tamsir”, in reference to El Hadji Tamsir Mamadou Ndiaye, an important imam for the Lebu population of Ngor.

Following the clashes, Senegalese President Macky Sall announced that the land would be split in half and granted in equal parts to the gendarmerie and the municipality. The decision put a halt to protests for the moment, but several residents we spoke to say they “want to continue fighting”.

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‘Tirailleurs’: France’s forgotten colonial soldiers step out of the shadows

The last surviving African soldiers who fought for colonial-era France will be able to live out their final days in their home countries following the French government’s U-turn on their pension rights. The decision coincides with the cinema release of a film highlighting the untold sacrifices made by African “tirailleurs” on France’s battlefields during World War I.

In November 1998, just months after France’s multiracial football team lifted its first World Cup title, another legacy of the country’s colonial history passed away quietly in a faraway village north of Dakar, Senegal.

Abdoulaye Ndiaye, who died aged 104, was the last of the tirailleurs, the African riflemen who fought for their colonial masters in the trenches of northern France during World War I. He died just one day before France’s then-president, Jacques Chirac, was due to decorate him with the Legion of Honour in belated recognition of his services.

The failure to acknowledge Ndiaye’s sacrifice during his lifetime has stuck with French director Mathieu Vadepied ever since, inspiring a long-gestating project that has come to completion this week with the release in France and Senegal of his film “Tirailleurs” – whose English version is titled “Father & Soldier”.

“It felt like a symbol of France’s failure to recognise the tirailleurs and tell their story,” said the director following his film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Vadepied, who has travelled and worked in Senegal and elsewhere in Africa, said he felt a duty to exhume the history of the tirailleurs. His film is a tribute to the young men of Senegal and other French colonies who were snatched from their homes and forced to fight in a war that meant nothing to them for a “motherland” whose language most didn’t speak.

While the film’s original title, “Tirailleurs”, or “riflemen”, has evocative power in French, its English version highlights the director’s concern to approach war through an intimate focus on a father’s relationship with the son he is desperate to protect. “Lupin” star Omar Sy plays a weary village farmer who enrols in the army to watch over his son after he is forcefully conscripted by the French.

Vadepied stressed the importance of rooting his story in Senegal and keeping an intimate gaze on the film’s protagonists while giving war itself a distinctly unspectacular treatment.

“We know the history of the war, but not that of the tirailleurs,” he said, highlighting cinema’s “mission to educate, to pass on stories and historical memories, while also interrogating the society we live in.” He added: “The story of France’s colonial troops needs to be recognised and told, to allow subsequent generations to identify with this history too.”

As Sy, himself a son of Senegalese immigrants, told the audience at the Cannes premiere, “We don’t have the same (historical) memory, but we share the same history.”

A decision long overdue

In one of the film’s rare battle scenes, moments before the tirailleurs leap out of the trenches and charge into muddy no-man’s land, a French officer is pictured yelling: “After this battle, you will no longer be indigenous, you will be French!”

It would take a full century for France to deliver on that promise.

In April 2017, then-president François Hollande granted French citizenship to a first group of 28 former tirailleurs in a ceremony at the Élysée Palace, following a petition signed by more than 60,000 people, including Sy. The event was timed to coincide with the centennial of the Chemin des Dames, a gruesome battle in which more than 7,000 African soldiers perished in the fields of northern France.

Six years on, the last surviving tirailleurs have won another battle in their decades-long quest for recognition, securing the right to live out their final days in their home countries – while continuing to receive their French pensions.

>> France’s forgotten African war heroes finally given full pension rights

France’s former colonial troops were previously required to spend at least six months of the year living in France in order to qualify for a monthly payment of 950 euros ($1,000). The rule separated ageing former combatants from their families in Africa, leaving some to die alone, often in cramped quarters, away from their loved ones.

The change of rule will apply to 37 former soldiers known to be living in France, said Aïssata Seck, a campaigner for the rights of the tirailleurs. She said news of the breakthrough might inspire more veterans to come forward, estimating the total number of surviving tirailleurs in France at “around 80”.


Seck, whose grandfather was a tirailleur, expressed relief that the last of his comrades would “finally be able to return home and live out their lives with their wives, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren”.

France’s decision was long overdue, said the head of Senegal’s National Office for Veterans and Victims of War, in an interview with AP.

“For a long time veterans have asked to return with their pensions but were not successful. This decision will relieve them. These veterans live alone in their homes, they are not accompanied, they live in extremely difficult conditions,” said Capt. Ngor Sarr, 85, who fought for the French military in Algeria and Mauritania and then moved to France in 1993 so he could receive his pension. He said he then lost it when he returned to Senegal 20 years later.

‘Repair the injustice’

A product of France’s 19th-century colonial expansion in Africa, the tirailleurs were initially designed as a lightly-armed infantry corps deployed to harass enemy lines. The corps was expanded during World War I to bolster French troops on the Western Front, and eventually disbanded in the early 1960s.

Over the two World Wars, some 700,000 soldiers from France’s African colonies fought for the colonial power. While some volunteered, others – like the son’s character in Vadepied’s film – were captured and forcibly enlisted.

Historians estimate that around 30,000 African soldiers died in the trenches fighting for France during World War I. But their names never featured on the war memorials that grace towns and villages across the country, daily reminders of the cost of the conflict.

The tirailleurs were a vastly enlarged force by the time Nazi Germany invaded France. They fought for Free French forces in sub-Saharan and North Africa and took part in the Allies’ landings in southern France in August 1944, precipitating the Nazis’ retreat.

Months later, however, French troops at a barracks near Dakar opened fire on mutinous tirailleurs demanding back pay for years spent in prisoner-of-war camps. Dozens were killed in a massacre that was hushed for decades but is bitterly remembered in Senegal.


Hollande promised to “repair the injustice” on a trip to Dakar in 2014 – in line with tentative steps to acknowledge France’s debt towards its former colonial troops. Their sacrifice was honoured on Armistice Day last year during a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe attended by Aïssata Tall Sall, Senegal’s minister for foreign affairs and Senegalese abroad.

Despite such gestures, more needs to be done to “give the tirailleurs visibility in the public space”, said Seck, whose campaign group has appealed to French mayors to name streets after France’s African soldiers.

“The history of the tirailleurs is still insufficiently known,” she explained. “But things are starting to go in the right direction – slowly but surely.”

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