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MPs from Senegal urge greater UK engagement during visit to Westminster

A delegation from the National Assembly of the Republic of Senegal undertook an inter-parliamentary visit to the UK Parliament from 22-26 April 2013. The delegation was led by Mr Mamadou Lamine Diallo from the Benno Bok Yakaar (BBY) Parliamentary Group, Mr Modou Diagne Fada, President of the Liberal and Democrat Parliamentary Group, Mr Thierno Bocoum (BBY), Mrs Penda Seck Diang (BBY) and Mrs Khadidiatou Diedhiou, an independent member of the National Assembly.

At a time when international attention has been sharply focused on the serious breakdown of governance and security in Mali, Senegal’s stability and relative success in managing social, economic, environmental and security challenges was a key point of discussion throughout the visit. With Macky Sall winning presidential elections in 2012, replacing Abdoulaye Wade after his twelve years in office, Senegal’s ability to maintain stable and effective governance through periods of political change and transition contradict many preconceptions about West Africa, if not the entire continent. For this, and many other reasons, the visit was a vital opportunity to gain new perspectives and explore how best to expand inter-parliamentary relations as part of a strong partnership between both countries in support of better prospects for peace and prosperity throughout West Africa.

The delegation was welcomed to the Palace of Westminster by the Deputy Speaker, Nigel Evans MP, before preliminary briefings on UK parliamentary procedures and parliamentary standards for British MPs. A working lunch hosted by the Deputy Speaker involved comprehensive exchanges on “Security in the Sahel” with the visiting delegation expressing strong support for the recent French military intervention in Mali. They also expressed gratitude for the role the UK played in supporting international efforts, under UN auspices, to reverse the gains of jihadist insurgent groups.. They noted Senegal was playing an important role with a commitment of up to 1000 troops in Gao as part of the unified African effort.

In a subsequent meeting with Stephen O’Brien, the UK’s Special Envoy for the Sahel, they repeated concerns that military efforts to stabilise the situation in Mali would also need parallel efforts to restore political stability sufficient to allow free and fair elections to restore effective governance in the country saying that the UK could play a key role in such electoral and governance efforts. Indeed, focussing specifically on UK-Senegal relations, the delegation urged the UK to look beyond Senegal’s history as a Francophone country to build relations on a mutually beneficial basis, saying the country’s colonial past should not constrict its key partnerships for the future – a point reiterated in a number of subsequent meetings.

New challenges require us to pursue new approaches. Senegal wants deeper engagement with the UK because they see clear mutual benefits in expanding such engagement

The strong foundation for bilateral relations was also highlighted by a well-attended welcome reception for the delegation hosted by BGIPU Executive Committee member, Ian Paisley MP, in which the Ambassador of Senegal to the UK, H.E. Mr Abdou Sourang, and other Embassy staff participated. During this reception, delegation members highlighted the importance they attached to re-establishment of an All Party Parliamentary Group for Senegal in the UK Parliament.

While security threats in the Sahel remained a key focus of discussions throughout the week, including in the Parliamentary roundtable meeting chaired by Lord Chidgey, the Senegalese delegation also discussed a diverse range of other issues including shared concerns that West Africa was being increasingly used as a transit point in international drug trade from Latin America to Europe. Both sides were concerned that failing governance and high levels of corruption in Guinea-Bissau remained a key cause for concern. West Africa’s role in the international drugs trade is also having an effect on Senegal, with some of its citizens exploited as drugs couriers by international criminals, although the government is seeking to address the issue through increasing penalties for drug traffickers.

During the roundtable, the delegation also expressed strong appreciation and support for the British Council’s English language programmes in Senegal, as a vital means of ensuring people to people and cultural links are maintained with the UK. The impact of Senegalese footballers on English Premier League and the popularity of Senegalese music were also noted in discussions. Over a working lunch, hosted by James Duddridge MP, the delegation discussed female representation in parliaments with UK MPs touching on the use of female only selection lists and the Senegalese in turn outlining the impact of new laws requiring gender equality on party lists, which following its introduction in 2012, the National Assembly returned a record 64 women MPs (42.67%), up from 27 (18%) in 2007.

In talks with the Chair of the International Development Committee, Sir Malcolm Bruce MP, the delegation discussed the post-2015 international development agenda, including welcoming the UK’s bipartisan commitment to maintain overseas development assistance at 0.7 percent of GNI. While welcoming UK assistance to Senegal through the European Union, the delegation also encouraged the UK to consider some forms of bilateral assistance in areas of common interest. Following detailed exchanges on the security and economic challenges facing West Africa,the subject of a current enquiry being undertaken by the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Chair, Mr Richard Ottaway MP, and other FAC members discussed African regionalism and the challenges facing key African institutions at a time when Africa is increasingly seen as a driver of global growth and opportunity.

The delegation also met with the Islamic Finance and Diversity in Financial Markets APPG, recognising that London was a key financial center for Islamic finance internationally and met members of the APPG for Street Children on efforts through the Consortium for Street Children and Street Children Africa to discuss the plight of street children, noting in particular the issues surrounding the traditional practice of Quranic schools or Daaras, where children frequently face the risk of exploitation.  The delegation also had a wide-ranging exchange with members of the Environmental Audit Committee, led by Chair Joan Walley, on key environmental challenges including over-fishing, the impacts of climate change, particularly in the Sahel, and efforts to protect endangered species. The delegation acknowledged the importance of a body like the Environmental Audit Committee in addressing the cross-cutting nature of environmental considerations in all government policy areas. The delegation also met with members of the Business Council for Africa before visiting BBC Headquarters at New Broadcasting House where Mr Diallo recorded interviews for radio and television with the BBC World Service.

In a constituency visit hosted by the Member for Thurrock, Ms Jackie Doyle-Price MP, the Senegalese delegation visited Tilbury Power Station which, following conversion from coal-burning in 2011, is the biggest biomass power generation facility in the world. As a key learning ground for assessing the viability of biomass in meeting the UK’s total energy needs in a sustainable manner, the delegation were very keen to discuss with executives from RWE npower, the pros and cons of various energy options, including sustainable options like biomass, solar and wind power, recognising the difficult challenges Senegal faces in ensuring energy security into the future. Taking the opportunity to explore the various levels of government in the UK, the delegation also accompanied Ms Doyle-Price to meet the Mayor of Thurrock, Yash Gupta MBE, with other Councillors and visited Palmer’s College to gain insights into the UK education system and meet with staff and students for an enjoyable exchange of views.

While recent events in West Africa were clearly a timely and relevant point of focus, the diverse nature of issues discussed during the course of this visit served to highlight the very similar issues facing parliamentarians in many parts of the world. Both sides found common ground in addressing the social, economic and security needs of their constituents with similar remedies drawing on effective good governance based on strong, stable democratic principles and institutions. In carrying out parliamentary responsibilities, there was mutual recognition of the need to give due regard to the needs of vulnerable groups and to account for any adverse policy impacts or environmental risks. The common challenges facing all parliamentarians in addressing the basic needs and aspirations of citizens – often against a backdrop of pressing fiscal challenges – while also fighting intolerance and the global spread of terrorism and transnational crime was highlighted in discussions. So too, however, was the importance of international dialogue and mutual sharing of experiences between governments and legislators in order to find effective solutions.

The key message of the delegation was that in an increasingly inter-dependent world, we cannot afford to be constrained by past historical, cultural or linguistic differences. New challenges require us to pursue new approaches. Senegal wants deeper engagement with the UK because they see clear mutual benefits in expanding such engagement. In highlighting Senegal as a stable anchor point in West Africa, stressing that its example – despite the many challenges it still faces – provides strong incentives for stability, growth and good governance in other African states, the delegation sought to provide UK counterparts with a convincing rationale for deeper engagement. If the UK is keen to support a stable and prosperous Africa for the future, the delegation argued, maintaining and consolidating its long-standing and cordial relations with Senegal would be in support of the UK’s own global interests.

The BGIPU is grateful to all who contributed to the success of this visit, particularly members of the BGIPU Executive Committee and other members who hosted key events, as well as Clerks and other parliamentary staff who provided briefings. We also express our deep gratitude to the Speaker of the Parliament of Senegal and his parliamentary staff in Dakar in assisting with arrangements for this visit. We also offer sincere thanks to the Ambassador of Senegal to the UK, H.E. Abdou Sourang, and his staff, particularly First Counsellor, Mr Sara Ndiaye, for such invaluable assistance in making the visit a resounding success for both parliaments.