Senegal: Invaluable archives destroyed during unrest at Dakar’s main university

One week after the end of a deadly unrest that shook Senegal, the country still counts its losses.

Volunteers and staff from Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University are trying to salvage what can still be out of some 200,000 university archives.

Youths armed with Molotov cocktail allegedly set ablaze the building.

“…. until proven otherwise, [I believe] students came and deemed it necessary to burn down the archives of the Faculty of Letters and Humanities, a despicable result, I’m short of words,” emotional Abdourakhmane Kounta, an archivist and documentarist at the Faculty of Arts said.

Cities across Senegal were plunged into chaos after a jail term was handed to opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. His supporters claim he was framed.

The Cheikh Anta Diop University archives included documents spanning from 1957 to 2010. The destroyed files are mainly student registration forms, photos, birth certificates, report cards and theses.

Staff documents among which those belonging to professors and researchers’ were also burned.

Student archivists such as Souleymane Diallo are helping sort through burnt archives.

“We are both saddened and devastated. Seeing archives like this burned down means that a part of the history of the university, and in particular the Faculty of Arts, will be missing,” he laments.

“Lack of political will”

At the National Archives office also located in Dakar, the director admits Senegal has never had a national building devoted to housing its documents. Nearly 20 linear kilometers of papers are stored in “difficult conditions” there. The oldest document dates back to 1672.

Fatoumata Diarra argues the university incident should serve as a wake-up call to the authorities.

“The losses are immense, particularly in the case of the archives. These are files that have not been digitised […] There are degrees of destruction of course, when fire consumes archives, sometimes some parts remain unharmed. but as for the majority, I’ve seen the images, it’s appalling….

3 days were necessary to retrieve the documents from the burnt building. They are essential to retrace a student’s journey, issue a diploma or to authenticate it at the request of an employer, for example.

Senegal lags in terms of digitization of archives despite the launch of a project in 2021 aimed to digitize 15 million birth certificates. The project cost some 18 billion CFA Francs (about 27,5 million euros).

According to expert in digitization Issa Sy, the nation lack “political will” to sort this problem.

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