Track Persia, September 16, 2016
By Mel Bailey
Dakar’s downtown district, Plateau, bustles with hand-pushed carts, public transport vehicles, taxis and pedestrians treading through the streets. On most days, the commotion gives way to a cacophony of sound: an urban mix of Wolof, Pular, French, and Arabic heard under the blaring horns from the endless transit traffic.
Visually, the area looks like a sea of moving color. Women and men dress in ornate fabrics, men on roller blades wearing flashy fluorescent t-shirts hand out promotional flyers and business people in cut off suits come in and out of the modern constructed high rises where the ministries are located. Interwoven in this humming downtown metropolis are small boutiques selling women’s clothing and shoes, restaurants of local and international fare, hotels and nightclubs, and endless street vendors and marketplaces. One in every six established boutique, restaurant and hotel, is a different looking face, a Lebanese business owner.
Lebanese nationals account for one percent of the population of Senegal and own a majority in the hospitality industry of the country. When Senegal was still a French colony, Lebanese migrants were relocated to impoverished areas in the now capital city Dakar. Obliged to make their own way, many migrants turned to entrepreneurship, and today, Lebanese migrants or Senegalese citizens of Lebanese origin represent a significant percentile of business owners in the country.
But according to the United States treasury and official intelligence, not all migrants-turned business owners are created equal. Evidence suggests a link between the growth of Lebanese business owners in the region to the successes of the Lebanon based Iranian funded religious group, Hezbollah.
Migratory patterns indicate that migrants making money in a foreign country with minimal family ties to their host country often send money back to their country of origin. For Senegalese residents of Lebanese descent, that is exactly the case.
“They all have ties back home, and they all at some point send funds to help their families. It is easier to support family from West Africa because they can’t find a good revenue elsewhere,” said an owner of a Lebanese bar and restaurant who requested to remain anonymous. The restaurant is just one of many Lebanese owned operations in Senegal. Though it is highly unlikely that the restaurant or many other small family style businesses like Hotel Farid, or My Way—all restaurant and hotel chains in Dakar, have a direct link to Hezbollah, an United States led investigation on “terrorist groups” in West Africa found that there is a direct link to Lebanese business owners, family members and the Hezbollah group.
Hezbollah operates mainly in West Africa and Latin America, where it has been operational since the early 1980s. Hezbollah uses Lebanese Shia religious communities to build their infrastructure within a country. These communities had already been in place thanks to permission given by African presidents for nations like Iran to set up hawzas, a Shi’a seminary, for African youths and Shi’a Muslims to get educated and attend religious ceremonies.
Hezbollah has been known to collect donations from businesses, and recruit new members and launder money to and from Lebanon while operating in businesses disguised as legitimate, abroad.
Getting to Senegal as a Lebanese migrant is simple and many believe that religious groups like Hezbollah can operate so well out of West Africa is due to the region’s poor security. Nevertheless, for some Lebanese business owners in Senegaleven being born in country does not guarantee integration.
“I do not have the state of mind that Senegal is my home, I will never be stable and will not be able to grow. I have a goal to make it home until a certain time,” the owner of the Lebanese restaurant said of his own personal integration despite being born in country and owning a successful business.
For Senegalese authorities and citizens, the presence of Lebanese businesses can be a blessing and a curse. Lebanese businesses contribute to the overall Gross Domestic Product of the country (GDP) through taxation and recreational spending. Many Lebanese establishments also cater to expatriates, allowing Senegal to reap the benefits of their tourism.
But there are also drawbacks. In 2013 The US Treasury Department named four Lebanese men behind Hezbollah’s activities in Sierra Leone, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gambia: Ali Ibrahim al-Watfa, Abbas Loutfe Fawaz, Ali Ahmad Chehade, and Hicham Nmer Khanafer.
According to the US Treasury, Abbas Loutfe Fawaz, “Hezbollah’s leader in Senegal”, established himself in Senegal using supermarkets in Dakar where he was the owner, to raise funds for Hezbollah and attract supporters. He had discussed with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon the possibility of sending Lebanese nationals from Senegal to Lebanon, possibly for training.
Though few Lebanese business owners are thought to have links to Hezbollah, their presence in Senegal, much like neighboring Iran, has changed the face of Senegal, in religion, business and society. Senegalese business people often find themselves competing with Lebanese businesses, in their own country, constantly looking for new and innovative ways to sway clientele back to them for a lesser price.
“I set up here every day selling these shoes and clothes and belts,” said Modou Fall in front of Kadel a shoe store owned by a Lebanese woman, a street vendor of Dakar’s Plateau area. “I sell used shoes at half price so more customers will come to me.”
For societal and religious changes, Senegal is still majorly Sunni Islamic, the native form of Islam in the country. And within society, though foreign faces can be seen integration into one another’s community is far off.