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Fiscal Autonomy: Urban Democracy and the Politics of Public Finance in Dakar, Senegal


This dissertation is an ethnographic investigation into how democratic municipalities in Dakar, Senegal are formed and reformed. The municipal scale of government has long been both a modern norm and a central object of governmental reform throughout the Francophone world. Established in the late 19th century as a colony of France, Dakar is one of the oldest local democracies in Africa and remains today a model of democratic reform for municipal governments across the continent. In 2013, the Senegalese legislature passed what is known colloquially as Act III of decentralization. This national reform legally delegated political and fiscal authority to Senegal’s lowest level of territorial administration—the commune—inaugurating what the law itself referred to as the “complete communalization of the national territory”. Yet far from resolving the problem of communal form, the Act III incited a novel set of experiments in communal authority.

This dissertation reveals a broader terrain of democratic politics and reform that is beyond the more familiar domains of law and public debate. I examine the novel set of experimental techniques that have emerged out of critical reflections on the problem of communal form in Dakar. Posing the communal form as contested problem-space, I follow a range of experiments through which diverse actors make sense of how public authority should be distributed across Dakar’s urban terrain. To analyze the politics of this distribution, I develop the concept of municipal state formation: the set of techniques through which sub-national governments take on functions of the sovereign nation and exercise legitimate authority over citizens, populations, publics, and territory.

Yet this dissertation does not demonstrate how communes have arrived, once and for all, fully formed—or, as the Senegalese laws describe it, “fully empowered”. Municipal state formation is never complete; it is an ongoing process of experimentation, disagreement, and piecemeal reform. In the wake of Act III, most communal officials articulated a commonly held critique: the laws had devolved new responsibilities, but without the necessary revenues to match. There was, in other words, a persistent mismatch between political and fiscal decentralization. For this reason, I examine fiscal administration as a particularly consequential political terrain in which the problem of communal form took shape in Dakar.

This dissertation is organized into five substantive chapters and a conclusion. After introducing the concept of municipal state formation, the second chapter reveals how a French colonial policy of assimilation provided the political conditions for the legal constitution communes in Senegal. But these laws were also formed in relation to a longstanding dispute over the fiscal administration of the communes. The third chapter turns to one such dispute over Dakar’s municipal bond program. Although the program was ultimately sabotaged by the central state, it introduced a novel political terrain into this long-standing dispute over fiscal administration: public financial evaluation. I argue that such evaluations made an appeal to an audience beyond the courts—what I term, a financial public—to assert the City’s claim to municipal authority.

The fourth chapter examines a similarly unsuccessful experiment to re-distribute public authority in Dakar. In partnership with a private firm, municipal authorities constructed a commercial center in which to relocate thousands of Dakar’s walking street vendors. The program introduced a familiar form of a neoliberal fiscal contract: the user-fee. However, vendors disagreed with the poor location and high cost of the building, and unequivocally refused to relocate. In this chapter, I argue that this failed neoliberal program provided the conditions under which vendors’ refusal became a possible and effective political act, successfully delimiting when and where municipal authority was legitimately exercised in Dakar.

The final chapter returns to a more traditional aspect of public authority: the right to tax. Although Act III supposedly delegated several new local taxes, bureaucrats and officials nevertheless had to experiment with novel techniques of rule to exercise communal authority on the ground. One local commune pushed the limits of communal rights to enforce tax collection by drawing on the mayor’s public reputation for violence. The Mayor’s reputation as an armed murderer with a “flare for the aggressive” shaped how and where street-level bureaucrats collected taxes. Tax collection thus became more than an accounting of the physical landscape: it was a technique of territorial control grounded in a reputation for unlawful violence.

This dissertation concludes with a reflection on how the concept of municipal state formation may be extended to cities far from Dakar. To make this comparative case, I briefly analyze the problem of metropolitan fragmentation in St. Louis, Missouri.

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