Senegal: Elite military academy Saint-Louis turns 100

By Marième Soumaré, in Saint-Louis

Posted on Monday, 6 February 2023 11:20
A student parade at the Military Academy of Saint-Louis du Sénégal, 9 January 2023 ©Annika Hammerschlag for Jeune Afrique

Senegalese military school Le Prytanée Militaire Charles N'Tchoréré de Saint-Louis, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, trains hand-picked students for the country’s highest civilian and military positions. 

It is not yet 8am on Monday; the day is just breaking in the school’s main courtyard. Gathered around Colonel Mamour Sarr, the academy’s commander, about 40 men in uniform are doing their first ‘status report’ of the year 2023. The soldiers, responsible for supervising the 483 students, discuss the exams that are soon to be held. On this January morning, the breeze is cool in Bango, the village in the commune of Saint-Louis where the academy is located. Some of the supervisors are shivering under their fatigues.

Behind them, the students are waiting for the ‘colour ceremony’ to begin. “It’s a new year, we have to start it right,” says Colonel Sarr. “There is always someone dragging his feet, but it’s time to wake up!”

Then, just like every other Monday, everyone starts off the week by singing the national anthem. On this 9 January, the green, yellow and red flag will not be raised as usual: the night before, a road accident took the lives of 41 people in Sikilo, in the Kaffrine department, and the whole country is in mourning.

Pride in the uniform

There was no question, however, of cancelling the parade. The students are queuing up in rows. Led by the ‘clique’, the school’s brass band, the first to set off are the sixth graders. Knee-high to a grasshopper, they march with gusto, visibly delighted to be in uniform and to set the pace. They raise their arms and frown earnestly as they pass the sign with the school’s motto: ‘To know in order to better serve’.

Almost all of them have dreamed of this uniform, which they now wear proudly. They look forward to the 4 April parade, an event that the academy’s students have participated in since independence – a decision of the former council president, Mamadou Dia, who was a teacher there.

The ‘class leaders’, those in charge of watching over the youngest students, offer instructions in a low voice: “Go catch up with the others! It’s three steps, not five,” says one of them. Once the parade is over, they all rush to change and get back to their classrooms. In addition to receiving a military education, these infantrymen in well-ironed uniforms are, above all, studious pupils with promising futures.

When they leave the academy, they are above all good citizens

An establishment of excellence in the Senegalese educational landscape, the Saint-Louis Military Academy takes in 50 young men each year, chosen from several thousand candidates after a very selective competition. The students agree to follow the national educational programme for seven years, from the sixth grade to the final year of high school, in addition to military training. About 20% of them will elect to stay in the army once they have passed their baccalaureate.

Early morning warm-ups

Civilian or military, it doesn’t matter: El Hadj Rawane Seck, 18, is convinced that he will be a doctor. The student, who is top of his class, praises the “rigour and excellence” of the school he will leave at the end of the year, under the watchful eye of Colonel Sarr. He even defends the tedious daily “decrassage ” that most of the students despise: a 30-minute muscular work-out at 5:30 am. “A blessing in disguise,” he says.

“Of course, they grumble about the rules and sometimes think that we are being hard on them, but with hindsight, they end up realising that we are preparing them for real life,” says Lieutenant Issa Diouf, commander of the second brigade, which, at the academy, corresponds to high school classes. “When they leave the academy, they are above all good citizens,” says Mamadou Ba, the director of studies.

Rising at dawn, constantly supervised, subjected to a sustained rhythm, the young infantrymen must adapt to the rigours of military life. Deprived of mobile phones during the week until the final year of high school – during which the device is merely “tolerated”, says Colonel Sarr – the students can only leave the academy at weekends, and under certain conditions. For the “big kids” in the second brigade, this bar is set by Lieutenant Diouf: their GPA must be an average of at least 15 (out of 20).  “I set the bar high to push them to surpass their limits.”

A class at the Military Academy of Saint-Louis, 9 January 2023 ©Annika Hammerschlag for Jeune Afrique

The rigour of the instruction and the excellence of the education provided make the academy an exceptional establishment. Class sizes are small (25 students on average, a luxury in Senegal) and school fees are fully covered by the ministry of the armed forces.

The salaries of the teachers, who are also hand-picked, are paid by the ministry of education. Students even receive a monthly allowance of between 20,000 and 30,000 CFA francs ($32 to $48), with bonuses for the most deserving, the top of their class, members of the school government (the “clique”). This is a real opportunity for the brightest students, who benefit from a quality education regardless of their parents’ income.

What makes the place particular is also its total lack of diversity in the student body. The academy is a school for boys, run by men, and may remain so for a long time to come. Women were only accepted into the Senegalese army in 2008.

Colonial invention

Nevertheless, many things have changed within the establishment since its creation in 1923 by the French colonial administration. What was then called the African Military Preparatory School (EMPA) in Dakar-Bango was the first of four such establishments, designed to train the children of soldiers (hence the term prytanée, which will remain) and make them non-commissioned officers in the service of colonial troops. After Saint-Louis, there was Bingerville (in Côte d’Ivoire), Ouagadougou (in Burkina Faso), Kati (in Mali) and Brazzaville (in Congo).

Even today, the first 13 students who narrowly miss being accepted in Saint-Louis (which accepts only the top 50) are sent to one of the schools in the sub-region.

The Bango school was a kind of “Africa in miniature”, said former Senegalese minister Abdoulaye Bathily, who was in the class of 1959. “It was in Bango that I first had a sense of the unity and diversity of Africa,” the diplomat said in his memoirs, published in 2022. At the time when Bathily joined what was still called EMPA, on the eve of independence, the school’s commander was a Frenchman, Captain Arrighi, who defended Paris’ position in the face of the nationalist awakening – which led to him being described as a “backward colonialist” by some students.

In 1966, accused of having led a strike with other students to demand better living conditions, Bathily was expelled for “gross misconduct”. “Despite [this episode], the training I received [at EMPA] on an academic and human level still influences my life,” says the man who is now the UN envoy to Libya. The school was later renamed Charles N’Tchoréré, after the Gabonese-born captain, the school’s first Black commander, who was shot by the Nazis in 1940.

Presidents, ministers and even a Goncourt!

Many personalities have graduated from this prestigious establishment. At least five African presidents have received training within its walls – from Jean-Bedel Bokassa to Seyni Kountché, Ali Saïbou, Mathieu Kérékou and Lansana Conté – to countless ministers, generals… and even a Goncourt prize-winner: Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, who received the prestigious French literary award in November 2021.

This is a point of pride for those who have passed through the academy, which has a better reputation than its Malian neighbour Kati that has educated a large part of the junta now in power. “Here, we don’t train coup plotters,” says one of the school’s officers.

Here, we don’t train coup plotters

Three members of the current Senegalese government attended the academy: Mamadou Ba, minister of budget; Alioune Ndoye, minister of fisheries and the maritime economy; and the ‘patriarch’ of the team, Serigne Mbaye Thiam, minister of water. The latter welcomed us to his brand new office in the new ministerial compound in Diamniadio, with a nostalgic smile.

“So you visited the kingdom of my childhood?” he said. The former academy student – class of 1970 – evokes “ineffable memories”. He has not forgotten his entry into the academy, his “initial shock” when his head was “completely shaved”, the pride of having obtained his parachutist diploma at 18 – “the one I’m proudest of”, he says – nor the fact that he spent seven days “under arrest” in the military camp El Hadj Oumar, on the island of Saint-Louis.

Bucket of ice water

Colonel Sarr does not show journalists the “disciplinary premises” – and for good reason: they no longer exist and have been replaced by detention periods – but several former students confide that they passed through the academy’s “prison,” where the unruly were sent. Indiscipline, insolence, mood swings… There were many reasons to punish anyone who did not respect the rules. Woe to those who tried to escape the careful eye of their class leaders by placing bolsters under their blankets so they could party in Saint-Louis without permission, or those who set up a bucket of ice water above the door to surprise the soldier who came to wake them for the morning warm-up.

However, discipline has become much more relaxed in recent years, the academy’s commander assures us, as has the students’ comfort: accommodation, food, sports and educational facilities. “This gives the army a better image, which attracts more students than before,” says Colonel Sarr.

“Since Macky Sall became president, the army has become very attractive, and soldiers’ living conditions have improved. The rise of our military has also been accompanied by a wider range of training,” says General Cissé. This academy alumni – class of 1977 – has been the Senegalese president’s chief of staff since last November. “The army is always delighted to welcome students from the academy. Their training has taught them to respect hierarchy,” he tells us.

Like all the academy’s alumni, the officer recalls the unfailing solidarity that binds its students together. “We forged our friendships back in adolescence, without knowing who was going to occupy this or that position. It’s a bit crazy that we’ve managed to keep these bonds for so long. I am proud to see my comrades who have made it,” says the general, who makes a “pilgrimage” to the academy every year.

The farmer’s son sits next to the minister’s son. No special privileges

Along with many other alumni, the president’s adviser will return to Bango on 10 February, where the school’s centenary will be celebrated with great fanfare. The head of state will be present. General Cissé would no doubt have liked to attend the celebrations with his sons, who have all attempted yet failed the competitive examination.

“The academy brings together the best of the best from each generation. The farmer’s son sits next to the minister’s son,” Cissé says. “There are no special privileges. It’s the most transparent school [in the country], from that point of view.”

Just one more special feature of this exceptional place.

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