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Senegal’s Fight Against Dictatorship

Recent protests in Senegal over the jailing of an opposition leader renew concerns over the fragility of democracy in West Africa.

Words: Obiora Ikoku
Pictures: E. Diop
Date:

Louise Marie Faye left Senegal 20 years ago to seek greener pastures. However a few days ago, on Thursday, June 22, 2023, she found herself among a group of demonstrators brandishing Senegal’s flags at Rue de Richelieu, a street in the French capital, Paris. The protest was organized to show solidarity with thousands of young people against the dictatorship back home. 

“I owe a lot to my country. That’s why I am committed to fight against the current dictatorship and for the future of the country,” an indignant Faye told Inkstick. 

Deadly protests broke out in the West African nation on June 1, 2023, following the arrest and conviction of popular opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, on charges of “corrupting youth.” Witnesses say protesters — many of whom are from Sonko’s political party, Patriotes Africanis du Sénégal pour le travail, L’éthique et la Fraternité (PASTEF) — torched cars, destroyed buildings, and looted shops while Human Rights Watch accused Dakar’s security forces of “excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests.” On June 4, 2023, the government imposed a blackout on mobile Internet services that officials said were being used to spread “hateful and subversive messages.” 

Brutal Crackdown

According to the Red Cross, at least 16 protesters were killed, 350 injured and over 500 arrested, including 63 minors. One of those killed was Kadhim Ba. His mother, Seynabou Diop, demanded action from the authorities. “The person who did this must be brought to justice,” she cried

But at present there is a controversy about who is responsible for the killings. At a press conference called on June 4, 2023, by the Senegalese head of police, Mohamadou Gueye, the police authorities presented footage that seemed to show some protesters armed with military-grade weapons facing off with the security forces. “They will shoot at civilians and then blame the security forces,” Gueye alleged. However, activists have argued that these men were actually “nervis,” a term for young men hired by political parties to shut down protests, planted by the police. Unedited and longer versions of the clips shown by police at the press conference, which had been widely circulated on social media, expose the same arms-bearing men in civilian gear interacting with and seemingly working alongside armed police. 

The police have also been accused of using children as a human shield against rock-hurling protesters prompting outrage and a sharp reprimand from UNICEF, which called on all sides to “prioritize the protection of children.” On Thursday, June 22, 2023, Sonko’s lawyer, Juan Branco, filed a criminal complaint in a French court accusing Senegal’s president and a host of Senegalese and French officials of being complicit in “crimes against humanity.” 

Discontent

The protests are not new. They started about two years ago when Sonko was accused of raping a massage parlor employee — an accusation he and his supporters continue to denounce. When his trial started in 2021, a four-day violent protest rocked the country leaving at least five dead. Anger continued over the years with occasional clashes with the police. But at the sentencing on June 1, 2023, Sonko, who doubles as the Mayor of Ziguinchor, a river-port town in Southwestern Senegal lying along the Casamance River, was cleared of the rape charges but was convicted and handed a two-year sentence for “corrupting youth” and public disorder. His conviction could prevent him from running in the February 2024 presidential elections.

“Why won’t we be indignant when for 63 years, these leaders have been unable to create industries and encourage investors to create job-creating industries thereby leaving the populations in a precarious situation where even their primary needs are not covered?”

Louise Marie Faye

Sonko placed third with 15% of the vote when he challenged Macky Sall’s re-election in 2019. He is widely seen as a symbol of hope in a country that is reeling under a bleak economy and corruption. His electoral promises, which range from assurances to end social inequality, create equal opportunities through education, promote women, ensure quality care and social protection for populations, endear him to young people frustrated at the slow pace of reforms and low economic prospects under the incumbent. Hence for many of those involved in the protests, the fight is not just about defending democracy but also for a country that works. “Why won’t we be indignant when for 63 years, these leaders have been unable to create industries and encourage investors to create job-creating industries thereby leaving the populations in a precarious situation where even their primary needs are not covered?” Faye queried. 

Since Sall came to power a decade ago after defeating his predecessor, the 85-year-old Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal has increasingly faced rising levels of unemployment, soaring costs of living, and visible corruption. According to World Bank data, Senegal’s real GDP growth slowed in 2022 to 4.2%, compared to 6.5% in 2021, following a decline in private investment and exports, as well as a contraction in industrial production. Public debt, which has been increasing at an accelerating rate, stood at 75% of GDP in 2022, compared to 69.1% in 2020.

Democratic Backsliding

It is against this background that Sonko has described the allegations of rape against him as not only fabricated but part of a complex web of intrigue by Sall to remain in power. Specifically, he accuses Sall of trying to remove potential opponents ahead of the 2024 election. 

“Our country has always lived in peace, we thought we had acquired a certain maturity in politics. This democratic backsliding is unacceptable,” Faye told Inkstick. Faye’s frustration is understandable. Despite having its own share of troubles, Senegal compares positively better with its neighbors when it comes to political stability and democracy. But many fear that those values are now at risk if Sall goes ahead and runs in next year’s elections. Despite the widespread rumors, the incumbent, nicknamed Macky-Niangal-Sall or “Macky the iron-hearted,” has kept mute about his real intentions, further adding to the tension that is stoking the violent protests. 

There is every reason to worry about Senegal given the region’s record. Since 2010 at least 40 coups have taken place in Africa, most arising out of political crises. 

“On the Verge of an Apocalypse”

Although calm has been restored, the embers of the recent days of turmoil remain hot. During the first round of protests in 2021, Alioune Badara Cissé, the mediator of the republic, warned “We are on the verge of an apocalypse.” He called on the authorities to “pause and speak with our youth.” 

This advice rings true today as ordinary Senegalese begin to pick up the pieces of their lives. The sustenance of the peace will depend largely on the authorities. During a recent official visit to Portugal, Sall said the country’s commitment to democracy will continue “despite those that try to paint with darker colors.” This does little to reassure the opposition who continue to demand that Sall state whether or not he will be running next year. Now more than ever before, the African Union and other international organizations have to take steps to prevail on all sides to ensure that next year’s presidential election is guaranteed and that Senegal’s constitution is respected. 

But for activists like Faye, nothing short of a complete overhaul of the country will answer the discontent. “It is vital for Senegal to completely rebuild its foundations, abandon this colonial system which humiliates, banish this presidential system which makes a single individual maker of rain and good weather. I propose limiting the powers of the president, appointing the prime minister by parliament, appointing judges by a completely independent college of jurists and representatives of civil society.” 

“This time we have a duty as civil society to impose ourselves on policies for a Senegal that is really on the move” she added.

Obiora Ikoku

Obiora Ikoku is a freelance journalist and activist from Lagos, Nigeria. He writes about social movements and the geopolitics of Africa’s relations with the rest of the world.

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