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Senegal’s violent protests reveal that its long-stable democracy is fragile, after all

Yet again, courts have jailed one of the president’s political rivals.

- March 31, 2021

Editors’ note: Senegal President Macky Sall has belatedly set March 24 as the date for the upcoming presidential election, after delaying the election scheduled for February, an action that opponents called a constitutional coup. We are highlighting this piece, originally published on March 31, 2021, to offer some background on the current controversial actions.

At the beginning of March, Senegal was rocked by the most violent protests of its recent history. The demonstrations spread spontaneously throughout the country after the police arrested Ousmane Sonko, a member of parliament and prominent opposition leader. Accused of rape by a 20-year-old masseuse a month earlier, Sonko was arrested and charged with “disturbing public order” as he was headed to court to respond to the rape allegations. Because of the protests, he was released less than a week after his arrest, under judicial supervision.

In Dakar, Senegal’s capital, and in other cities where the protests broke out, security forces responded to the popular unrest by firing live bullets at opposition supporters, leaving at least 10 people dead and hundreds injured.

Senegal has often been considered one of the most stable countries of the African continent. The recent events reveal its democracy’s fragility.

President Sall’s political challengers have been consistently charged and jailed

Ousmane Sonko is President Macky Sall’s last major political rival. His arrest has raised questions about whether the accusations were politically motivated. In the 2019 presidential elections, Sonko took third place with 15.67 percent of the votes, after Sall and former Senegalese prime minister Idrissa Seck. In 2020, Seck left the opposition and joined the presidential majority as head of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, a move that made Sonko the de facto leader of the opposition.

This is not the first time one of Sall’s political opponents has faced trial. Karim Wade, son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, was widely seen as a potential president. In March 2015, only two days after the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) — a major political party — designated him as its next presidential candidate, Wade was sentenced to six years in prison on embezzlement charges. In detention since April 2013, he was eventually pardoned by Sall and released from jail in 2016. Wade is now in exile and out of Senegalese politics.

Khalifa Sall, no relation to the president, a former mayor of Dakar and another political contender for the presidency, faced a similar fate in 2017 when he was accused, convicted and jailed on charges of corruption. The convictions barred both Wade and Khalifa Sall from running in presidential elections. Should Sonko be sentenced to prison, his 2024 presidential bid could come to an abrupt end, giving President Sall the choice of seeking an unconstitutional third term or handpicking his successor.

Questions about the independence of the justice system

The first judge responsible for the Sonko case asked to be withdrawn from it because of “pressure” and “attacks” that he and his family had faced since the investigation began. Observers immediately wondered about the fairness of the proceedings and confirmed suspicions that the executive was meddling with the justice system.

Sall chairs the body responsible for managing the Senegalese magistrates, the High Council of the Judiciary; he directly supervises and directs the council. The justice minister, who serves as the council’s vice president, has direct authority over public prosecutors, who in turn can exert pressure over judges responsible for the rulings. As such, political interference is almost inevitable.

The rape case may be dismissed, outraging victims’ rights advocates

The rape allegations that led to the unprecedented protests have been widely dismissed by the public and put on the back burner. What’s more, Adji Sarr, the accuser, has become the target of harassment.

Senegal only recently passed a law criminalizing rape. Now women’s rights advocates fear that the lack of credit given to the rape allegations by the wider public in the Sonko case will deter women from coming forward should they experience physical abuse.

#FreeSenegal is a textbook case of an African youth movement demanding democracy

After the March demonstrations, protesters began using the hashtag #FreeSenegal as they sought reparations for the families of those shot by police. #FreeSenegal has become a social movement against the Sall regime’s undemocratic governance, demanding justice, democracy and jobs. The hashtag reminds Africa watchers of the recent #EndSARS movement in Nigeria, which called to end policy brutality, and #CongoisBleeding, which drew attention to the deadly exploitation of children in Congolese mines.

Whether #FreeSenegal will achieve its intended goals will depend on how long it can keep pressure on the Sall government.

In his book “Protest and Opportunities,” Felix Kolb explains that social movement research examines a concept called political opportunity. It argues that protests and social movements are not enough to force policy changes, unless the movement can capitalize when political opportunities arise. In the Senegalese case, the opportunity may be widespread anger that the country does not have — and desperately needs — a free and fair judiciary system.

Senegal isn’t the democratic ideal many believe it to be

Senegal has long been considered one of the most stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa and has probably been the most stable in a volatile West African region. It is the only West African country that has never had a military coup since gaining independence from France in 1960. In 2020, then-U. S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chose Senegal for his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa. In 2013, President Barack Obama also chose Senegal for the first leg of a three-country African tour. The tour also included South Africa and Tanzania, two strong democracies with which the United States wished to strengthen economic ties.

Senegal’s legacy of stability and democracy has been widely celebrated and praised as its neighbors have suffered endemic political and social instability. That reputation may suffer unless the current government tackles the democratic reforms demanded by its citizens.

Kamissa Camara (@kamissacamara) is the senior visiting expert for the Sahel at the U.S. Institute of Peace.