Senegal: democracy in the balance?
Recent protests in Senegal in support of a criminally convicted opposition leader have been met with lethal violence, and not for the first time. Internet and social media access have been curtailed amid growing restrictions on independent media. President Macky Sall has recently ended speculation about running for a third term in the February 2024 presidential election, but suspicions linger that the ruling party is trying to retain power by suppressing opposition. Senegal is in danger of losing its reputation as a relative democratic haven. It can only retain it by ending impunity for state violence, ceasing protest and media restrictions and ensuring genuinely free and fair elections.
Civic space is deteriorating in Senegal ahead of next February’s presidential election. Recent political protests have been met with lethal violence and internet and social media restrictions. Senegal’s democracy will soon face a key test, and whether it passes will depend largely on whether civic space is respected as the vote approaches.
Held amid rising political polarisation, recent protests have revolved around the populist opposition politician Ousmane Sonko. A former tax inspector turned corruption whistleblower, Sonko came third in the 2019 presidential election and has grown to be the biggest thorn in President Macky Sall’s side. He’s won support from many young people who see the political elite as corrupt, out of touch and unwilling to tackle major social and economic problems such as the country’s high levels of youth unemployment. He’s also been the subject of criminal prosecution and a recent conviction that his supporters insist is politically motivated.
On 1 June, Sonko was sentenced to two years in jail for ‘corrupting youth’. This resulted from his arrest on rape charges in March 2021 after a massage parlour employee filed a complaint against him. Although he was cleared of the most serious charges – something that women’s rights advocates have expressed concern about – his conviction likely makes him ineligible to stand in the next presidential election, and he’s already been struck off the electoral roll. In May Sonko was handed another six-month suspended sentence for insulting and defaming a ruling party politician.
Sonko’s arrest in March 2021 triggered protests in which 14 people died. His conviction set off a second wave of protests. Sonko was arrested again on 28 July on protest-related charges, including insurrection. A few days later, the government dissolved his party, Pastef (Senegalese African patriots for work, ethics and fraternity). It’s the first such ban since Senegal achieved independence in 1960.
All of this gave fresh impetus to Sonko’s supporters, who accuse the government of instrumentalising the judiciary and criminal justice system to stop a credible political threat. Sonko isn’t the first opponent of the president to have become embroiled in legal action. In another troubling sign, in August, a lawyer representing Sonko, Juan Branco, was arrested, detained and expelled from Senegal. Among other recent arrests is a Pastef leader, Birame Souleye Diop.
The latest wave of protests that erupted in June saw instances of violence, including stone-throwing, tyre burning and looting. Public buildings were vandalised and buses set on fire. The state responded with lethal force. According to civil society estimates, since March 2021 over 30 people have been killed, more than 600 injured and over 700 detained. Social movement leaders have been among those arrested.
In response to the recent protests, the army was deployed in parts of the capital, Dakar. Live ammunition was used, leading to gunshot deaths, and armed people dressed in civilian clothes, evidently embedded with security forces, violently attacked protesters.
Faced with demonstrations, the government has opted for repression. The authorities consider that they are facing acts of defiance towards the state and have called on the security forces to use force.
Further protests called for by the opposition were banned, leading to the staging of symbolic protests in which people banged pots and pans instead.
Journalists were harassed and arrested while covering protests. Recent years have seen a rise in verbal and physical attacks on journalists, along with legal action to try to silence them. Several journalists were arrested in relation to their reporting on Sonko’s prosecution. In May, newspaper editor Serigne Saliou Guèye was arrested for publishing an anonymous editorial by a judge criticising the judicial process in relation to Sonko. Police tried to get him to reveal the author’s name. Investigative journalist Pape Alé Niang has been jailed three times in less than one year.
The government also limited internet access and TV coverage. On 1 June, social media access was restricted and on 4 June mobile internet was shut down for several days. Mobile data was again restricted in the wake of Sonko’s arrest in July. In August, TikTok access was blocked. Restrictions harmed both freedom of expression and livelihoods, since many small traders rely on mobile data for transactions.
⚠️ Confirmed: Metrics show the restriction of social media and messaging platforms including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube in #Senegal; the incident comes amid protests over the sentencing of opposition figure Ousmane Sonko— NetBlocks (@netblocks) June 1, 2023
📰 Report: https://t.co/2ckQPxJ5j3 pic.twitter.com/MuohanLeCP
TV station Walf TV was suspended for the month of June over its protest coverage. An online fund was set up to help support the station but the authorities quickly ordered it to cease payments. Walf TV had been suspended over its protest coverage before, including in response to its reporting of the March 2021 protests.
A major driver of the last couple of years of protests and Sonko’s campaign was speculation that Sall might be tempted to seek a third presidential term. The constitution appeared to be clear on the two-term limit, but Sall’s supporters claimed constitutional amendments in 2016 had reset the count, allowing him to stand again. Thousands mobilised in Dakar on 12 May, organised by a coalition of over 170 civil society groups and opposition parties, to demand that Sall respect the two-term limit and release political prisoners.
On 3 July Sall finally announced that he wasn’t running again, although he continued to maintain that the constitution allowed him to, which made some doubt whether he’d really dropped the idea. In any case, it hasn’t ended suspicion that the ruling Alliance for the Republic (APR) party will go to any lengths stay in power, including using the state’s levers to weaken the opposition.
There’s precedent here: the 2019 presidential vote in which Sall was re-elected was criticised not because of fraud, but because two prominent opposition politicians who might have presented a serious challenge to the incumbent were excluded. In both cases, barely weeks before the election the Constitutional Council ruled them ineligible to stand due to prior convictions on corruption charges that were widely believed to have been politically motivated.
That Sonko and Pastef might have stood a chance in 2024 was suggested by the results of votes held in 2022. In local elections, the APR lost control of the capital, Dakar, and Sonko was elected mayor of Ziguinchor city. And then in parliamentary elections, the APR lost 43 of its 125 seats and Pastef finished second, claiming 56 seats and leaving no party with a majority.
The stakes are unusually high. This isn’t just a battle of competing policies. It’s also a fight at a crucial moment over who gets to control the country’s developing oil and gas industry – and where the proceeds go.
Voices from the frontline
Sadikh Niass is secretary general and Iba Sarr is director of programmes at the African Meeting for the Defence of Human Rights (RADDHO), a civil society organisation that works to promote human rights in Senegal.
The situation is becoming more tense as we approach the February 2024 election. Since March 2021, the most radical opposition and the government have opted for confrontation. The government is trying to weaken the opposition by reducing it to a minimum.
All opposition demonstrations are systematically banned. Spontaneous demonstrations are violently repressed and result in arrests. The judiciary was instrumentalised to prevent the candidacy of the main opponent to the regime, Sonko, and the main leaders of his party have been arrested.
Protesters are driven by the feeling that their leader is being persecuted and that the cases for which he has been convicted only serve to prevent him taking part in the forthcoming elections. Their main demand is the release of their leader and those illegally detained.
Faced with these demonstrations, the government has opted for repression. The authorities consider that they are facing acts of defiance towards the state and have called on the security forces to use force.
Repression has resulted in the deaths of more than 30 people and more than 600 injured since March 2021, when the repression first began. In addition to the loss of life and injuries, more than 700 people have been arrested and are languishing in Senegal’s prisons. We have also noted the arrest of journalists, as well as the interruption of television signals and the restriction of some internet services.
On 3 July 2023, the incumbent president declared that he would not compete in the next elections. This declaration could offer a glimmer of hope for a free and transparent election. But the fact that the state is being tempted to prevent leading opposition figures from running poses a major risk of the country descending into turbulence.
Civil society remains alert and is working to ensure that the 2024 election is inclusive, free and transparent. To this end, it has stepped up its efforts to promote dialogue among political players. Civil society organisations are also working through several platforms to support the authorities in organising a peaceful election by monitoring the process before, during and after the poll.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Sadikh and Iba. Read the full interview here.
Reputation on the line
Senegal long enjoyed an international reputation for being a relatively stable and democratic country in a region that’s experienced numerous democratic setbacks. With West African countries such as Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and now Niger under military control, and others like Togo holding deeply flawed elections, Senegal stood out. It’s held several free elections and presidential power passed peacefully from one party to another in 2000, and then to another in 2012.
The country’s active and youthful civil society and relatively free media have played a huge part in sustaining democracy. When President Abdoulaye Wade sought an unconstitutional third term in 2012, social movements mobilised to stop him. The Y’en a marre (‘I’m fed up’) movement played a critical role in getting out the youth vote to oust Wade in favour of Sall. Wade himself had ridden a similar youth wave in 2000. So Sall and his party are surely aware of the power of both social movements and the youth vote.
A small but positive step forward was taken recently when parliament voted to allow the two opposition candidates who’d been blocked in 2019 to stand in 2024. But the support they might have had then is now largely behind Sonko. The government needs to do much more to show its commitment to democratic rules.
Upholding protest rights would be a good place to start. The repeated use of violence and detention of protesters points to a systemic problem. No one has been held to account for killings and other rights violations. A promise to establish a commission to investigate the March 2021 protest deaths was never followed up on. It’s high time for accountability.
Media freedoms need to be respected and those detained for exercising their civic freedoms must be released. For Senegal to live up to its reputation, Sall should strive to enter history as the president who kept democracy alive – not as the one who buried it.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Senegal must respect the rights of people to organise, speak out and protest, both online and offline, and ensure the safety of journalists.
The government should investigate all instances of excessive force against protests, hold perpetrators to account and revise protest policing guidelines to end the use of excessive force.
The government should immediately and unconditionally release all people detained for exercising their freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and review their cases to prevent further harassment.
Cover photo by Zohra Bensemra/Reuters via Gallo Images