THE deadly upheaval in Senegal turns on the head the country’s strong record of democratic governance, rule of law and peaceful coexistence it has prided itself in.
For decades, the West African country has been an island of peace in a sea of conflict that is the continent’s most populous regional bloc. Senegal’s history comprises credible elections, the peaceful transfer of power and the government’s non-interference in the economy, among others.
In fact, the Gateway to Africa, as Senegal is also known, is hailed as a bastion of stability in the entire continent. That reputation has been receding since 2021 when one of the main opposition leaders has been charged with a number of offences including rape, death threats, public disorder, defamation and forgery, plunging the country of 18 million people into a bloodbath.
Indications that President Macky Sall is contemplating a third term, which would be against the constitution, have exacerbated the situation, resulting in skirmishes that have cost scores of people their lives. Protests have heightened since a criminal court sentenced opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko (48), to two years in jail for “corrupting youth.”
Sonko, the mayor of the southern Ziguinchor had been facing a rape charge which he was cleared of but was sentenced on a less similar charge after the court ruled he acted immorally towards an individual younger than 21. A therapist, who was 20 when the incident is said to have occurred, opened the charge.
Critics of Sall’s government argue this is a ploy to discredit and disqualify Sonko, leader of the Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l’éthique et la fraternité (Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity or PASTEF), from presidential elections scheduled for February 2024.
At least 24 people, including three children, have been killed in the subsequent protests whose epicentre is the capital, Dakar. Around 400 people have been injured and over 500 arrested. On June 1, the government effected restrictions on social media to halt the “dissemination of hate and subversive messages.”
Days later, Sall’s government extended the outage to mobile internet access. At the end of March, a court had handed Sonko a two-month suspended
sentence for defamation after he accused Minister of Tourism, Mbaye Niang, of embezzlement.
The tussle between the judiciary and the opposition politician who came third in the last election has been heated since 2021. Police arrested him in March of that year for alleged public disorder as he was on his way to court on the rape allegation.
His arrest that month had led to 14 deaths after students clashed with police in Dakar and Ziguinchor.
“The recent deaths and injuries of protesters set a worrying tone for the 2024 presidential elections and should be thoroughly investigated, with those responsible held accountable,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The activist has urged authorities to end the repression against protesters and critics, and guarantee freedom of assembly. Alioune Tine, the human rights activist and founder of the research organization AfrikaJom, is quoted by HRW as saying, “Never before since the sixties have there been so many political prisoners in Senegal.”
Senegal gained its independence from France in 1960. Apart from an attempted coup against the founding president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, by Prime Minister Mamadou Dia, in 1962, the country has been stable. Senghor was noticeably more tolerant of opposition than most African leaders became in the 1960s.
This past weekend, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Senegalese Abroad, Aïssata Tall Sall (no relation to the president), held a meeting in Dakar with ambassadors accredited to Senegal. Rarely does Senegal grab international headlines for the wrong reasons.
Minister Sall said the meeting was a valuable opportunity to discuss the
current situation. The minister described the engagements as “frank and
“I was able to reaffirm the Government’s determination to ensure peace
and public order so that no one is disturbed,” Minister Sall said.
“Above all, I highlighted our commitment to democracy, the preservation
of human rights and freedoms within the framework of a strong and
respected rule of law.”
Another blemish, meanwhile, in the Sall administration is the alleged abuse of COVID-19 funds, running to an estimated equivalent of US$1,2 billion, at the height of the pandemic.
Speculation that Sall (61), in power since 2012 and re-elected in 2019, is aiming for a third term is tarnishing his legacy. In 2016, he received acclaim for his intentions to shorten his term in office, at a time parts of the continent were under siege from heads of state attempting to force third terms.
The Constitutional Council refused to allow Sall to cut his term. Seven years later, no Senegalese president has come under fire. A former opposition leader and the first president to be born in post-independence Senegal, Sall is blemishing a history of peaceful transfer of power and credible elections.
Senghor (now late) retired from politics in 1980 and transferred power in 1981 to then Prime Minister, Abdou Diouf. Senegal experienced its second peaceful transition of power in 2000 after opposition leader, Abdoulaye Wade, defeated Diouf. This was the first transfer from one political party to another. The Socialist Party ceded to the Senegalese Democratic Party (or PDS).
Sall, a candidate of the Alliance for the Republic (APR), won in 2012 but, coincidentally, that was not before Wade attempted a third term. The presidential term was reduced from seven years to five following Sall’s re-election.
– CAJ News