Beware of martyrs

The Senegalese state’s quest to crush the opposition has caused massive unrest throughout the country. A regime that blows on the embers fans the flames.

Protesters in front of the presidential palace in Dakar, 1968.

In these early days of March 2021, there is a sense of déjà vu in Senegal—bringing us back to a time when the single-party rule was enshrined in the law.

Throughout the country, not a day has gone by since February, without the police raiding activists from the PASTEF-Patriots opposition party, members of the Front for a Popular Anti-imperialist and Pan-African Revolution (FRAPP) movement, and various citizens engaged in the struggle against Macky Sall’s authoritative regime.

Ousmane Sonko, Senegal’s leading opposition figure and head of PASTEF, recently lost his parliamentary immunity after an ad-hoc commission composed almost exclusively of government majority MPs voted for its lifting on February 26. Earlier in the month, a beauty salon employee had accused him of “rape and death threats.” On March 3, while on his way to court to answer the investigating judge’s summons, Sonko was arrested on and placed in police custody for “disturbing public order.”

That was the last straw setting the country ablaze. Despite the curfew imposed for the past two months, clashes between demonstrators and the police continued late into the night. The Dakar police prefect, Alioune Badara Samb, was caught on camera calling to charge “everyone,” including the press.

It feels like a 50-year leap back. To a time when, to “crush the opposition to its most elementary expression,” in President Macky Sall’s words, was a matter of absorbing into the government coalition the most moderate opponents or plotting against the most recalcitrant. To a time when President Leopold Sedar Senghor called upon the army and the ruling single party’s militias (“heavy lifters” in plainclothes backing up the police) to subdue demonstrators.

Reading historian and former student leader Abdoulaye Bathily describing the May 1968 mobilization appears as relevant as ever:

Tear gas bombs and truncheons got the better of the boldest workers. In response to police brutality, the workers, along with students and the lumpenproletariat, attacked vehicles and stores, many of which were set on fire. The clashes with the police were particularly intense in working-class neighbourhoods.

In addition to the hundreds of wounded, and Senegalese and international students excluded or expelled from the country, the May-June 1968 repression led to the death of several young people, including Hanna Salomon Khoury at Dakar University and Moumar Sy at Pikine High School. Forced into the army following the 1971 student demonstrations, student Al Ousseynou Cissé was killed by Portuguese colonial troops at the border with Guinea-Bissau.

Two years later, in May 1973, the revolutionary philosopher Omar Blondin Diop, sentenced for “undermining state security” to three years in prison in March 1972, was murdered in Gorée prison. For the more significant part of their days, detainees could not leave their cells for more than an hour a day, and regularly subjected to arbitrary solitary confinement. Blondin Diop was found dead after a month spent in the “disciplinary dungeon.” The investigating judge in charge of the case, Moustapha Touré, discovered in the prison register that the activist had fainted the week before the announcement of his death. He indicted two suspects, but before he had time to arrest a third was replaced by another judge who closed the case.

Simultaneously, the Senegalese government launched a major media campaign to make this state crime look like a “suicide by hanging”—in the press first, before publishing the White Book on the Suicide of Oumar Blondin Diop, a document claiming to “set the record straight” yet riddled with historical approximations and untruths. Only a minority believed the official thesis. Blondin Diop’s death sparked riots, recalling the insurrectional climate of May 1968. Then-all-powerful Minister of the Interior, Jean Collin, quickly summoned the deceased’s father. “I cannot return your son’s body to you,” he confided. “Otherwise, there will be blood. So, my men are going to bury him.” The burial was expeditious, in the sole presence of Blondin Diop’s father and younger brother. For a year, armed forces would surround the philosopher-militant’s grave to prevent any gathering in his memory—a tradition maintained every May 11th until the 1990s.

In this perspective, recent statements from Cape Manuel prison director Khadidiatou Ndiouck Faye are extremely worrying. Commenting on activist Guy Marius Sagna’s detention conditions, she affirmed that “he called them thieves and a gang of scoundrels.” She added, “I then asked my men to take him to solitary confinement…There, the rule is that the inmate commits suicide.” In the absence of irrefutable evidence proving the contrary, any political prisoner who dies in custody must be considered a victim of murder. Several young Senegalese have already fallen prey to bullets of the state.

Beware of martyrs. A regime that blows on the embers fans the flames.

Further Reading

The Senghor myth

Once you’ve exhausted all the Negritude quotes, you have to confront the fact that Leopold Sedar Senghor ran Senegal as a repressive, one-party state.