Take the soul from everyone, and the liberty of all

The treatment of victims of rape and sexual violence in Senegal, a country in which the bodies of women have always been an arena for political battles.

Photo by Francesca Noemi Marconi on Unsplash

This is written in anger; I could no longer be satisfied with simply admiring the outbursts of bravery of a youth who only have the street to call out their clay-footed rulers. Admiration gave way to regret as I realized that the streets had become the ultimate theatre of expression of the people. This inevitably feeds the political discourses aiming to demonize us, we the young people, to paint us as a homogenous mass with no (political) conscience, to desecrate us and worse, to kill us.

This is an article that applauds the salutary manifesto of 102 Senegalese academics on the crisis of the rule of law in Senegal. It notes with surprise the reaction of Abdou Latif Coulibaly, Secretary General of the government, to which this brilliant text by Hady Ba and Oumar Dia responds. The latter text rightly underlines two important points:

One, no matter the circumstances, an accusation of rape is a serious accusation and must be the subject of an investigation; and

Two, this matter has been politicized from the start not only by the attitude of the accused, but also by the interference of political actors who are close to power and who have surrounded the accuser. The text concluded that in “instrumentalizing the law for electoral reasons, he (Macky Sall) has placed us in a judicial instability which means that any decision of the justice will be interpreted not as a legal act, but as a political one.”

These debates echoed a webinar that I had a few days earlier, together with fellow academics, on COVID-19, Governance and Human Rights, which warned of this crisis of the rule of law in Senegal. Far from being an exception, as of the last decade or two, Senegal is a democracy only in name.

Therefore, it is important to recontextualize the need to continue to liberate voices, because the danger of the current, dominant discourse is a censorship of future victims of rape or sexual violence. Since the beginning of this case, we have noted unjust treatment of both parties. On one side, Adji Sarr has been dragged through the mud by the press and her life put on display for public consumption, while Ousmane Sonko has been painted as innocent before any legal inquiry. The same Sonko is at the same time facing a judiciary dealing with this rape case with unusual speed and zeal, which has led him to prison for disingenuous motives quite different to those originating from the rape allegation.

This combination of factors lifts the veil on a very Senegalese socio-cultural characteristic and leads the majority to lean toward victimizing the presumed oppressor (Sonko)—himself oppressed by Macky Sall’s regime. Doing so, the blame has shifted to the alleged victim, Adji Sarr, the 20-year-old woman accused of being at the heart of a plot cooked up by those close to the ruling presidential coalition. We will not, therefore, content ourselves with an omission of the facts (in this case, an accusation of rape), which sparked the fire, amplified and fed by frustrations that have been building since 2012.

This is the result of a combination of factors:

One, the perpetual erosion of our legal architecture through the violation of the constitution;

Two, the creation of a Republic of privileges that profits a happy few; and

Three, the repeated flouting of the boundaries between the executive, the judicial, and the parliamentary.

It is important to remember that in any case, Adji Sarr is either a victim of Sonko, or of her employer, Sweet Beauté salon (the beauty salon where the opposition leader Ousmane Sonko allegedly raped Sarr), or a guilty party, alone or together with those who hatched this supposed rape conspiracy. In any event, the case is representative of the treatment and the stigmatization of victims of rape and sexual violence, and the culture of rape, in our country—one whose governance remains hopelessly masculine.

Observing the quotidian way of doing politics in Senegal, Aminata Touré reminds us: “In Dakar, women are the backbone of political mobilization, they elect the men who lead and decide.” Dr. Fatou Sow, when discussing the gender makeup of the Senegalese state, reminds us that women are in charge of caretaking in our contemporary political system because of the religious and cultural constraints in our country. And unfortunately, in this context, the female body has always been a battlefield of political conflicts.

Here, it is vital to question the activities and the positioning of the Sweet Beauté salon. As noted in the police report, the salon mentions the “generous figures” of “their sexy masseuses,” of “Senegalese diongomas.” It also promises “sessions of unforgettable relaxation.” A Facebook description cited in the report is an invitation to “come taste the delights of our magical, sensual and stroking hands that won’t ignore any part of your body” before listing the types of massage on offer. Even if Sweet Beauté isn’t the only massage parlor to fall back on these marketing methods, why place the emphasis on the attractive bodies and generous figures of these women rather than the virtues of the proposed massages? If it is established that the services and activities of the massage parlor are lawful, they would only concern the users of these services (those who frequent the parlor) and the service providers (the parlor owners and those who work there).

Regardless of the social class or identity of the plaintiff or of the accused, there should be equal treatment of all citizens before the law. This case is not only an opportunity to take a close look at what goes on in these massage parlors, at times under the complicit, watchful eye of those who are supposed to be responsible for their regulation, but beyond this, one must not miss seeing the wood for the trees.

The treatment of this case not only by the judiciary, but also by the popular court of Senegalese society will be a lesson and could result in victims of rape and sexual abuse feeling encouraged to report, or further discouraged from coming forward as the public scrutiny, judgement, and potential for further victimization through the courts, takes a heavy toll and is often too high a price to pay for those who dare to seek legal recourse. It is therefore important to safeguard the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by our constitution and its Article 7 for an impartial and fair inquiry.

Of concern here is the speech and action of a Minister of the Interior, who in the image of Vichy’s Marechal Petain is swift to use the rhetoric of terror and a monopoly of legitimate violence to discipline and punish, even to kill. Indeed, at the end of several weeks of turbulent debates, the Minister of the Interior Antoine Félix Diome surprised the public with the tone of his televised speech on March 5. In a bilingual address of variable geometry, the minister gave a politically correct French version, albeit ending with a “misplaced” promise to soon ease the COVID-19 curfew, as if this were the source of the tensions. In contrast, the speech in Wolof, was more threatening and alarming with regard to the demonstrators and the circumstances of Sonko’s arrest.

The Minister—who spoke even though a presidential address would have been more appropriate—employed inappropriate terms, verging on insult, to again characterize protesting Senegalese youths as terrorist masses. This highlights the gulf that exists between those who govern and the rest of society. It also speaks volumes about the incapacity of those in power to understand the deeper context from which the recent protests have arisen.

For me, it has always been crucial to take a step back, to resist the temptation to react quickly, to give ideas the necessary time to mature, and meticulous investigation and analysis of the facts to take place. As another International Women’s Day is celebrated, it is also important to recognize that time seems to be another privilege that the majority of affable political men aren’t lacking. Since the beginning of the Sonko / Sarr case, these men have taken over the media to monopolize the coverage of this case with their splendid ballade du sabador.

In my view, it is clear that the current Senegalese government has not understood how to clearly read the actions of its people. It has, in particular, been incapable of seeing beyond the Sonko / Sarr case. This would have allowed the current regime to understand that the above-mentioned affair only crystallizes older frustrations and resentments concerning the current president Macky Sall, who is following the footsteps of his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade to seek an unconstitutional third term, betraying his promise to those who put him in power. Sall’s silence, in the face of unnecessary loss of human lives during street protests, shows that he may be ignorant to the fact that history often repeats itself.

Further Reading

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.