Keeping the narrative straight

Although Senegal’s protests are riven with contradictions, they testify to its people’s willingness to defend their democratic rights and freedoms.

Photo by Ewien van Bergeijk - Kwant on Unsplash.

Last week, violent clashes between state forces and protestors rocked the soul of Senegal. Though often held as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, this violence took place after the main opposition leader, Ousmana Sonko, was convicted of “corrupting youth” on June 1, making him ineligible for next year’s presidential elections. The death toll from this state crackdown on protests now reaches at least 16, making these demonstrations among the deadliest since the country’s independence in 1960.

Adji Sarr, a masseuse who worked at a parlor which Sonko frequented, first accused him of raping her. However, later on the courts convicted Sonko with a lesser charge. The case has frustrated many women’s rights activists, who have criticized Sonko’s lesser conviction as a tool the state has used to disqualify him from elections without probing questions of gender violence. With the case instrumentalized by both sides of Senegalese party politics, women are caught between a rock and hard place, as political rhetoric has drowned out concerns over gender-based violence in Senegal.

In response to the protests, the government has arrested opposition leaders, restricted access to the internet and to social media platforms, as well as deployed the military to put down protests in cities across the country. Most commentators so far have focused on the violence of the protesters. News images of burning train stations and grocery stores on international and social media have shocked audiences at home and abroad.

Yet, those audiences should also remember that the deadliest violence, which claimed many lives last week, did not come from protesters, but from the state. International observers have accused the Senegalese state of using live ammunition against demonstrators and of deploying armed militiamen to suppress them. Taking this state repression into consideration, we should celebrate the willingness of young Senegalese people to take to the streets and express their outrage. Their courage is a sign of the vitality of Senegalese democracy.

Initially, President Sall won the election in 2012 amidst protests being made by demonstrators against his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade. Wade was running for a third term which many deemed unconstitutional. Sall was re-elected in 2019 after two of his chief opponents, Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall (who has no relation to the president), were convicted of corruption and disqualified.

In 2021, the state’s response to more protests led to 14 deaths. These protests erupted after Ousmane Sonko (recognized as the biggest electoral threat to the president), was accused of rape and arrested. At least 12 of those killed were reported to have been shot by state forces, and the country has yet to see justice for their deaths.

The rape case was quickly politicized. The state’s support for bringing Sonko to trial was equated with political opposition. The instrumentalization of the case, along with the escalation of violence has hurt the struggle for women’s rights in Senegal. It has caused women’s activists to face threats and be on the receiving end of physical violence from both sides of the political spectrum.

Since then, tensions have only escalated. Macky Sall has not denied the rumors that he is looking to run for a third term, the constitutionality of which is up for debate. This rumored third term has proven highly controversial, with domestic and international observers calling on the president to clarify his intentions and respect the constitution.

Senegal is also riven by economic tensions. Sall has presided over an economic boom in the Dakar area, contributing to making Dakar the most expensive city in West Africa, and the country still suffers from widespread economic inequality. As of last year the country measured a poverty rate of 36.3 percent. Senegal’s economic, political, and religious elite are all involved in maintaining economic injustice, a fact which contributes to a sense of hopelessness among much of the country’s youth.

What the past week demonstrates is that Senegal’s strength lies in the readiness of its people to defend their democratic freedoms and rights. Strength lies in them despite the threat of state violence. Strength is not necessarily to be found in the fact that Senegal’s government is more democratic than its regional counterparts. Senegalese people’s readiness to defend democracy should be celebrated, not condemned.

Senegal’s protesters should not be held to a different standard than their counterparts elsewhere. Protests in other countries, particularly in the West, tend not to prompt alarmist coverage about the risks of social discord. Protests in Senegal, on the other hand, inevitably prompt concerns in the international community about the country’s stability slipping away. Senegal’s demonstrators deserve the same respect as their counterparts elsewhere, and we should understand them to be defenders of democracy.

Ultimately, even if we condemn violent crime, we should also laud Senegal’s protestors for their defense of their country’s democracy. At the same time, Senegal’s government, which is a close ally of France, should also be held accountable for its anti-democratic tendencies and the lives lost at the hands of its forces.

Looking forward, Macky Sall has yet to clarify his intentions regarding a third term. Some of his top opponents are still disqualified from competing for presidential elections next year. Sonko is reportedly still under house arrest with the Senegalese justice minister pronouncing that he could be arrested “at any time.” Although the electoral future of Senegal’s opposition leaders is gloomy, the Senegalese people have shown that their democracy remains alive and well on the street. Audiences at home and around the world should respect them for fighting for it.

Further Reading

Sanctioning the regime in Senegal

After defying the state apparatus in March 2021, Senegalese voters sent a strong message of disobedience and sanction via their ballots in January 2022 and signaling their readiness for another regime change in 2024.

The new type of Senegalese

One of the key groups that engineered the ousting of Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade – he wanted to change the constitution to stay in power – was a youthful grassroots social movement group founded by a collective of rappers.