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Senegal: behind the protests is a fight for democratic freedoms

People throwing stones at the police
Clashes erupted in Senegal following the sentencing of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to two years in prison for “corrupting the youth” in June 2023. Annika Hammerschlag/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In a late evening announcement on 3 July, President Macky Sall put an end to speculations that he would seek a third term in office by contesting in 2024.

Prior to that announcement, Sall’s unwillingness to confirm he would not run for a third term, and the targeting of political opponents, created a political powder keg in Senegal.

Protests broke out in many cities across the country on 1 June 2023, following the conviction of leading opposition figure Ousmane Sonko for “corruption of the youth”. He was acquitted on charges of rape and death threats.

Sonko’s conviction marked the culmination of a two-year legal saga that crystallised the attention of a large segment of the Senegalese population against the government. An increasingly autocratic regime continues to curtail civil liberties and violate human rights.

Violence ensued in several towns, particularly in Dakar and Ziguinchor, where Sonko is mayor.

According to government officials, 16 people were killed in clashes between riot police and protesters. Amnesty International and opposition parties reported close to two dozen fatalities, most of them with gunshot wounds.

Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison and is prohibited from running for the presidential elections in February 2024. But the verdict is only the most recent indicator of what’s fuelling political violence in Senegal.

Our expertise is in institutional development in new democracies, patterns of democratic backsliding, social movements and political protests in Africa. We argue that the drivers of political violence in Senegal today are:

  • the previous ambiguity of Sall’s potential third-term bid and what it means for democracy

  • perceptions that the justice system is being used as a weapon against opposition

  • arbitrary detentions

  • a crackdown on journalists.

The Sall administration has dismissed concerns about democratic backsliding.

Our conversations with protesters in Dakar on 2 June showed that the outburst of violence went beyond the Sonko verdict.

Demonstrators were not necessarily Sonko fanatics, as many commentators made it seem. Instead, they support a free and impartial justice system and the rule of law. They sought to resist the democratic backsliding of a country that was a model in the region.

Weaponised justice system

Concerns over the use of the justice system against opponents of the regime are at the core of Senegalese political tensions. Samira Daoud, director of Amnesty West & Central Africa, called for the regime to “restore the fundamental principles of the rule of law by safeguarding an independent and impartial justice system.”

The partiality of the Senegalese justice system remains conspicuous in the regime’s efforts to sideline and isolate Sonko through legal prosecutions.

A defamation case ruling against Sonko in May 2023 found him guilty of libel against the former tourism minister, Mame Mbaye Niang.

For many observers, this ruling was further evidence that Sall’s control over the courts was being used to eliminate Sonko from the presidential race. The same pattern was seen in the 2022 legislative election.

It’s also evident in the systemic rotations of magistrates between courts and the transfer of “disloyal” judicial officials outside the capital city.

An example is the recent transfer of court clerk Ngagne Demba Touré, a charismatic and vocal member of PASTEF, the political party founded by Sonko, from Dakar to Matam, a rural area 500km away.

Arbitrary arrests

In addition to Sonko, there have been hundreds of arbitrary detentions of journalists (Pape Niang, Serigne Saliou Guèye), activists (Ndèye Fatou Fall, Abdou Karim Guèye, Cheikh Oumar Diagne), protesters and members of opposition parties. Many were jailed for expressing opinions deemed “subversive” by the state.

Detentions of members of Sonko’s political party, such as Bassirou Diomaye Faye and Fadilou Keita, are seen as the result of a two-faced judicial system – one that favours regime allies and is harsh on opponents.

A speculated third term bid

The current political violence in Senegal is also fuelled by Sall’s previously unclear commitment to stand down after two terms in office. Since his infamous “ni oui, ni non” (neither yes nor no) response to whether he would run in 2024, citizens became increasingly concerned.

78 African journalists and press freedom organisations recently called on Sall to free detained reporters, respect press freedom, respect the constitution and preserve the country’s sociopolitical stability.

In 2012 the courts allowed incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade to run for a “third term” because of a change to the constitution.

Yet the majority of Senegalese voters disagreed and elected Sall. He had promised to return to five-year presidential terms from the previous seven-year term.

Sall also said he would ensure that no leader could serve for more than two terms.

Senegalese legal experts agree that Article 27 of the constitution precludes Sall from bidding for the presidency next year. He and his current justice minister, Ismaila Major Fall, repeatedly stated this themselves.

That was until Sall’s recent speech in Paris to supporters seemed to have indicated that he would run in 2024.

In March 2023, he declared in an interview with L’Express that the legality of a third term candidacy was a judicial issue that the Constitutional Court had clarified before the 2016 constitutional reform. “Now,” he continued, “should I be a candidate for a third term or not? That is a political debate, I admit.”

Until he made it clear on 3 July that he would not be standing for re-election in 2024, that political question loomed large for Senegal along with suggested reforms for judicial independence. Senegalese protesters were expressing their commitment to judicial autonomy, and Senegalese voters have previously demonstrated their commitment to two terms.

Concerns about the future

Sall’s increasingly authoritarian tactics against opposition and activists raise concerns about human rights, rule of law and civil liberties.

A national dialogue initiated by the government has been boycotted by the majority of opposition parties and civil society organisations.

Eliminating key opposition candidates and journalists makes it increasingly difficult for voters to have their say and defend democracy.

It remains to be seen how reassuring Sall’s move to dispel rumours of a third term bid would be for Senegalese who feared democratic backsliding.

This article was updated to reflect President Macky Sall’s announcement that he would not stand for re-election in 2024.

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