Gatsa-Gatsa: Ousmane Sonko and Senegal’s politics of retaliation
Sonko’s legal problems, which appear engineered to frustrate his presidential bid, could well push the country back into the street.
On May 8, 2023, a Dakar appeal court found Ousmane Sonko, the most vocal opponent to President Macky Sall’s regime, guilty of defamation and public insult, thus seriously jeopardizing his chance to run for the 2024 presidential election. This verdict is the outcome of charges filed by Mame Mbaye Niang, the former Minister of Tourism and member of the ruling coalition who accused Sonko of having falsely claimed that a state audit had revealed mismanagement of funds in the implementation of the Community Agricultural Development Program (PRODAC). On March 29, 2023, a lower court found the opposition leader guilty of libel and handed him a two-month suspended prison sentence which did not preclude him from seeking the presidency per the articles L 29 and L 30 of the electoral code.
While the legal provisions remain problematic in a functioning democracy and have been castigated by the opposition who consider them as the regime’s Trojan Horse for disqualifying serious political contenders, Sonko’s sentencing outraged a segment of the Senegalese political class, the civil society and a large segment of the citizenry, all of whom see in this, another instance of the weaponization of the judiciary.
More importantly, many people remain shocked at the lack of scrutiny vis-à-vis the plaintiff who failed to enlighten taxpayers about his mis/management of PRODAC despite allegations of embezzlement and a 2019 book published by Birahim Seck, a respected member of Senegalese civil society detailing how the alleged mismanagement occurred. Investigating Mame Mbaye Niang’s tenure is now a popular demand; many believe that the judiciary is more preoccupied with silencing opponents of the regime than examining alleged financial crimes against members of the presidential camp.
As such, over the past decade there has been a deepening crisis of confidence in the judiciary. Wielded like the Sword of Damocles against the opposition, journalists, activists and ordinary citizens whose only offence is expressing their opinion or sometimes participating in protests safeguarded by the constitution, the weaponization of the judiciary under President Sall, prompted in March 2023, a declaration from 104 intellectuals including Fatou Sow, Boubacar Boris Diop, Kwameh Anthony Appiah among others calling for the regime to “Return to Reason”.
In April 2023, two reports from Amnesty International and The Department of State respectively, found the Sall regime guilty of curtailing civil rights, torture, repression of the political opposition, arbitrary detentions as well as political imprisonments. Similarly, in May 2023 Reporters Without Borders ranked Senegal 104th out of 180 countries, a 30-point drop from its previous ranking, testimony to the country’s backsliding of freedoms of press and opinion.
In August 2022 Senegalese cyber-activist and co-founder of the renowned opposition Facebook group, Mafia Kacc-Kacc, Outhmane Diagne, spent five months in prison due to sharing a Facebook post (accompanied with an smiling emoji) that featured an edited newspaper headline taunting the government.
Similarly, hip-hop artist and activist, Nitt Doff, is currently imprisoned following a Facebook live post in which he chastised the government and the judicial system. Meanwhile, members of the ruling coalition who preached violence and death against opposition leaders and their supporters or were audited for mishandling of public funds (such as the Covid-19 funds) remain unmolested by the judiciary.
All of this shows that Senegal currently possesses a Janus-faced judicial system – intransigent with regard to regime opponents; indulgent to its allies. Consequently, protests (violent and non-violent) have become more recurrent, as have calls for resistance and sometimes retaliation as the country heads towards another legal saga involving Sonko and Adji Sarr, a masseuse who accused him of rape and death threats. This trial is set for May 16, 2023 but other significant events led up to it.
Resistance and Lex Talionis
“Gatsa-Gatsa” or an eye for an eye. These were the words that Ousmane Sonko, opposition leader and founder of the political party PASTEF, uttered during a mass rally in Keur Massar, a Dakar suburb, on January 22, 2023. The expression has since become a hashtag on social media and online forums, a rallying cry for a good segment of Senegalese youth who, given the country’s recent democratic backsliding, have deemed a confrontation with the government of President Macky Sall inevitable. While the leitmotiv, “Gatsa-Gatsa,” echoes Sonko’s calls for resistance against the Sall regime that began in February 2021 (when he was accused of rape and death threats by the masseuse), it is also a reaction against the judicial decision to send the matter to trial.
Judicial Fairness and Confrontation
It took the Senegalese justice system two years to organize a preliminary hearing and a confrontation between Sonko and his accuser. Samba Sall, the first judge who inherited the matter passed away in April 2021, prompting the appointment of Oumar Maham Diallo, who eight months previously had shared a Facebook post incriminating Ousmane Sonko. This raised serious questions about Judge Diallo’s impartiality and emboldened Sonko’s supporters to call for the judge to recuse himself. His appointment also deepened suspicions among Sonko’s supporters that the allegations against him were part of a conspiracy to eliminate Sonko from the 2024 presidential race. The preliminary hearing and the confrontation between the leader of PASTEF and his accuser revealed interesting elements that, according to many observers, severely challenge the plaintiff’s narrative.
First, Baye Mbaye Niasse (the accuser’s “self-proclaimed” spiritual guide) and Sonko’s lawyers presented to the judge six audio conversations between the masseuse and Niasse. In one of them, she confesses that the accusations are a conspiracy against Ousmane Sonko. Summoned by the judge to explain herself, Sonko’s accuser confirmed the recordings’ authenticity but stated that their contents were a ploy to mislead Niasse and test his loyalty since he claimed he wanted to get her out of the situation. Whether her justification was convincing or not, the recordings cast doubt on the veracity of the accusations.
The role of the then public prosecutor, Serigne Bassirou Guèye, became contentious during the investigation phase. Sonko and his lawyers alleged that the former prosecutor falsified the initial police investigation report by removing exculpatory evidence. They also disclosed that they were in possession of a leaked internal police report ordered by then-General Jean Baptiste Tine, head of the Gendarmerie Nationale, that proves the prosecutor tampered with the investigation.
They further accused the prosecutor of padding the investigation file with salacious pictures obtained from the internet in an attempt to prove that the massage parlor was a disguised brothel. Sonko and his lawyers filed a lawsuit against the former prosecutor who then tried to clear his name during a press conference on January 26, 2023, stating: “I am neither a conspirator nor a report forger.”
The third element that emerged was the existence of the aforementioned internal police report commissioned by General Tine, following the precipitous dismissal of Captain Oumar Touré, the former police officer who led the primary investigation into the accusations against Sonko. A few weeks before his dismissal, Captain Touré posted a video and a message on social media in which he said he was being followed by unidentified individuals and feared for his life. In the video, he also stated that he had resigned from the police and called for the Ministers of the Interior (Antoine Diome), the Minister of Justice and the public prosecutor, Bassirou Guèye, to resign in turn. Touré’s resignation and social media messages sent a shockwave throughout the nation prompting an internal investigation entitled 063/4/HC/CAB du 14 avril 2021: Affaire capitaine Touré. The report leaked and ended up in the hands of an investigative reporter, Pape Alé Niang, who publicly disclosed its contents before being arrested and imprisoned by the regime in November 2022. Niang was recently released after intense national and international pressure from civil society organizations, human rights defenders and media organizations.
In addition to these important elements, Dr. Alphousseyni Gaye, the gynecologist who examined the accuser on the night of the alleged crime, also appeared in the judge’s chamber to reiterate that his medical examination yielded no evidence of rape. A few days after his court appearance, the gynecologist went on TV to reveal that he feared for his life given the number of death threats he was receiving, that he was being stalked and his car had repetitively been vandalized.
Despite the inability of the accuser’s lawyers to present tangible evidence, Judge Oumar Maham Diallo nevertheless indicted Ousmane Sonko and sent the matter to trial. Sonko and his lawyers who were expecting a dismissal of the case vainly appealed the judge’s decision. While the trial is set to begin in a few days, the rhetoric on both sides (opposition and regime) has taken a more inflammatory and belligerent tone.
The Confrontation Has Begun
During his mass rally at Keur Massar, Sonko, 48, defiantly declared “I have already written my will and now I am ready to face Macky [Sall] on every front”. Since then, the rival camps have engaged in a proxy war via the mainstream press and social media as well as impromptu public rallies, one of Sonko’s most effective tools.
On February 10, 2023, Sonko and his supporters defied a ban on their rally in Mbacké, two- and half hours east of Dakar, which turned into a violent confrontation with police and resulted in significant property damages, dozens of arrests and injuries. The private TV station Wal-Fadjri, which livestreamed the hostilities, including a police car-chase of Sonko’s convoy, also suffered the consequences when the broadcasting regulator, the CNRA, suspended their signal for a week. This kind of intimidation has been a recurrent feature of the Sall regime.
A week after the Mbacké confrontation, Sonko was again summoned to court, this time for the libel lawsuit described above. What stood out was the brutality with which the BIP (a special police unit) smashed Sonko’s car window, dragged him out and forced him into an armored police vehicle. This video quickly spread to national and international news outlets as well as social media, galvanizing sympathy for Sonko and embarrassing a government once lauded for its democratic credentials. Though the police did not arrest Sonko that day, their actions continue to imperil Sonko’s physical integrity.
Agitation Against a Third Term
Less than a year before the 2024 presidential election, President Sall has not yet clarified his intention to leave power (he is constitutionally barred from serving a third consecutive term). Consequently, there exists a real fear that he may force his way into the election and plunge the country into a similar political crisis that unfolded in 2011 when then-President Abdoulaye Wade decided to unconstitutionally run for a third term.
Additionally, Sonko’s supporters fear that he could lose the rape and libel cases (he has a week to appeal the libel verdict), thus locking him out of the 2024 presidential race. PASTEF’s new strategy lies in a show of force through mega rallies and canvassing across the country to consolidate its popular support and pressure the Sall regime. This might reduce the chances of the justice system being manipulated in the rape case, disqualifying Sonko from the 2024 presidential race.
The 2021 popular uprising made it clear that any attempt to weaponize the justice system for political gains would result in violent confrontations. Gatsa-gatsa. What Senegalese people expect is a fair and transparent trial for all parties involved. Secondly, the political agitation sends warning signals to President Sall that any attempt to run for a third term will be resisted.
However, the repeated siege of Sonko’s home by the police has curtailed his freedom of movement. Furthermore, the systematic denial of many of his party’s rally authorization requests (by local administrations) and the arbitrary detention of hundreds of PASTEF members, frustrate his mass mobilization tactic, negating a fundamental constitutional right to protest and assemble, further fueling violent clashes between the police and Sonko’s partisans who want to exercise their constitutional rights at all cost.
Recently, PASTEF launched an international campaign to counter the regime’s own demonisation of Sonko. The ruling coalition (Benno Bokk Yakkaar) has heightened its portrayal of Sonko as a “Salafist”, a “terrorist” and an “Anti-French/West” political leader who wants to jeopardize western interests in Senegal, an image against which Sonko and his supporters have counteracted with a sustained PR campaign.
On February 28, 2023, Sonko released “A Message to the International Community”, a lengthy address translated into Arabic, English and French in which he details Senegal’s democratic backsliding including the proliferation of political prisoners (including underage citizens according to investigative journalist Pape Alé Niang) and the recent physical attacks against him among a range of repressive tactics by the state. While Sonko continues to garner stronger popular support, his discourse towards the regime has radicalized and his call for resistance is gradually turning into a call for “retaliation”.
On the other hand, the Sall regime also appears resolute in its stance to uphold “law and order” by all means necessary. Faced with this tug-of-war and cavalier rhetoric on both sides, segments of civil society and religious leaders are ramping up their calls for peace, dialogue and mediation to avoid an unprecedented socio-political deadlock before the 2024 presidential race. However, the recent formation of the F24, a platform that regroups the civil society and the political opposition to prevent a third term for President Sall, coupled with the verdict against Sonko in the libel case might jeopardize hopes for a candid dialogue with the regime.