Senegal’s angry protesters are proud defenders of their democracy
Senegal’s protesters should be lauded for defending their country’s democracy, not condemned for fomenting chaos.
Last week, Senegal, often touted as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, was rocked by clashes between state forces and protesters following the condemnation of the country’s main opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, on June 1 for “corrupting youth”. By the time of writing, the death toll from the protests and state crackdown was 16, making these demonstrations among the deadliest since the country’s independence in 1960.
Sonko was initially accused of rape against Adji Sarr, a masseuse at a parlour he frequented, before being convicted on the lesser charge. The case has frustrated many women’s rights activists, who have criticised Sonko’s lesser conviction as allowing the state to disqualify him from elections without fully assessing the question of gender violence. With the case instrumentalised by both sides, women’s rights and feminist activists have found their concerns over gender-based violence drowned out by the political contest in the street.
In response to the protests, the government has arrested opposition leaders, restricted access to the internet and social media platforms, and deployed the military in several cities across the country. Much of the commentary so far has focused on the violence of the protesters. Images of burning train stations and grocery stores have shocked audiences at home and abroad more familiar with Senegal’s civility and culture of hospitality.
Those audiences would do well to remember that the deadliest violence, which claimed lives last week, came not from the protesters, but from the state, which has been accused of using live ammunition and armed militiamen against demonstrators. More worrying than reports of looting and vandalism is the regime’s willingness to resort to disproportionate violence to muzzle the discontent pervasive across large parts of Senegalese society, particularly urban youth. The willingness of Senegalese young people to take to the streets to express their outrage should be celebrated as a sign of the vitality of Senegalese democracy, not condemned as a worrying sign of fragility in an unstable region. To understand the importance of these protests, it is necessary to look at Senegal’s recent political history.
President Sall was elected in 2012 amid widespread protests as his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, then 87, ran for a third term which many deemed unconstitutional. These demonstrations ultimately helped boost Sall over Wade, testifying to Senegal’s longstanding tradition of political dissent and protest.
Sall won re-election in 2019 after two of his chief opponents, Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall (no relation to the president), were disqualified after being convicted of corruption. Karim Wade, son of Abdoulaye, left the country after his 2015 conviction, having served half of his six-year conviction before being pardoned, while Khalifa Sall, who had been mayor of Dakar, received a presidential pardon shortly after the elections.
Despite Senegal’s reputation as a beacon of democracy, less than democratic conduct from the head of state is far from unprecedented. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president, imprisoned (and, according to some, ordered the murder of) political opponents during his twenty-year reign that ended in 1980, and Senegal did not see a leader from outside his party until 2000. Although Senegal has been a multiparty democracy for several decades, its heads of state have long been tempted to test the limits of a truly democratic exercise of power.
Back to Macky Sall. In 2021 the state’s response to protests led to 14 deaths after Ousmane Sonko, already recognised as the biggest electoral threat to the president, was arrested on the very charges of rape for which he has now been convicted. At least 12 of those killed were reported to have been shot by state forces; the country has yet to see justice for their deaths.
The rape case was quickly politicised, with support for a trial automatically equated with opposition to Sonko. Women and feminist activists have found themselves trapped between protesters and state forces. The instrumentalisation of the case, along with the escalation of violence, has hurt the struggle for women’s rights in Senegal, leaving activists facing threats and physical violence from both sides.
In the meantime, tensions have only escalated. Despite his stance against Abdoulaye Wade’s third term in 2012, Macky Sall has not denied rumours that he himself is looking to run for a third term, the constitutionality of which is up for debate. This rumoured third term has proven highly controversial, with domestic and international observers calling on the president to clarify his intentions and respect the constitution.
Furthermore, the government has repressed dissent unrelated to Sonko and electoral opposition. The authorities brutally suppressed protests earlier this year over plans to appropriate a beachfront property from Dakar’s indigenous Lebous people in the city’s Ngor neighbourhood, leading to the death of a teenage girl (and possibly others).
Senegal is also riven with economic tensions. While Sall has presided over an economic boom in the Dakar area, the country still suffers from economic inequality and a poverty rate of 36.3% as of last year. Senegal’s economic, political, and religious elite are all intertwined, contributing to a sense of hopelessness and disgust with the system among much of the country’s youth.
Many West African countries experience similar tensions. However, Senegal, which has never experienced a coup d’état, is often held apart from its neighbours across the region. What the past week demonstrates is that Senegal’s strength lies in a people ready to defend their democratic freedoms and rights, despite the threat of state violence – not necessarily in a government that is more democratic than its regional counterparts. While Sonko and his partisans, by dint of their often inflammatory rhetoric, bear some responsibility for the violence, the ultimate responsibility lies with a regime that is far too quick to neglect at home the democratic values that it touts abroad.
Meanwhile, the country’s protesters should not be held to a different standard than their counterparts elsewhere. Protests in other countries, particularly in the West, do not tend to prompt alarmist coverage about the risks of social discord. Protests in Senegal, on the other hand, inevitably prompt concerns that the country’s stability is slipping. Senegal’s demonstrators deserve the same respect as their counterparts elsewhere, and should be understood as defenders of democracy, not harbingers of instability.
Democracy is by definition fractious, whether in West Africa or Western Europe. Violence, particularly the kind that robs people of their lives, should be condemned. At the same time, those more concerned with street crime and burning cars than demonstrators killed exercising their rights should re-examine their priorities. The week’s events took place in a context where many, not unfairly, suspect the country’s justice system of being politicised. This perception of corrupt justice has also had consequences beyond the electoral arena, severely impeding the country’s struggle for women’s rights.
Ultimately, even if violent crime must be condemned, Senegal’s protesters should be lauded for defending their country’s democracy. Senegal’s government, a close ally of France and the West, should be held to account 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. Karim Wade, Khalifa Sall, and Ousmane Sonko, arguably Sall’s leading competitors at the ballot box, are now all disqualified from presidential elections next year. The latter was reportedly still at his home at the time of writing, with the Senegalese justice minister saying that he could be arrested “at any time”. Although the electoral future of Senegal’s opposition leaders is murky, 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.