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Senegal's political crisis: Four questions

  Sneha Surendran

On 28 July, the leader of Senegal’s main opposition party, the Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF), Ousmane Sonko, was arrested. He has been implicated in plotting an insurrection, undermining state security, and encouraging political unrest, along with other charges. On 31 July, Senegal’s Minister of Interior and State Security Abdoulaye Daouda, announced that the government had dissolved Sonko’s party, PASTEF, for “frequently calling on supporters to take part in insurrectionary movements.” Violent protests broke out across the country following his arrest. On 1 August, two people died and five were injured in violence that broke out in Sonko’s mayoral town of Ziguinchor; two others died on 2 August. The current protests in the country were reminiscent of the deadly violence of early June 2023 which broke out following the conviction of Sonko on charges of corrupting the youth. The June violence had left around 16 people dead, over 300 injured, and more than 500 arrested. 

Who are the protestors and why are they protesting?
The protestors are predominantly young Senegalese, supporters of Sonko and PASTEF. While the demonstrators demanded Sonko’s release, the protests have served as a platform for people to raise several issues ranging from unemployment, corruption, pandemic hardships, and dissatisfaction with the current government headed by President Macky Sall. Over the years, young people have been disillusioned by the rising cost of living, systemic corruption, and lack of jobs, despite promises of corrective measures by political representatives. Senegal has a substantial youth population with the average age in the country being 19. Despite this, 20 per cent of the workable population remains either unemployed or underemployed. The health sector also remains underdeveloped and income inequality is a persistent concern. The recent protests in the country have been marked by high participation of the youth, including young children. The former director of Amnesty International for West and Central Africa chalked the involvement of the youth to frustration over uncertain economic prospects, stating: “Education no longer holds value. So, when the youth revolt, their little brothers follow.” 

Why are anti-government protests becoming frequent?
Since 2021, anti-government protests have increased in intensity. The primary cause behind the increasing protests is the authoritarian shift of Macky Sall's government. Senegal has long been considered the “poster child of democracy in West Africa” and a symbol of stability in Africa, attributed to the peaceful transfer of power since 2000. However, current President Macky Sall’s government has been accused of using the judiciary to stifle their opposition. Hundreds of political critics have been detained and opposition members were jailed on corruption charges which prevented their candidature in the 2019 presidential elections. According to the Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index 2023, Senegal ranked 104 compared to 49 in 2022, which is attributed to increasing media restrictions and frequent internet shutdowns. Sall’s government has also been denounced for deploying violence against peaceful demonstrations. Security forces have been condemned for firing indiscriminately into crowds and using civilians as human shields.

What does this mean for the upcoming elections?
Sonko’s arrest has been decried by his supporters as deliberate targeting by the government to prevent him from standing for the 2024 presidential elections. While Sonko’s candidature in the elections remains uncertain, there is a possible rise in tensions if he is barred from contesting. Furthermore, according to Senegal’s constitution, Sall cannot stand for a third term, something which he has already confirmed. This is the first time in Senegal’s democratic history that a president has willingly conceded to not stand for a third bid at re-election. However, concerns persist that the government may attempt to amend these provisions or disregard them going forward. Leaders who had been debarred on corruption charges during the 2019 elections will be running for the 2024 elections. 

Will growing conflict in the Sahel region have an impact?
There is a risk of regional instability spilling over into the country. So far, instability in the Sahel region has not had an overreaching impact on Senegal. The country has reinforced its borders with a strong military, especially in the regions bordering Mali. However, increasing military interventions in the neighbourhood have only exacerbated the fear of weakening democracy and instability in Senegal. Military takeovers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and the most recent coup in Niger, have rendered the Sahel region more unstable than before. Furthermore, on 3 August, Senegal informed the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) of their commitment to participate in any of the bloc’s military interventions to restore civilian government in Niger. While the Senegalese government described this as Senegal’s “international commitment,” it will have to tread carefully on its decision to involve itself in regional politics militarily when conflict brews within its borders.

(Part of the commentary has been previously published as pasrt of the NIAS-IPRI-KAS Conflict Weekly.)

About the author

Sneha Surendran is a Postgraduate Scholar at OP Jindal University, Haryana. Prerana P is a Postgraduate Scholar at the Christ (Deemed To Be University), Bangalore.

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