GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 720, 10 August 2023

Senegal: New political crisis, upsets another stable democracy in West Africa 
Sneha Surendran

In the news
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. 

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 Sonko’s arrest. On 1 August, two people died and five were injured during violence that erupted in Sonko’s mayoral town of Ziguinchor; two others died on 2 August.

On 1 August, former Prime Minister Aminata Toure said that the dissolution of PASTEF was an “unprecedented setback” for democracy in West Africa. PASTEF representatives responded: “In his despotic determination to hold to power in Senegal, Macky Sall has just opened the floodgates to chaos by imprisoning, on spurious grounds, his main opponent Ousmane Sonko.” Human Rights Watch expressed its concern, saying: “The government’s decision to dissolve PASTEF violates freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and democratic participation.” 

Issues at large
First, the political meltdown. 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, President Macky Sall’s government has been accused of using the judiciary to stifle the opposition. Hundreds of political critics have been detained and several opposition members were jailed on corruption charges which prevented their candidature in the 2019 Presidential elections. According to Reporter Without Borders (RWB) press freedom Index 2023, Senegal ranked 104 compared to 49 in 2022 attributed to increasing media restrictions and frequent internet shutdowns. The dissolution of a political party, PASTEF, is a first in Senegal’s democratic history. Sall’s government has also been denounced for deploying violence against peaceful demonstrations. 

Second, the increasing economic crisis. Senegal is among the fastest-growing economies in the region with major investments in infrastructure and energy. However, the country struggles with rising costs of living, systemic corruption, and a 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 years. Despite this, 20 per cent of the workable population remains unemployed. Recent protests in the country have been marked by high participation of the youth, including young children. According to a former director of Amnesty International for West and Central Africa: “Education no longer holds value. So when the youth revolt, their little brothers follow.” The health sector also remains underdeveloped and income inequality is a persistent concern. 

Third, anti-government protests. Since 2021, anti-government has been recurring. In 2021, protests were triggered following the arrest of Sonko on rape charges. Although headed by Sonko’s supporters, the protests served as a platform for people to raise several issues ranging from unemployment, pandemic hardships to the political crisis. Security forces have been condemned for firing indiscriminately into crowds and using civilians as human shields. the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) issued an alert appealing for regulations preventing the involvement of children in the protests.  

In perspective
First, 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, observers point to a possible rise in tensions if he is barred from contesting. Furthermore, as per provisions of Senegal’s constitution, Sall too cannot stand for a third term, something which he has already confirmed. However, fears persist that the current government may attempt to amend these provisions or disregard them going forward. 

Second, so far, the instability in the Sahel has not had an overreaching impact on Senegal.  However, increasing instability in the neighbourhood has only exacerbated the fear of weakening democracy and instability within Senegal. Military takeovers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and the most recent coup in Niger have rendered the Sahel region more vulnerable 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 the government in Niger. The government's decision to involve itself militarily while conflict brews within its borders may prove detrimental in the long term. 

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