Over the past week, thousands of people have taken to the streets of Senegal in deadly demonstrations against the arrest of a key opposition leader—and what they believe is the president’s assault on the country’s democracy. The protests, the worst to hit the country in almost a decade, have resulted in the deaths of at least eight people.
“We are on the verge of an apocalypse,” Alioune Badara Cissé, a top Senegalese official, warned during a press conference as the protests brought cities to a grinding halt, and gas stations and shops were reportedly vandalized and set on fire. Senegal’s unrest—in a country widely considered to be a beacon of democracy and stability in West Africa—is a worrisome sign for the entire region.
What set off the protests?
Protests first erupted throughout Senegal on March 3, when Ousmane Sonko, one of the country’s best-known opposition leaders, went to court to face rape allegations. Sonko, who was accused of the rape in February, has denied the charges and insisted that they are fabricated claims meant to disrupt his political career. (If convicted, he would not be allowed to run in the 2024 elections.)
On his way to the court appearance, Sonko was arrested for disrupting public order and participating in unauthorized protests, after hundreds of his supporters confronted police. Following his arrest, protesters took to the streets to air their grievances with the situation—and with current President Macky Sall’s leadership.
Why did one arrest set off all this unrest?
Sonko’s arrest—and his claims of political sabotage—have fueled suspicions that Sall is attempting to silence opposition ahead of the 2024 elections. A fierce critic of Sall’s administration, Sonko is widely regarded as one of the president’s most formidable political challengers ahead of the elections. He is especially popular among the youth, who are drawn to his populist platform of radical opposition and greater economic independence. In the country’s 2019 presidential elections, he finished third, securing around 15 percent of votes.
“[Sonko’s] popularity has galvanized the street movements against the perceived corruption and inequities of the Macky Sall administration,” Geoff Porter, president of North Africa Risk Consulting, told Foreign Policy.
Are the protesters’ concerns legitimate?
It’s not the first time that Sall has excluded political rivals from elections by arresting them. In 2019, two major opposition figures were hit with charges that they contend were politically motivated. One of them—Khalifa Sall, former mayor of Dakar—was arrested two years ahead of the 2019 elections and pardoned only after votes were cast, further stoking speculation that the president was deliberately targeting rivals.
“There’s suspicion that Macky Sall is using the judiciary to marginalize his political opponents, but not using the judiciary to pursue legitimate corruption cases that involve his allies,” Porter said.
Protesters also fear that Sall will alter the constitution to let him run for a third term in office, bypassing the country’s two-term limit. Although Sonko publicly pressed Sall to reject a potential third term, Sall hasn’t officially made a statement, and opponents worry that he will follow in the footsteps of nearby Guinea and Ivory Coast, whose presidents each extended their presidential mandates last year.
And these grievances have only been exacerbated by Senegal’s economic troubles. Economic gains that the country has witnessed over the past few years have been unevenly shared—something that only got worse with the pandemic.
What about the rape allegations against Sonko?
One potential problem is that Sonko’s dismissal of the rape charge—and protesters’ backlash to the allegation—might dissuade victims of sexual assault from stepping forward. This is especially troubling in Senegal, where rape was only recently prosecuted as a serious crime. “The politicization of [Sonko’s] sexual assault charge has the potential to diminish the seriousness of his victim’s allegations,” Porter said.
But Sonko’s out of jail. What happens now?
Sonko was released on bail on Monday, but it did little to quell the demonstrations. Hours later, armed riot police shot rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters in Dakar, and a coalition of activists and opposition groups pledged to continue protesting for three more days.
Over the past week, the demonstrations have brought Dakar to a halt, shuttering gas stations, shops, and banks across the city, which some protesters have reportedly vandalized and torched. The protests have compelled school closures: On Sunday, the ministry of education announced that schools would be closed until March 15. The government also temporarily suspended two TV stations and restricted platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube as protests escalated. According to reports, roughly 100 protesters have been arrested since March 3.
The protests have also unleashed anti-French sentiment. Demonstrators have reportedly targeted French businesses, setting fire to over a dozen French-owned gas stations and supermarkets. Experts say the tactic is driven by the belief that Senegal, a former French colony, has been a vehicle for France’s economic interests under Sall’s administration.
“There is a perception among demonstrators that the French community, the French business community, and the French government have too tight a control of the Senegalese economy,” Porter said. “They dominate certain import markets and control the prices for those imports, which push a lot of imports out of reach of average Senegalese.”
In response to the growing conflict, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres made appeals to both police and protesters to avoid further violence and start talks. “Everyone, all political leaders, all stakeholders in Senegal have a role to play. They need to engage in dialogue,” his spokesman Stéphane Dujarric told reporters on March 9. The African Union also condemned the violence and cases of looting.
So now what happens?
On Thursday, Sall declared a day of national mourning and announced that he would lift the COVID-19 restrictions that had spurred some of the unrest. But the response is a bit “tone-deaf,” Porter said. Neither of Sall’s actions addresses the protesters’ grievances—and several demonstrators died at the hands of the Senegalese security forces, which Sall directs.
“I think there’s a potential that demonstrations will continue until those perpetrators of those murders or deaths are prosecuted, or Macky Sall comes up with a more sincere apology and a better plan that goes beyond just easing the pandemic curfew by several hours,” Porter said.
Meanwhile, Sonko and his supporters appear to be in it for the long haul. “We don’t want to take responsibility for undermining our democracy,” Sonko tweeted. “But let’s be clear, the revolution is on the march toward 2024.”