Senegal: Violent clashes as protesters stare down president

June 28, 2023
Senegal protests
Senegal protests. Photo: @BangweuluTv/Twitter

At least 16 people were killed, hundreds injured and more than 500 arrested, following three days of protest in Senegal in early June.

The protests were in response to the conviction and sentencing of popular opposition figure Ousmane Sonko on charges of “immoral behavior” towards a person younger than 21 — a charge he and his supporters say was politically motivated.

Sonko was cleared of a 2021 rape charge but found guilty of a lesser charge of corrupting a young person under the age of 21, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. If the conviction is upheld, Sonko’s campaign in next year’s presidential election will be derailed.

Sonko founded the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party in 2014, and in the 2019 election he won 15% of the vote, the third largest share.

According to Peoples Dispatch: “Sonko rose to popularity in 2015 after revealing documents that allegedly exposed corruption in the ruling Alliance for the Republic and questioned Senegal’s economic relationship with its former coloniser, France.”

The CFA franc, the currency officially created in 1945 by French General de Gaulle and used in 14 West and Central African countries today, continues to be a tool of colonial oppression. Ndongo Samba Sylla, a development economist and author of Africa’s Last Colonial Currency: The CFA Franc Story, argues the CFA franc continues to destroy prospects of economic development in user nations and is “an anachronism demanding orderly and methodical elimination”. Civil society organisation SOS Pan-Africa has led protests against the CFA franc in African and European cities.

Leading Marxist scholar Walter Rodney’s 1972 work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, remains a pertinent analysis of the dialectic between development and underdevelopment. He writes: “In a way, underdevelopment is a paradox. Many parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor and parts that are not so well off in wealth of soil and sun-soil are enjoying the highest standards of living. When the capitalists from the developed parts of the world try to explain this paradox, they often make it sound as though there is something ‘God-given’ about the situation.”

Authoritarian drift?

President Macky Sall won a second term in 2019 — the maximum permitted under the constitution. According to Peoples Dispatch, Sall launched a constitutional review in 2016, which led to widespread speculation that he is preparing to run for a third term in 2024.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, Felwine Sarr, and Boubacar Boris Diop — three internationally renowned Senegalese intellectuals — argue there has been an “authoritarian drift” by Macky Sall.

According to analysts at the African specialist intelligence company, Pangea-Risk, the underlying roots of the unrest are both political and socio-economic — inflation has been rampant, with food prices up more than 11% year-on-year. When I visited the country in February, I saw that everyday foodstuffs such as pasta and rice were often more expensive than in Australian supermarkets.

“Transportation costs, rents, electricity tariffs, and fuel prices are also still unaffordable for many Senegalese,” reported Pangea-Risk. It noted that the country’s economy has been growing at record rates on the back of extractive and infrastructure projects, including in renewable and gas-fired power plants. However, living conditions for many people have not noticeably improved.

“Many young residents in cities feel socio-economically marginalised and are increasingly frustrated by a government that they say is led by aging and distant leaders, who have been too slow to soften the economic blow from the pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine.”

I witnessed the disenfranchisement among the youth. One man I spoke to — in his early 20s and working for one of the major water retailers — would wake at 6am and travel two hours to the warehouse where he would be told if there was work available stacking bottles onto trucks. He was earning around A$30 a month this way.

Sonko was a former tax inspector, who exposed offshore tax havens used by members of the Senegalese elite. He has capitalised on this widespread disenfranchisement and called on supporters to “stop all activity and take to the streets”.

Sall has previously used similar “lawfare” tactics on opposition figures. In 2019, Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade were convicted on charges of fraudulent use of funds and barred from running in the elections that year.

Borso Tall, a freelance journalist in Senegal, argued on the Inside Story podcast that, compared to 2019, the Senegalese people are weary of the president abandoning the country’s recent democratic tradition of a two-term limit, combined with an emboldened Sonko; “someone who is not willing to let go and ready to use violence to have the constitution respected”. Tall said the current situation has created a cloud over gender issues, the question of rape and how far women have come in fighting for their rights.

People’s Dispatch reported in 2021 that the massage parlour employee who accused Sonko of rape became the target of a vilification campaign and women’s rights activists expressed concern that this would prejudice the complainant’s chances of a fair trial and prevent victims of sexual abuse from coming forward.

Al Jazeera reported that the government crackdown, which has included arbitrary arrests and restrictions on social media, has been condemned by rights groups.

Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, called on the authorities to “end the repression against protesters and critics, and guarantee freedom of assembly”.

Mucahid Durmaz, an analyst with risk agency Verisk Maplecroft, told Inside Story there are likely two paths forward — either Sall will very harshly quell protests and put Sonko behind bars, leading the country down a path of rising authoritarianism, or, following the strong and powerful public pushback, there will be political negotiations to find a peaceful solution.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.