At the beginning of March, Senegal experienced one of its most violent protests in recent history. The protests were a response to the arrest of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was arrested for “disturbing public order” as he was heading to court to respond to rape allegations that he had received previously. The protests, led by opposition supporters, broke out in multiple cities in Senegal including its capital, Dakar, and security forces responded to the unrest by firing at the protestors, leaving ten dead and hundreds wounded. With many questioning the stability of Senegal’s democracy, writer Kamissa Camara published to the Washington Post an article analyzing Senegal’s democracy and president.
In recent years, the president of Senegal, Macky Sall, has had many of his political opponents arrested and jailed. Other than the recent arrest of Sonko, Karim Wade, the son of former Sengali president Abdoulaye Wade, was arrested only two days after he was announced to be the presidential candidate for the Senegalese Democratic Party, and Khalifa Sall, former mayor of Dakar, was jailed on charges of corruption. By having his political opponents arrested, President Sall ensures that in the next election, he can either run for an unconstitutional third term or have his own hand picked successor. A common sign of populist, authoritarian leaders is the removal of political opponents by either delegitimizing or getting rid of them. Having a populist leader causes democratic countries to erode due to actions of the populist leader such as changing the constitution or removing democratic norms. President Sall has proven through his actions that he is a populist, authoritarian leader who clearly holds more power than he should have, which could lead to disastrous consequences for the country of Senegal.
The judicial system of Senegal is also under question, especially after a judge in charge of the Sonko case asked to leave the case due to “pressure”. Since President Sall is the chair of the High Council of the Judiciary, the body that manages the Senegalese magistrates, Sall has direct control over the judges. Another key characteristic for identifying populist, authoritarian leaders is that they take control of the judges because they are the ones who decide whether something is or isn’t constitutional. By controlling the judges, President Sall holds a high power over his opponents, allowing him to do things such as have all of his political opponents arrested in order to guarantee that his party wins the next election.
Just because Ousmane Sonko was arrested by his populist, authoritarian opponent does not mean that he is in the right. The general public has completely dismissed the rape allegations that Sonko had originally been charged with, making many Senegalese women’s rights advocates to fear that the lack of notice of the rape allegations against Sonko would prevent more women from coming forward with their experiences of physical abuse. Even worse, the accuser of the allegations against Sonko, Adji Sarr, received harassment for coming forward against Sonko. Democratic countries are meant to protect the rights of its citizens, yet Senegal has failed to protect women from rape and other physical abuse. This serves as an example of another failing of Senegal’s judiciary system.
A new African youth movement has appeared in the form of the “#Free Senegal” hashtag. The movement is against Sall’s regime, demanding justice, democracy, and jobs, as well as reparations for the families of those who were shot by the police. Whether the #Free Senegal movement will achieve its goals depending on how long it can keep pressure on the government, since social movements aren’t enough to force policy changes; rather, the movement must take advantage of new political opportunities in order to get what it wants. If what has occurred recently can be used to predict the future, it is most likely that an opportunity will arise for the movement in the form of widespread anger against the country’s poor judiciary system.
For a long time, Senegal was considered to be one of the most stable democratic countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and it has been the only West African country that has never had a military coup since gaining independence in 1960. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama visited Senegal as part of a three-country African tour. The other two countries of the tour were South Africa and Tanzania, which are two strong democracies that at the time the United States of America wished to have stronger economic ties with. Looking at recent events, it has become apparent that Senegal has experienced democratic erosion and is no longer the stable, democratic country that it was originally celebrated and praised to be. Unless the current government of Senegal does the reforms that its citizens are demanding, Senegal will most likely slip further from being a strong democratic country.