Senegal was shaken by the most violent protests in its recent history at the beginning of March. After the arrest of Ousmane Sonko, a member of parliament and major opposition leader, the protests expanded spontaneously throughout the country. Sonko was detained and charged with “disturbing public order” while he was on his way to court to reply to rape claims. The news of Sonko’s incarceration spread across the city. Tires lit on fire, looting, tear gas, and scuffles with riot police ensued.
Senegal has long been regarded as one of the African continent’s most stable and peaceful countries. However, in Senegal, we are most likely witnessing competitive authoritarianism, a hybrid political system. Under competing authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are frequently seen as the key method for achieving and exercising political authority. However, incumbents violate those norms so regularly and to such an extent that the system fails to fulfill classic democratic baseline conditions. After President Wade, this warped democratic rule was maintained by Macky Sall.
President Macky Sall’s last significant political opponent was Ousmane Sonko. Sonko finished third in the 2019 presidential elections, with 15.67 percent of the vote, behind Sall and former Senegalese Prime Minister Idrissa Seck. Seck quit the opposition in 2020 to join the presidential majority as the President of the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council, making Sonko the de facto opposition leader. However, as can be seen in all authoritarian regimes, the ruling party was trying to erase the opposition names from the scene.
A major problem in Senegal is the inability of the justice system to be independent of the presidency. Not only the president but also with presidential corruption, the country’s constitution and justice system seeks to eliminate the opponents and remove their names from the stage. Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, was generally regarded as a prospective presidential candidate. Wade was convicted to six years in jail on embezzlement charges in March 2015, only two days after the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) named him as its next presidential candidate. After being imprisoned since April 2013, he was ultimately pardoned by Sall and freed in 2016. Wade is presently living in exile and is no longer involved in Senegalese politics.
Ousmane Sonko, on the other hand, was shouting to make his voice heard despite all these pressures and said that the people no longer tolerate the current government and that the “political conspiracy” that happened to him was the last straw.
Sonko headed out with his supporters on Wednesday, 3 March, to appear before the Dakar Court. Sonko was arrested for “disturbing public order” after being denied access to the court in a crowded convoy. There were conflicts between the police and Sonko supporters. Sonko’s arrest caused a stampede on the streets. The biggest support came from the youth groups. While Sonko was released on March 8, the street protests ended with an appeal for calm from Senegal’s sects, which affect all areas of society. Support for Sonko’s fight is actually a sign that many of these young people in the country are dissatisfied with the government regarding their employment prospects. They are fed up with the political regime of the time and their worsening living standards. Following the March protests, demonstrators began using the hashtag #FreeSenegal to demand restitution for the families of those killed by police. #FreeSenegal has evolved into a grassroots movement seeking justice, democracy, and jobs in response to the Sall regime’s authoritarian government.
After a long political struggle, people reject authority and affirm their trust in democracy, and Senegal’s expanding political engagement has the potential to foster democratization. Currently, the democratization of Senegal seems to depend on how much the ruling party can cooperate with the opposition parties, and to the extent that institutions are politicized.
The question has remained: will Senegal succeed in the transition to democracy or will each new election result in a continuation of competitive authoritarianism?
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Kelly, C. L. (2012). Senegal: What will turnover bring? Journal of Democracy, 23(3), 121–131. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2012.0048
Senegal’De Muhalif Lider Ousmane Sonko, Muhalefete birleşme çağrısı yaptı. Anadolu Ajansı. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/dunya/senegalde-muhalif-lider-ousmane-sonko-muhalefete-birlesme-cagrisi-yapti/2178571
(www.dw.com), D. W. (n.d.). Why Senegal protesters back Ousmane Sonko despite rape charges: DW: 10.03.2021. DW.COM. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://www.dw.com/en/why-senegal-protesters-back-ousmane-sonko-despite-rape-charges/a-56825890