What’s behind the recent violent protests in Senegal?

An interview with Jo Holden, FNF Project Director West-Africa in Dakar
Senegal flag
Senegal flag © Wikimedia Commons

A month ago, fierce protests erupted in Senegal’s capital Dakar on March 4th and 5th. The country, seen by many as West-Africa’s model democracy, is slowly finding its calm again after a violent mob roamed the streets, looted supermarkets and clashed with security forces. Jo Holden, Project Director West-Africa for the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Freedom in Dakar, sheds light on the recent events and its root causes.

To begin with, can you briefly summarise what happened in Dakar last month?

Such scenes of vandalism and civil disobedience, including violent mobs and clashings with security forces, as on March 4th and 5th had not been seen in easy going Dakar for many years. More than ten people died during the protests that also affected other major cities. The apparent cause for this public outburst was the issuing of an arrest warrant for opposition leader Ousmane Sonko by the Senegalese justice. The government’s restrictive Anti-Covid measures and related economic hardship were most certainly also a major factor.

Ousmane Sonko, a 46-year-old politician and leader of the “PASTEF” opposition party, is a former tax inspector. He started his political career only 7 years ago, riding on the ticket of denouncing the corruption and impunity of the current government. In 2014, he founded the political party PASTEF - Les Patriotes, and came third in the 2019 presidential election with 15% of the votes. Since then, Sonko became a firm part of the Senegalese political scene.

Sonko was recently accused of sexual assault and rape of an employee of a massage parlour, as well as disrupting public order. Following an investigation, he was briefly arrested on March 3rd and later freed, but is still placed under custody as legal procedures against him begin. The Senegalese parliament lifted his parliamentary immunity to allow the judiciary to start procedures. When his court order was enforced, Sonko asked his supporters to protest, leading to widespread violence and vandalism. First in the suburbs and later in centre parts of the capital. As demonstrations went out of control, Sonko was also accused of disrupting public order.        

What kind of party is PASTEF-Les Patriotes?

Coming from the roots of a protest movement, the party is difficult to gauge politically. It describes itself as pragmatic and is not linked to any ideology. It proclaims to be a real alternative to the traditional ways to run the country, without stating what this really means. Such a rather vague description leaves room for speculation and it is no wonder that both more conservative religious but also leftist groups claim to support PASTEF. The dominance of the religious aspect in the party remains questionable, but Sonko presents himself as a very religious and pious Muslim.

Other than protests, how did Sonko and the opposition react?

Sonko rejected the initial allegations and accused current Senegalese President Macky Sall of conspiracy to remove potential opponents ahead of the 2024 election. According to unfounded claims by the opposition, the president will try to run again despite not being allowed by the constitution.

The political containment of this affair proves to be difficult for the government. On the one hand, there is an accusation of rape and sexual assault, which is a serious crime in Senegal and requires investigation. Any democratically elected parliament worldwide would have lifted a lawmaker’s immunity in such as case. On the other hand, Senegal also has a recent history of opposition leaders being investigated and convicted to exclude them from future elections. Given this background, the opposition shows little trust in the judicial system of the country and demand the unconditional liberation of Sonko, as if criminal charges could simply be voided. Even though Dakar is presently back to business as usual, it is possible that sporadic demonstrations continue as long as the trial against Sonko goes on.

You implicitly indicated the situation and allegations are not as clear-cut as they might seem. Why?

Accusations of a political conspiracy circulate in the press and especially on social media. This is where we have to be cautious: Sometimes facts are neglected or turned into wishful thinking, and rumours are replaced by fake news.

Related to Sonko, it could also be the simple fear of his supporters to be disappointed by their proper convictions. Massage parlours in Senegal are more frequently linked to prostitution than to therapeutical aims, and the fact that the devout Muslim Ousmane Sonko has been frequenting such an establishment is something many of his supporters do not want to believe. Therefore, the cry for a fabricated conspiracy is quickly at hand and fits into the narrative of a ruthless president eliminating the opposition to remain in power. So far, there is no evidence for any of these denunciations. Neither has President Sall ever confirmed he would seek a third mandate, nor are Sonko’s visits to seedy neighbourhoods fabricated.   

Only a proper investigation will be able to shed light on the details, but this requires trust in the judicial system and the principle of Rule of Law. Unfortunately, the latter seems to have been lost in Senegal over the years, so any verdict on this case will certainly be denounced by either side of being biased and politically motivated. Whatever the outcome will be, it will keep politicians in the country busy.   

More generally, what do the protests tell us about the current situation in Senegal?

Senegal was among the very few countries in the sub-region that kept a curfew and other severe restrictions to public life. This situation has been haunting the population for almost a year, with no end in sight. While figures of official Corona cases are not significantly higher than in neighbouring Mali or Côte d’Ivoire, such measures were increasingly difficult to justify. They left especially the young population at ire and went side by side with a degrading economic situation.

The violent demonstrations thus had different origins. To the Covid-19 frustration and its general economic hardship came more tangible factors like the consistent lack of jobs among young people, the feeling of being left excluded from the economic boom, as well as long-standing rumours of governmental corruption. The call to the street by Sonko’s supporters coincided with the overall negative attitude towards the government, shared by many urban young in Senegal.

If the government wants to prevent a comeback of these events, it will have to act with rigour, speed and serenity to soften the worst economic problems and uncouple them from the publicity of Mr Sonko’s lawsuit. Then the traditional democratic culture in Senegal will allow Rule of Law to prevail.

Jo Holden is Project Director West-Africa for the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation for Freedom, based in Dakar.