Politics in Senegal: The Sonko factor - Rule of Law must prevail

Senegal, West-Africa’s model democracy, is slowly finding its calm again after fierce protests erupted in the capital Dakar for two days on March 4th and 5th. A violent mob roamed the streets, looted supermarkets and clashed with security forces. Such scenes of vandalism and civil disobedience had not been seen in easy going Dakar for many years. More than ten people died in these protest that had also affected major cities in the interior.

The apparent cause that sparked this public outburst was the issuing of an arrest warrant by the Senegalese justice for Ousmane Sonko, however the government’s restrictive Anti-Covid measures and related economic hardship might have been the real motivation.

Sonko a 46 year old  politician and leader of the “PASTEF” opposition party is accused of sexual assault and rape, as well as disrupting public order. Sonko is a former tax inspector from the south of the country, who only recently started his political career. He rode on the ticket of denouncing the corruption and impunity of the current government - a topic for which his former profession gave him a certain credibility. In 2014 he founded his own political party, PASTEF-Les Patriotes, and came third in the 2019 presidential election with 15% of the votes.

Coming from the roots of a protest movement, the party is difficult to gauge politically. It describes itself as pragmatic and 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 be supportive to PASTEF.  The dominance of the religious aspect in the party remains questionable. Senegal is after all an extremely tolerant country. Nevertheless, Sonko presents himself publicly as very religious and a pious Muslim, whose two spouses show themselves only veiled in public.

Since the presidential elections two years ago Sonko became a firm part of the Senegalese political scene. When the liberal opposition leader Idrissa Seck recently made first moves towards joining the government’s side, Mr Sonko was regarded by some parts of the population as the real opposition leader.

The charges pressed against Sonko are based on the accusations of rape by a 21 year old female employee of a massage parlour, which Sonko has admitted visiting purely for therapeutical reasons.  Following an investigation, he was briefly arrested on March 3rd and then later freed, but is still placed under custody as legal procedures against him begin. The Senegalese parliament had lifted his parliamentary immunity to allow the judiciary to start its procedure.

Mr Sonko says the allegations of rape are fabricated. He accuses Senegalese President Macky Sall of a conspiracy with the objective to remove potential opponents ahead of the 2024 election; for these elections, so the unfounded claim by the opposition, the president will try to run again, even though the constitution does not allow him to do so.

When his court order was enforced, Sonko asked his supporters to protest, leading to widespread violence, first in the suburbs and then, after riot police only reluctantly reacted, in centre parts of the capital. As demonstration got out of control, the violence and the vandalism landed Sonko another accusation for disrupting public order. 

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 needs to be investigated. Any democratically elected parliament in the world would have lifted the immunity of a lawmaker that found himself confronted with such accusations. On the other hand, Senegal has a recent history of opposition leaders being investigated and convicted to exclude them from future elections. Two former opposition leaders were excluded from the 2019 election after being condemmed on charges, which they said were politically motivated, even though they were rightfully judged and admitted their wrongdoings. Given this background, the opposition shows little trust in the justice system of the country. They demand the unconditional liberation of Sonko as if the criminal charges could just be voided. The demonstrators also seized the occasion and spontaneously founded the Movement for the Defense of democracy (M2D), that includes not only PASTEF supporters, but any protest group that is against the government. The movement has announced further peaceful demonstrations in the coming weeks. Even though the capital is presently back to business as usual, it is possible that these sporadic demonstrations continue as long as the trail against Sonko keeps him in the headlines. This could be for quite a while as President Macky Sall has already stated in his reconciliatory address to the population, that rule of law can not be compromised and justice has to follow its path.

In the meantime, the accusations of a political conspiracy circulate wildly in social media, where PASTEF supporters seem to be predominantly active; facts are neglected or turned into wishful thinking and rumours are replaced by fake news. This phenomenon is unfortunately not new in Senegal, where many people are quick to cry foul and blame the government when things just do not go their way. In the context of Sonko facing trial, 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 with the name “Sweet Beauty” is something that many of his supporters don’t want to believe, because - as the saying states - it cannot be what may not be. In this regard, the cry for a fabricated conspiracy is quickly at hand as no one wants his idol to be carrying the stain of indecency.  Furthermore, it fits into the narrative of a ruthless president eliminating the opposition to continue to stay in power; unfortunately, this story sells in social media, even though there is no evidence for any of these denunciations.   

Albeit the accusation of rape under these circumstances remain vague, they cannot be neglected or just voided as the opposition movements demands. Only a proper investigation will be able to shed light into the details, but this needs a general overall trust in the Justice system and the principles of Rule of Law. Unfortunately the latter seems to have been lost in Senegal over the years. It is therefore not too farfetched to argue that any future verdict on this case will certainly be denounced by either side of being biased and politically motivated.    

Whatever the outcome of this investigation will be, it will keep politicians in the country busy. President Sall has already announced a possible reshuffling of his cabinet as he was less than impressed with the performance of some of his ministers in handling the crisis. Hence, for the government and many observers this crisis is less a result of Sonko’s entangling with the judiciary as a protest against Senegal’s Covid-19 policy that has caused much economic harm to the country and its people. Senegal is indeed one of the very few countries in the sub-region that still kept a curfew and other severe restrictions to public life. The absence of sportive and cultural activities, the closure of beaches and the interdiction of social gatherings has haunted the population for almost a year, and with no real end in sight.  As the figures of official Corona cases are not significantly higher in Senegal than in neighbouring Mali or in Cote d’Ivoire, these measures were more and more difficult to justify. They left especially the young population at ire and went side by side with a degrading economic situation that was partly even homemade. The call to the street by Sonko’s supporters coincided with this general incomprehension on government policy. As one analyst said: “The cauldron was already boiling, the steam just needed a valve to escape.” Taking this into account, it is not surprising that President Macky Sall announced in his public speech after the protest that his government would ease the severe Covid restrictions. At the same time, he promised to reinforce youth un-employment programmes and kick start economic activities in marginal regions. 

Meanwhile things have calmed down again and neither Sonko nor the violent protests dominate the headlines in the local press anymore. However, the government will have to act with rigour and serenity to soften the economic problems caused by the Covid pandemic. Then the traditional democratic culture in Senegal will allow Rule of Law to prevail.