/ 9 June 2023

Senegal’s democracy hangs in the balance

9 Killed In Violent Protests Against Opposition Leader's Sentencing In Senegal
DHAKAR, SENEGAL - JUNE 02: Sonkoâs supporters gather to protest after Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko jailed for 2 years for âcorrupting youthâ in Dhakar, Senegal on June 02, 2023. At least nine people were killed in clashes, and public and private properties were vandalized in Senegal following the sentencing of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to two years in prison for "corrupting the youth," the country's interior minister said on Friday. (Photo by Annika Hammerschlag/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

While the world is grappling with the complexities arising from power struggles in Sudan, with two warlords vying for control, the situation in Senegal has added to the mounting problems on the African continent. Since February 2021, Ousmane Sonko, the leader of the Senegalese opposition, has faced charges of rape and of sending death threats. But, what started as a legal matter seems to have turned into a politically charged trial. Unfolding events have revealed a troubling pattern of repression and injustice in Senegal.

The trial verdict handed down on 1 June has only served to deepen the sense of injustice felt by citizens. Instead of being sentenced for the alleged rape and death threats, Sonko was convicted of youth corruption, a charge that many deem absurd. According to Bamba Cissé, one of Sonko’s lawyers, the two-year prison sentence imposed on Sonko has stripped him of his civil rights. Moreover, Sonko cannot exercise his right to appeal, because he was tried in absentia, Cissé said. The announcement of the sentence triggered spontaneous and violent demonstrations in several towns, leading to the deaths of 15 people, according to the government. 

The excessive use of force by the authorities, a heavy-handed response to dissenting voices, not only exacerbates tensions but also undermines the principles of democracy and human rights.

The situation becomes even more alarming when we consider the plight of civil society leaders such as Aliou Sané from Yen A Marre (“Enough”) and the vice-coordinator of F24, a coalition of political parties and civil society organisations, who have been imprisoned and charged with taking part in an undeclared demonstration or public gathering and disturbance of the peace. These individuals, along with numerous other detainees, including minors, have become victims of a regime intent on silencing any opposition and maintaining its grip on power. Civic space is now in danger in Senegal, and it is very worrying.

Furthermore, the government’s recent decision to suspend applications such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram only serves to stifle freedom of expression and suppress dissent. Such actions are nothing short of an attempt to control the narrative and limit the dissemination of information that contradicts the official government line. These restrictions are a cause for concern and have prompted widespread condemnations from rights organisations. In a statement, Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s regional director for West and Central Africa, denounced the restrictions. “These restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and information constitute arbitrary measures contrary to international law and cannot be justified by security imperatives,” Daoud said.

Senegal finds itself at a critical crossroads. In this alarming situation, it is crucial to highlight the sentiments of the Senegalese people themselves. According to Afrobarometer survey data (2022), it is evident that the citizens of Senegal have a strong yearning for democracy, with overwhelming numbers rejecting one-man and one-party rule. An astounding 89% and 87% of Senegalese, respectively, reject these autocratic forms of governance.

The data further shows that the preference for democracy over any other alternative is high, with 84% of Senegalese expressing their desire for a democratic system. These statistics demonstrate that the people of Senegal firmly believe in the values and principles of democracy as the best way forward for their nation.

While the incumbent president hints that he will seek a third term, the Afrobarometer survey data shows that a large majority (79%) of Senegalese support the notion of limiting the presidency to two terms. This rejection of “third termism” highlights the widespread desire for democratic norms and adherence to constitutional term limits. Their views also reaffirm the position of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which opposes amendments or revisions to constitutions or legislation in a manner that infringes on the principles of democratic change of government.

The disheartening reality is reflected in sentiments captured in the Afrobarometer survey. At least 53% of Senegalese believe that the country is “a democracy with major problems” or not a democracy at all, while 51% express dissatisfaction with the way democracy is functioning in the country. The ongoing wave of protests witnessed in Senegal serves to underline and reinforce the data. These numbers depict a nation at odds with the state of its democracy and the erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Senegal stands at a critical juncture, where the aspirations of its people for a vibrant democracy are being trampled upon. Senegal’s future hangs in the balance. #GardonsLesYeuxSurLeSénégal!

Nyasha Mcbride Mpani is the Southern African project leader for the Data for Governance Alliance based at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

The views expressed are his own.The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.