Senegal is six months away from presidential elections in 2024, and the build-up continues to send shockwaves through the political system. President Macky Sall was widely cheered for stating that he would not seek an unconstitutional third term in office, but has proved himself to be no democrat. So what are the prospects for the upcoming polls, and for the future of Senegalese democracy?
The controversy and unrest currently relates to opposition candidate Ousmane Sonko. The populist challenger has been the subject of numerous judicial processes, each of which has found him guilty, including a rape case and an accusation of corrupting the youth punishable by two years in prison that Sonko is currently appealing. In the latest incident that sent him to prison on July 29, he was accused of phone theft and assault after a woman filmed him without his consent days after his prior period of house arrest was deemed to be illegal and cut short. Sonko has been on hunger strike ever since.
While some Senegalese people continue to claim that these charges warrant prosecution, Sonko’s lawyers insist that this is just another attempt to prevent him from pursuing his aspiration to lead the country next year. So far, convincing evidence has not been provided to prove these accusations. In the current case, for example, he was prosecuted quickly and is now being held despite the absence of an official complain of theft. This reality – at a time when others wait months for their cases to be processed – has led to a growing sense that the opposition leader is being politically persecuted.
Omar, a street vendor, told me that “We are faced with a two-faced judicial system”. While he said that he had not taken part in any riots, he also expressed his support for Sonko, and his desire to see him become the fifth president of Senegal. More radical supporters on social media believe that nothing justifies Sonko’s absence from next year’s elections. For Fatou Jagne Senghore, a Human Rights Lawyer and Free Speech Expert “Social media has opened up space for more political debate and public scrutiny. It has created avenues for more youth participation and engagement.”
The government’s own actions have done little to dispel the growing sense that Sonko is being persecuted, banning his Pastef Party and arresting over 700 people, most of whom are his supporters.
Partly as a result, there continue to be regular outbreaks of political violence – some deadly – in Dakar and the southern city of Ziguinchor, where Sonko is mayor. The violence has been used by the government to justify an Internet shutdown, which the Communications Minister has said is designed to stop the “dissemination of hateful and subversive messages on social networks”. Yet this has only served to further anger Sonko supporters, and the general public.
Sall is also trying other strategies to contain the threat of Sonko. Most recently, this included the political rehabilitation of Karim Wade, leader of the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) and Khalifa Sall, a former member of the socialist party (PS). Although they were previously convicted of the mismanagement of public funds and prevented from holding public office, the ruling party has used its control over the National Assembly to reactivate their political careers. It now seems likely that the Constitutional Court will approve their candidacy, effectively enabling them to form a new alliance with President Sall in a bid to isolate Sonko.
The danger with this strategy of three against one, however, is that it provides more evidence for Sonko supporters that the rule of law is being manipulated to discriminate against their leader. Further political instability is therefore likely – and will escalate if Sall fails to find a viable successor that he trusts and reverses his decision to stand down. The president’s initial acceptance of term limits did much to reduce political tensions, and was described as a “step in the right direction” by Fatou Jaagn Senghor, who observed Senegal previous political transitions as Article 19 West Africa former director.
Sall appears to be having second thoughts about stepping down in April 2024, however, due to the difficulty of finding a consensus candidate that has a good chance of winning the elections and of keeping his alliance united. He has already told journal Le Monde this is a possibility if his coalition cannot agree on a candidate, and has continued to insist that the law did not prohibit him from remaining in power, stating that a third term was “my right if I want it”. In turn, Sonko has warned that a u-turn on the third term issue would only pour fuel on the fire of Senegal’s growing political conflict, and could lead to unprecedented political violence.
Unfortunately civil society appears to be powerless to intervene to promote stability. A meeting held on May 31 achieved little, and Omar may be representative of Sonko’s supporters when he says that it was “a gathering of Sall’s corrupt allies” that was always going to fail to “bring to agreement all political parties on any peaceful transition.”
It is therefore down to Senegal’s main political leaders – and in particular Sall and Sonko – to avert political disaster. Alioune Tine, former president of Amnesty International’s office for West and Central Africa and director of the think tank AfrikaJom Center insists that “the best therapy for the structural democratic crisis we are experiencing, which is linked to the exacerbation of power stakes, is sincere political dialogue between all political players. This is a matter of urgency.”
The truth is, however, that while dialogue is clearly necessary the lack of trust and respect between the main protagonists means that it is also unlikely.
Borso Tall (@NBorso) is a freelance journalist based in Dakar.