Dakar, Senegal – As the smoke from protesters’ fires billowed upward into the sky and tear gas from police crept through boulevards and alleyways last month, Senegal – often lauded as West Africa’s most stable democracy – once again found itself in turmoil.
Some opposition leaders were blocked from leaving their homes by police, while others were arrested for organizing what authorities deemed illegal protests. In southern Senegal, authorities were accused of using live rounds to disperse protesters. In Dakar, students threw stones at police. Streets were barricaded and blocked off by authorities. As protests rocked the country, three people were killed, according to Amnesty International.
The most recent protests are decrying the move by Senegal’s constitutional council to throw out the candidate list for the main opposition coalition ahead of the legislative elections at the end of this month. The opposition will still be able to run alternate candidates, but main leaders like Ousmane Sonko – who came third in the 2019 presidential elections – won’t be on the ballot.
Beyond the immediate concerns, however, lie longstanding political issues that have dogged Macky Sall’s presidency since he came to power in 2012.
Cries of “Macky Sall is a dictator” rang out in Dakar as protesters called out the wide-ranging powers vested in the presidency, and the yearslong pattern of political opposition being stymied, always on seemingly technical grounds.
The resulting crackdown on the June protests earned rebukes from the United Nations Special Rapporteur Freedom of Association as well as Amnesty International, which in a statement said that arbitrary arrests during the June protests, along with “repeated bans on demonstrations, together with the deaths of people during such protests, represent a real threat to the right to protest in Senegal.”
“It’s a stable democracy, in the African context, in theory,” Maurice Toupane, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera. “But in practice, we could say that Senegalese democracy is running out of breath.”
“It’s fundamental to think of reform,” he said, especially in the power of the presidency, and its sway over the judicial and lawmaking process. “Otherwise when the next president is elected in 2024, if we don’t put in place reforms, we will be on the same path. It will be a vicious cycle.”
Democratic image abroad, harsh truths at home
Senegal has often been lauded in international circles as a beacon of stability in the region – with a notable lack of military coups and a history of peaceful presidential transitions – but its reputation is at risk of slipping. And a deeper look at history also shows that Senegal’s image as a pillar of stability and democracy was built on shaky ground.
Léopold Sédar Senghor, its first president, ruled with a tight grip from independence in 1960 to 1980, outlawing rival political parties. Afterwards, Senegal became more democratic under Abdou Diouf who, nevertheless, held onto the post until 2000.
Diouf’s successor, Abdoulaye Wade ran for a controversial third term in 2012, leading to mass protests which helped carry Sall to the presidency.
All this provides an uneasy background if Sall runs for a third term in 2024; if he does – as analysts have feared might happen – it would not represent a dark turn for a leading democratic light on the continent, but rather business as usual.
“We have an image of democracy on the exterior that’s not actually real,” said Samba Thiongane, a Dakar resident who was at the June protests and those against Wade’s third-term attempt in 2012. “We haven’t had a coup – that’s true. But we can’t say we have a democracy,” he said, citing a lack of transparency around legislation and the presidency’s many powers, problems which predate Sall.
Senegal’s good image has always been important in its international relations, even if, domestically, things have never quite matched up to what has been sold abroad.
Since independence, the country has enjoyed close relations with the United States and former coloniser France. More recently, Dakar has blossomed into a hub for United Nations regional offices.
European nations, scrambling for alternatives to Russian energy, are eyeing Senegal’s newly discovered oil and gas deposits. With Sall as president of the African Union, he’s taken up an even larger international profile, hosting talks on Ukraine with both Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the United States’s Joe Biden.
Opposition parties are no longer banned, like in the Senghor days, but observers say a noose is tightening on democracy there.
A 2018 electoral law tightened the process for running for office. In the run-up to the 2019 presidential elections, for Sall’s second term, the then-mayor of Dakar, Khalifa Sall, a potential presidential contender, was jailed on corruption charges.
The conviction of another political opponent, Wade’s son, Karim, for corruption during Macky Sall’s first term barred him from eligibility to run in 2019. The Senegalese government has maintained that the prosecutions were legitimate, but critics have pointed to a pattern of legal troubles clearing Sall’s opponents out of the way.
Last year, opposition leader Sonko was charged with rape – a move that, given Senegal’s history of legally targeting opposition figures, led to large, anti-Sall protests, while at the same time, causing women’s rights advocates to worry about victims coming forward with complaints of sexual violence.
Unrest before parliamentary vote
The spark for the protests leading up to this month’s legislative elections – viewed as a check on Sall and his party’s power – was a technical error on the list of candidates put forward by the opposition coalition.
The coalition, dubbed Yewwi Askan Wi, admitted a “careless mistake” in the preparation of its electoral list. But the fact that the list was thrown out entirely – one candidate was listed as both an official candidate and a substitute candidate – led Sonko to declare “there is no more justice in this country.” Members of the substitute list will still be able to run for office, but big names like Sonko are now out.
Sall, whose own coalition, Benno Bokk Yakaar, had its substitute list blocked by the constitutional council on technicalities, defended the process.
“If you make a list that does not respect what the law says, it is simply eliminated,” Sall told Radio France International. “It’s tough, but that’s the law.”
The head of Benno Bokk Yakaar’s list, Aminata Touré, added, “Senegalese democracy is quite rooted. As the elections approach in Senegal, the atmosphere is still a bit noisy, but I hope that we will go to the elections normally.”
If Sall runs in 2024, he would be in power as Senegal’s nascent petroleum sector takes off. Changes to the constitution in 2016 would reset the clock on his term limits, he is likely to argue – the same reasoning that Sall’s predecessor Wade used in his failed 2012 run.
Sall has repeatedly declined to comment on his 2024 plans but seeking another term in office would unleash a political crisis, analysts have warned
More protests would also be likely; if Senegal’s democracy has always been marred by political actors seeking to hold on to power, it has also been fought for by those willing to take to the streets en masse, as thousands of Senegalese showed Wade in 2012.
“The times, they are a changing – it’s not possible anymore” for Sall to run again and win the popular vote, Thierno Sow, a political analyst based in the former colonial capital Saint Louis, said. “If Sall runs, he’ll be rejected the same way people voted out Diouf and Wade. And at that time, you didn’t have TikTok or Twitter or Facebook.”
Others, like Toupane, are less certain. “It’s a major risk for the stability of the country,” he said.
For outsiders used to Senegal’s pristine international image, a future political crisis might come as a surprise. But those at home have been paying attention. And they are already taking to the streets.