Senegal's Democratic Unrest And The Ghosts Of French Colonialism
The violence that erupted following the sentencing of opposition politician Ousmane Sonko to two years in prison left 16 people dead and 500 arrested. This reveals deep fractures in Senegalese democracy that has traces to France's colonial past.
PARIS — For a long time, Senegal had the glowing image of one of Africa's rare democracies. The reality was more complicated than that, even in the days of the poet-president Léopold Sedar Senghor, who also had his dark side.
But for years, the country has been moving down what Senegalese intellectual Felwine Sarr describes as the "gentle slope of... the weakening and corrosion of the gains of Senegalese democracy."
This has been demonstrated once again over the last few days, with a wave of violence that has left 16 people dead, 500 arrested, the internet censored, and a tense situation with troubling consequences. The trigger? The sentencing last Thursday of opposition politician Ousmane Sonko to two years in prison, which could exclude him from the 2024 presidential elections.
Young people took to the streets when the verdict was announced, accusing the justice system of having become a political tool. Ousmane Sonko had been accused of rape but was convicted of "corruption of youth," a change that rendered the decision incomprehensible.
This is not the first crisis: in March 2021, Dakar had already experienced serious riots following the arrest of Sonko in the same rape case. The violence was directed against symbols of the French presence, such as Total gas stations and Auchan supermarkets.
These repeated targeting of French companies, unusual in Senegal in the past, illustrate a real sense of unease.
These repeated targeting of French companies, unusual in Senegal in the past, illustrate a real sense of unease. In 2012, civil society successfully mobilized against President Abdoulaye Wade's attempt to seek a constitutionally prohibited third term in office.
And now his successor, Macky Sall, who is completing his second term in office, is also seized by the irresistible call of a third term. He has left his intentions in doubt, fueling suspicion and excitement in this highly politicized country. Eliminating Ousmane Sonko from the race obviously reinforces the suspicion that he is trying to force his way in.
Protesters in London against Sonko's arrest.
Sonko's influence on Senegal
For the time being, the Senegalese are waiting to see what will happen to Sonko. The leader of his party, Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l'éthique et la fraternité (PASTEF, “African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity”) is under house arrest, under heavy police surveillance. If he is taken to prison, it could reignite the violence that had calmed down over the weekend.
But in the long term, it's Senegal's entire political system that's at stake. Young people, who make up nearly 60% of the population, will not accept a third term for Sall quietly, while their populist hero Sonko languishes in prison.
The question is also being put to Senegal's partners, first and foremost France. Paris is very cautious about commenting on events, knowing that the former colonizer is always suspected of pulling the strings, even when it's done nothing.
Senegal has become a test case around the decline of French influence.
France has no interest in seeing Senegal destabilized or in democratic regression, but any interference would be counterproductive. In West Africa, Senegal has become a test case around the decline of French influence.
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