Senegal: an unstable political environment

Violent street protests took place in Senegal between February and March 2021, resulting in several fatalities and extensive damage to government buildings and businesses. Tensions seem to be decreasing, but the situation is volatile and new and sudden escalation is possible in the coming days, especially if an agreement is not reached between the political parties involved.

The protests are linked to Ousmane Sonko, leader of the opposition party “Patriotes du Sénégal pour le Travail, the Ethique et la Fraternité” (PASTEF), a member of the National Assembly and defeated candidate in the 2019 presidential election (he ranked third with 15.67% of the vote). In February 2021, Sonko was accused of rape, deprived of parliamentary immunity by the National Assembly and arrested for disturbing public order. He was subsequently released and placed on probation on 8 March. Sonko has from the beginning denied allegations, denouncing President of the Republic Macky Sall’s attempt to undermine his political credibility and make him ineligible.

Sonko’s judicial vicissitudes, especially his arrest on 3 March, triggered street demonstrations in Dakar and other places in the country, with a very high turnout and often degenerating into clashes and looting. At a very early stage, the protests held by Sonko’s supporters seemed to be in line with the demonstrations organised in the past by the supporters of two opponents under investigation, Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall. The latter, a former mayor of Dakar, was convicted of mismanagement of public funds and subsequently pardoned in September 2019 by the president. Wade, son of Macky Sall’s predecessor and member of the “Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS)”, was instead tried in 2013 for corruption and illicit enrichment and, after being imprisoned, was pardoned by Macky Sall in 2016. During the trials, the two’s respective supporters held demonstrations, in particular near the courts where the hearings were held.

However, the latest demonstrations in 2021 were soon characterised by significantly higher levels of violence than in previous years. Several buildings were set on fire, including a courthouse and a gendarmerie barracks, and it is estimated that at least 21 supermarkets were looted (and at least two set on fire) and twelve petrol stations were targeted in Dakar alone. Looting was also reported in Mbour and other areas. It is estimated that at least 11 people died in clashes between demonstrators and security forces.

Moreover, press sources in France say that a number of French companies were targeted by the demonstrators. The local management of the Auchan supermarket chain denounces that ten of the company’s stores were looted and fourteen others attacked during the demonstrations on 5 March. Plus, the twelve petrol stations that had previously been targeted belonged to France’s Total. Among other things, this seems to be the result of Sonko’s political stances (some call them “sovereignist”), as the politician has on several occasions argued that Senegal is a victim of foreign economic imperialism. In any case, France’s status as a former colonial power and leading political and economic actor in the region makes it an easy target of nationalist rhetoric.

The rising violence and conflict in the recent protests is due to both the different demands underlying the demonstrations and the heterogeneity of its participants. Unlike the protests in support of Wade and Khalifa Sall (it was basically the supporters of the two leaders under investigation that took part in them), large and diverse sectors of the population joined the February and March 2021 demonstrations. Not only do the demonstrators call for the politician’s release and denounce alleged persecution against him, they also criticise the government for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, unemployment and poverty. In early March, PASTEF and other opposition parties and civil society groups, like the “Y’en a marre” movement (that has already staged anti-government protests in the past few years), created the “Mouvement pour la Défense de la Démocratie (M2D)” coalition, with the task of coordinating the protests. Social media mobilisation also played a key role, with hashtags like #FreeSenegal.

In response to the unrest and faced with problems in bringing the situation back to normal, President Macky Sall accepted some of the demonstrator’s requests, easing a few Covid-19 restrictions and reducing curfew hours in Dakar and Thies. The said measures were especially opposed by all those population groups active in the informal sector that restrictions on travel and business activities have affected the most so far. This change of strategy by the government was combined with the mediation of the Mouride Brotherhood, one of the main representatives of Senegalese Islam. Following pressure from the Brotherhood, M2D cancelled a mass demonstration that should have been held in Dakar on 13 March. The leaders of the Brotherhood pledged to notify the government of a list of 10 requests made by the protesters, including releasing the arrested protesters and ending repression of the opposition.

The mediation of the Mouride Brotherhood and the talks between the parties have actually caused the protests to decrease, but new rallies are possible in the short term if a credible agreement is not reached between the two sides. In addition, the next elections, namely, the local ones in 2021 and the legislative ones in 2022, make the Senegalese political environment particularly unstable. With regard to the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2024, Macky Sall has not yet announced whether he intends to run for a third term, as repeatedly denounced by his opponents. This situation has for some time been fuelling political tensions, since the current legislation does not allow Sall to run again, and the opposition fears that the president will try to amend it in order to take part in the election.

The president’s authoritarian turn, denounced by opponents and various civil society organisations, is leading to significant political polarisation; this, coupled with social discontent, could trigger new violence in the coming months. This might in turn exacerbate the electoral competition between the parties and lead to clashes between rival militants and between them and the security forces, as well as new acts of vandalism and looting.

In light of the above, foreign nationals in Senegal might be accidentally involved in unrest and, as a result, fall victim to acts of vandalism or looting against their assets and property. Due to the hostility of Sonko and other local civil society groups, it cannot be ruled out that the assets of foreign companies (primarily French) will be targeted by protesters for their role in the Senegalese economy or because of their respective governments’ (actual or presumed) support to President Macky Sall.

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