Country hit by unrest and allegations of a political witch hunt ahead of next year’s presidential vote
By Aanu Adeoye in Dakar and Joshua Franklin in New York for The Financial Times
As Senegal president Macky Sall arrived in New York for this week’s UN gathering, pro- and anti-Sall protesters faced off near the country’s UN mission, in the latest sign of the political crisis gripping the West African nation.
A hunger strike by the country’s opposition leader, deadly protests ahead of February’s bitterly contested presidential election and a wave of coups in neighbouring states have created a combustible atmosphere in a country traditionally seen as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies and a western ally in an increasingly volatile region.
“The political turmoil has put Senegal’s institutions and democracy to the test,” said Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at risk advisory firm SBM. “Set within the backdrop of regional democratic regression, heavy handedness from Sall’s government could trigger the ghosts of a more uncertain past,” he said, referring to the period after independence in 1960 through to the 1990s when Senegal was effectively a one-party state.
Senegal has been in turmoil since Sall’s allies last year floated the idea of another five years as president, in breach of the two-term constitutional limit. This crystallised concerns among the 61-year-old leader’s critics of a drift towards authoritarianism, sparking the unrest that has unsettled the country ever since.
The protest movement has been led by opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, a one-time tax inspector who built a reputation for fighting graft after uncovering alleged widespread tax avoidance by the Senegalese elite, for which he lost his job. Those accused included Aliou Sall, the president’s brother.
Yet Sonko’s political career has been dogged by a rape accusation that supporters say was politically motivated. Sonko was in June acquitted on the charge, but a conviction for “corrupting the youth” led to a two-year prison sentence that has placed his participation in the election in doubt.
Sonko was later charged with further offences, including fomenting insurrection, undermining state security and creating political unrest. He then began a now-ended hunger strike that led to a period of intensive care at a hospital in the capital Dakar.
Yaya Ague, an insurance broker taking a break in Dakar’s Independence Square, said he was open to voting for Sonko but had concerns over the 49-year-old’s rhetoric. “Sonko can be violent with his speech,” he said.
Sall ultimately declined to contest a third term. But he remains a focus of much of the public anger and recently named his prime minister Amadou Ba as the ruling coalition’s presidential candidate.
Marie Gane, 52, one of the anti-Sall protesters in New York, said she wanted “to show our president?.?.?.?we’re tired of being in poverty”, adding: “We want our country back.”
But Alima Keita, a Sall supporter, praised him for leading the development of Senegal, where the economy has grown a 5 percent on average annually since he became president in 2012. “We want someone who works for the country so we’re here to support him,” said the 34-year-old.
Senegal’s boom has been fuelled by a nascent oil and gas industry that has helped to fund investment in infrastructure such as new roads and railways. The IMF recently named Senegal as one of Africa’s strongest- growing economies and foreign investment rose 21 per cent to $2.2bn in 2021, according to the most recent data from the UN trade agency.
Yet many of the young Senegalese who make up Sonko’s political base complain of being left behind in a country where youth unemployment is close to 20 per cent. The impact of climate change on fishing and farming, traditional sources of work for young people, has exacerbated the problem.
The disillusionment has convinced many young Senegalese to embark on perilous journeys to Europe in search of a better life. More than 60 people died last month when a boat that set sail from Senegal capsized off Cape Verde.
Other issues that affect the wider continent are also at play in Senegal, observers say. Eight successful coups in west and central Africa in just three years have unsettled democracies and autocracies alike and raised questions over which country would be next.
François Conradie, analyst at the Oxford Economics Africa consultancy, said the anti-French sentiment sweeping former French colonies also had the potential to reshape Senegalese politics.
“Since independence [from France], the governments of Senegal have been friendly to French commercial interests,” he explained. “Now you have Sonko, a hard leftist who has promised to change the system and make it a fairer deal for the Senegalese worker. The feeling of opposition to exploitation by French business is very relevant.”
He noted that Sonko was a strong supporter of Mali’s coup leader Assimi Goïta, who has burnished his opposition to France since seizing power in 2021.
It remains unclear whether Sonko will be allowed to contest the presidential election, with Senegal’s justice minister suggesting that his recent conviction eliminated him from the race.
Mucahid Durmaz, senior analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said banning him would only widen the fissures in Senegalese society, “deepen public mistrust in state institutions, especially the judiciary” and raise fresh questions about the credibility of the elections.
Sonko is not the first of Sall’s rivals to be blocked from elections due to legal difficulties. Khalifa Sall, a popular mayor of Dakar, was unable to contest the 2019 poll after being convicted of fraud and corruption in a trial that human rights group Amnesty International condemned as unfair.
“The Sonko case has raised suspicion that the legal cases against a long line of prominent rivals to Sall are part of a witch hunt against opposition figures,” Durmaz said.