Culled from The Washington Post
Democracy has been under stress in Senegal. Earlier this month, tensions between President Macky Sall’s government and the main opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, reached new heights following Sonko’s conviction for “corrupting the youth”. This is a lesser charge following the dismissal of charges of rape and death threats by Adji Sarr, a 20-year-old female worker at a massage parlour. The violent protests that ensued from Sonko’s supporters led to widespread material damage and over 20 casualties.
Sall’s initial response has been to aggressively pursue, track and jail more than 600 people, mostly from Sonko’s political party, Pastef. Those openly calling for protest or resistance have been immediately arrested on insurrection charges and jailed, while unidentified armed civilians have fired shots openly in the streets of Dakar in the presence of police.
Sall’s supporters justified and supported this aggressive reaction against Sonko and his supporters and even signed petitions, urging the president to announce his run for a third term. Upon reelection in 2019, Sall promised to restore and deepen the principle of rule of law. So, an attempt to compete for an unconstitutional third term and using the courts to eliminate his political opponent would seriously threaten the inclusive civic dialogue and peaceful transfer of power that are crucial to a healthy democracy.
In a stunning reversal of fortune, on prime time television Monday, Sall announced that he was not running for a third term, surprising even his most loyal supporters who have been urging him on despite the dangers to Senegal’s democracy. Beyond the pressure at both the domestic and the international level, Sall’s historic decision to step down and transfer power at the end of his second and last term early next year reflects a resilience of Senegal’s democracy despite the challenges it still faces.
Senegal’s long tradition of representative democracy and political participation predates independence in 1960. The French colonial administration created four communes where Indigenous people were granted a special status with full political rights equal to French citizens, including the right to representation in the French Parliament. Unlike other French colonies in West and Central Africa, Senegal began its voting experience with legislative competitions as early as 1848, when eligible electors sent their first representative, Barthélémy Durand Valentin from the Island of Gorée, to the French National Assembly. This administrative setup later facilitated the massive recruitment of African soldiers to the French colonial administration, including the French Army starting in 1857.
The “Tirailleurs Sénégalais” were the first African colonial infantry corps in the French army. Witnessing the horrors of World War I and World War II in the heart of Europe ended the myth of a superior European civilisation and gave these returning African soldiers a new outlook in political development and social progress. They advocated for more rights and equality in the colonies when they returned.
After the war, France, like other European colonisers, struggled to maintain its empire abroad as nationalist movements gained momentum in Senegal and other colonies. The French colonial administration passed the Reform Act (Loi-Cadre) in 1956 to extend more autonomy to its colonial possessions in Africa. In 1960, however, the new postwar norm of self-determination, joined by an international movement toward independence, overwhelmed France’s colonial ambitions and inaugurated a new era of political development in Senegal and many other countries.
Two years later, in 1962, Senegal experienced a near-fatal political blow to its newly-founded republic.
A power struggle between President Léopold Sédar Senghor and Prime Minister Mamadou Dia brought the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis. In what could be called a parliamentary republic with a semi-presidential system modeled after the French Fourth Republic, both figures shared dual-executive powers from 1960 to 1962. Senghor oversaw foreign policy while Dia oversaw internal affairs, including economic policymaking. When the two leaders’ views clashed to an irreconcilable level, Senghor used his influence over parliament to carry out a vote of no confidence to remove Dia from office. Found guilty of an unsuccessful coup, Dia and four of his most loyal collaborators were arrested, tried and sent to prison.
The 1962 crisis led to the change from a mixed parliamentary-presidential system to a hyper-presidential system where Senghor became the strongman. When student protests challenged this system in 1968, Senghor clamped down even more, violently deploying government forces to stop the uprisings. His crackdown resulted in close to 30 casualties and the arrest and imprisonment of many student leaders.
Senghor considered the student movement a political instrument of the opposition. As a result, he dissolved all political parties and instituted his own party as the “unified party” — a sort of single-party system.
And yet, the democratic tradition continued. Over the next six years, leaders of banned political parties ran clandestine political operations and relied on supporters who still valued the pluralist society that had existed before 1968. Such persistence paid off. In 1978, three political parties faced off in legislative elections. Senghor defeated Abdoulaye Wade for the presidential election, but opposition parties established themselves and provided space for alternative political views.
In 1980, while his socialist party controlled all branches of government, Senghor decided to retire from politics and step down. He handed the reins to his prime minister, Abdou Diouf — an extremely rare move in the era of strongman rule in Africa. In the absence of true democratic watchdogs due to Cold War realpolitik, in which competing superpowers prioritised political support even from dictators, most African leaders were consolidating their authoritarian rules.
Facing pressure from growing voices in the opposition for failing economic and social policies, and demands from international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank for aggressive structural adjustment reforms, Diouf experienced a first decade of protests and riots, which even turned deadly during the 1988 presidential and legislative elections. To govern, he needed to reconcile a country polarised by violent electoral competitions.
And so, he invited a former political rival, Wade, and the rest of the opposition and anyone interested to form a party and run for office. This full-fledged liberalisation of the political space unleashed new political energies across all sectors of society. In addition to the previously banned political parties, new parties formed. Workers unions, student movements and women’s organisations engaged in civic and policy debates and helped deepen the democratic process. This pluralism is reflected by the existence of more than 300 political parties in Senegal today, even though many of them only exist on paper.
Both President Diouf and later President Wade embraced dialogue and consensus building with other political forces to establish new norms and democratic momentum. Upon pressure from the opposition, Diouf created the National Observatory of Elections in 1997, an independent electoral board led by a nonpartisan bureaucrat. As president, Wade added to that achievement by turning the observatory into an Autonomous National Elections Commission in 2005. He also appointed a minister exclusively in charge of organising elections in 2011, taking them out of the purview of a more partisan interior minister. It worked. From 1998 to 2012, democratic elections ensued, and so too did a peaceful transfer of power between opposing parties.
The response of Sall’s government to the current crisis is threatening these achievements fundamental to free and fair elections. Unidentified armed groups threatening or shooting civilians with impunity, trials without due process and arbitrary arrests of opponents are all the markers of an emerging authoritarian regime that seeks to silence not just one political rival but the whole opposition. However, the political pressure from both domestic and international actors has proved a formidable challenge to any authoritarian inclinations.
Being coveted by many on the global stage because of newly found oil and gas, Senegal enters an era of uncertainties and dangers that many poor countries with resources have failed to navigate successfully. It is a world where often the real first casualties, beyond the physical body count, are democracy, peace and stability. Now that Sall has renounced political ambition for a third term, one would hope that he would also further renounce his government’s recent actions that threaten to undo the nation’s achievements in the democratic journey since independence, something that affects not just Senegal, but the entire West African region and the continent.