Mandinka’s say siño ku bika, siño karr. A long long time ago, the Roman poet Horace stated similarly, Nam tua res agitur, paries cum proximus ardet which rendered in English translates as “You too are in danger, when your neighbour’s house is on fire”.
The house of our neighbours, Senegal, is on fire. Literally. Twitter has been ablaze over the past 72 hours. The hashtag #FreeSenegal is everywhere. At least three people have been reported dead, scores injured and public buildings have been ransacked and the homes of several politicians set on fire. French companies have been vandalised and sacked by throngs of people.
Everyone is pointing to a political manipulation of justice in order to remove a political opponent. In the past few weeks, a reported 13 people have been killed, shot by the police or victims of clashes in the streets. The riots were massive in Dakar but also in other regions like Kaolack, Kolda, Ziguinchor, even Saint-Louis.
The arrest of an opposition leader was the pretext for thousands of people across the country to take to the streets. Ever since Ousmane Sonko, leader of the Pastef party, was accused of rape in a massage parlour on 31 January 2021, a rising political tension has gripped the country. Matters escalated when a procedure was invoked to terminate the parliamentary immunity of Sonko, who had entered the national hemicycle in 2017.
Leaked minutes and several private investigations had revealed to public opinion elements that strongly suggest that this accusation of rape against this legitimate candidate for the status of Senegal’s opposition leader is, in fact, a political ambush.
What is happening in Senegal is not just about Sonko. He is just the spark that ignited the fire. People are angry at President Macky Sall. It’s hard to believe that people are robbing businesses because of an injustice against a political leader. Not even the Covid-19 crisis can explain or justify the protests and targeted looting of the past few days. The roots of the violence are intrinsically linked to the poor performance of Senegalese democracy.
In recent years, several civil society organisations in the country have warned of a growing loss of control over the country’s democratic gains. The barbarity of an unbalanced democracy is as deadly as a dictatorship.
What options are there outside of violence that can sound the alarm for good governance and social and economic justice? Why is it that the Senegalese police force known for its efficiency and courtesy has turned into an executioner when it comes to controlling peaceful demonstrations? The danger is to make violence legitimate when there seems to be no other way.
Since Senegal is being held hostage in the political arena, where a partisan state with exaggerated power can dominate, it has become necessary for The Gambia as the closest neighbour of Senegal, to intervene by way of mediation. When The Gambia was facing an existential threat in December and January of 2016/17, it was Macky Sall and Senegal that took the lead in ensuring that the fire of a major conflict did not burn down the country. President Barrow should leverage his special relationship with President Sall and advise him accordingly.
The current wave of unrest and tension in the country has been triggered by his desire to cling on to power for a questionable third term. President Sall should be told that even if he succeeded in bending the instruments of the Senegalese state to his will, his will be a Pyrrhic victory. He would have won the battle to become president but would lose the war of becoming an effective leader for Senegal.