Senegal’s Greatest Test of Democracy

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Ousmane Sonko addressing journalists after his release from police custody in 2021 (Image Credit: AP)

Ousmane Sonko, the prominent opposition leader of Senegal, has gone on a hunger strike in response to his arrest on charges of insurrection.  Additionally, his party, the Patriots of Senegal (PASTEF), has been disbanded by the government. These actions raise concerns over Senegal’s standing as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, as they appear to erode the nation’s democratic foundations amid the regional political turbulence.

The strength of Senegal’s democracy is rooted in various historical factors. The capital city, Dakar, which is also a bustling port town, historically served as a crucial trading hub, facilitating connections between West and Northern African merchants. In addition, the region’s rich resources, including peanuts and other commodities, contributed to Dakar’s emergence as a vibrant commercial center. The port’s strategic significance facilitated early interactions with European powers such as the Portuguese in the 1400s and the French in the 1600s, underscoring the cosmopolitan character of its residents.

These early interactions, both among local inhabitants and foreign traders, nurtured a cultural melting pot in Senegal, forming the bedrock for democratic ideals. In a notable historic milestone, the country elected its first representatives to the General Council of Senegal in 1879, maintaining a degree of autonomy even during colonial rule. The introduction of Islam in the twelfth century further integrated into the social fabric, melding with local ethnicities and becoming an integral aspect of the national culture. Consequently, Islamic leaders have played a pivotal role in shaping and supporting the growth of democracy in Senegal.

The political landscape in the country remained relatively subdued during the initial four decades following its attainment of independence. The Socialist Party (SP) dominated the political scene with limited opposition. However, the year 2000 marked a significant turning point for Senegal’s democracy, as opposition candidate Abdouaye Wade secured victory in the presidential election. The nation further demonstrated its commitment to democratic principles in 2012 when then-President Wade graciously conceded defeat, facilitating a peaceful transition of power to the current President, Macky Sall.

President Sall’s term is set to conclude in 2024, and he has pledged to uphold a peaceful and democratic transfer of power. Nevertheless, recent events have cast a shadow of doubt over the preservation of Senegal’s democratic space. The nation experienced a week-long internet shutdown in July, drawing condemnation from both local and international organizations. Amnesty International issued a call for the immediate cessation of “restrictions on individual freedoms.”

The arrest and imprisonment of opposition leader Sonko triggered violent protests, resulting in at least twenty four fatalities and leaving numerous individuals injured. This volatile situation is likely to persist as Sonko faces additional charges on top of his existing two-year imprisonment for alleged “moral corruption.” Notably, the country has witnessed sporadic episodes of unrest in the past two years due to Sonko’s clashes with the government.

The implications for Senegal’s future are profound. Sonko’s convictions could potentially serve as grounds for his exclusion from the upcoming presidential elections next year. Similar incidents occurred in 2019, where opposition figures Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall were convicted of corruption charges, effectively barring their participation in the elections. This scenario could trigger heightened tension and violence fueled by Sonko’s supporters, rendering the electoral process untenable.

Senegal also faces the possibility of a substantial lack of a formidable opposition for the first time in two decades, impeding its democratic progress. There is growing concern that Sonko might withdraw from the electoral race entirely, potentially plunging the country into political turmoil. While Sonko previously contested but lost to the incumbent, his subsequent election as the mayor of Ziguinchor in 2022 gave him new impetus in the country’s political circlesThe international community has largely maintained a distance from the unfolding events in Senegal. However , it is imperative to closely monitor the situation. Prominent figures such as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and African Union Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat have called for the restoration of calm during this tumultuous period. The response of the Senegalese government remains uncertain; however it is crucial to safeguard fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech and assembly, in order to maintain stability and uphold democratic values.

Written by Gathieri Kahuko

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