Large-scale protests have swept Senegal since the beginning of March, reflecting widespread anger at corruption, high unemployment, and what many regard as a politically motivated rape charge against opposition leader Ousmane Sonko (he denies the accusation). President Macky Sall’s government has cracked down violently on the demonstrations – the West African country’s largest in a decade. At least eight people have died, and restrictions on freedom of speech have been imposed.
Sall’s government should step back and reconsider its approach. Rather than threatening the country’s hard-won democratic gains, it should de-escalate tensions and promote economic recovery.
Senegal’s long march toward democracy began seven decades ago, with demands for independence from French colonial rule. The country achieved that goal following a 1960 power-transfer agreement with France, and the poet Léopold Sédar Senghor became its first president.
The fight for democracy began anew in 1988, when opposition parties alleged fraud in the presidential election won by the incumbent, Abdou Diouf. In response, Diouf’s government imposed a long-lasting state of emergency, including a cumbersome curfew. But when Diouf lost the 2000 presidential election, he handed over power peacefully to his opponent, Abdoulaye Wade, in a move that solidified Senegal’s reputation as a regional bastion of political stability.
In 2012, the “June 23 Movement,” a civil-society grouping led by young people and artists, fought to preserve Senegal’s constitution and prevent Wade from winning what would have been a highly controversial third term as president. (A constitutional provision limiting presidents to two consecutive terms in office took effect in 2001, a year after Wade became president.) In the event, Wade lost a second-round runoff to Sall, who was re-elected in 2019.
But although Senegal now maintains the formal features of democracy, the country needs more than an institutional façade. In fact, Senegal has fallen short of being a true democracy in several worrying respects in recent years.
For starters, Sall’s administration has been accused of embezzlement and corruption in the gas and natural resources sector. The government has also sought to sideline several political opponents through selective accusations of corruption and sexual harassment – including the rape allegation against Sonko that helped to trigger the recent countrywide protests. And the authorities’ heavy-handed efforts to quash these demonstrations – with credible sources reporting that a 17-year-old boy was killed by gunfire in the protests – have further undermined its democratic credentials.
To prevent Senegalese democracy from being further imperiled, the government must defuse a volatile situation. If the government is to restore its reputation, it must give victims and their families justice, and assure the public that the security forces will not use such violence against peaceful protesters again. There also needs to be an investigation into the independently reported shutdowns of the internet, some media outlets, and messaging apps during the protests on March 4. In Senegal, legal matters must never be settled with force and violence, and political disagreements must never be managed by silencing opponents and curtailing freedom of speech.
As in 2012, Senegalese youth are prepared to protest peacefully in order to protect the country’s constitution and the legitimacy of the next presidential election, which is scheduled to take place in 2024. Time and again, Senegalese governments have tried to twist the constitution for political gain, transforming the state into what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson call a “Paper Leviathan” that manages to be both oppressive and ineffective. Unless Sall’s government changes its ways, we may well see a replay of the protests that roiled the country a decade ago.
In any case, the current administration has too much to do to be focusing on the 2024 election already. In particular, it should continue to implement its Priority Action Plan, a series of bold reforms – including an industrial policy, special economic zones, industrial parks, and regional mining facilities – that could make Senegal a model for industrialization in Africa. The government should also be striving to deliver relief from COVID-19 by using its modest financial resources to secure vaccines.
Policymakers can promote a strong post-pandemic recovery through structural changes aimed at ensuring a more dynamic, inclusive economy. But this will happen only if they make industrialization a priority again and invest in Senegal’s human capital.
International institutions strongly support the government’s development plans. Their successful implementation would most likely ensure another peaceful transfer of power in 2024 to a new, legitimately elected president. Such an outcome would bolster Senegal’s political stability – and thus its economic prospects – considerably.
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