In Senegal, the Government’s Boasts About Upholding Democracy Ring Hollow

Senegal’s government has condemned last month’s coup in Niger, even pledging to send troops to help restore the rule of law. But far from a beacon of democracy, this ally of Paris and Washington is mounting its own bloody crackdown on opposition at home.

Senegalese president Macky Sall listens at a press conference on June 20, 2023, in Lisbon, Portugal. (Horacio Villalobos / Corbis via Getty Images)

The coup d’état in Niger this July 26 was bound to send shockwaves through nearby capitals — and just four days later, a joint statement from the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) duly expressed “zero tolerance for unconstitutional change.” One signatory was Senegal’s president Macky Sall, who has taken a firm stance since rebel officers seized power in Niamey. Last week, decrying “one coup too many,” his foreign minister pledged that Senegal was ready to join an ECOWAS military intervention in the country, unless the coup leaders hand power back to the democratically elected government. With Niger’s military junta ignoring the original deadline and diplomatic efforts still floundering, leaders from the fifteen-member bloc are meeting again on Thursday to determine the next steps.

But for many Senegalese, their government’s rhetoric about the rule of law rings hollow. Even as it decries the putsch in Niger, this key ally of Washington and Paris is overseeing one of the most brutal crackdowns on political opposition since the country won independence in 1960.

Democratic Backsliding

“I would say it’s the worst it’s ever been,” said Félix Atchadé, a columnist for the Senegalese news website Seneplus. “It’s not a state of emergency and it’s not a state of siege which are both in the Constitution, but it’s a state of exception where they’re detaining people and then sticking them with any number of charges.”

For her part, Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director for Human Rights Watch, uses the term “democratic backsliding” — a process that she says has ramped up since President Sall’s reelection in 2019. In an interview with Jacobin, Nantulya pointed to the repeated arrests of journalists, a trend that has contributed to Senegal tumbling over fifty places in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index. Yet she also cited a strict new counterterror law. Since 2021, “terrorist acts” now include “seriously disturbing public order” and “offenses linked to information and communication technologies.”

The most visible repression over the last two years, however, has centered on opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and his supporters — a group that tends to be younger than most voters in a country where the average age is only nineteen. Founder of the Patriots of Senegal for Labor, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party, he came in third place in the most recent presidential election, but his blend of populism and Pan-Africanism has made him a leading contender ahead of the next such contest in February 2024. Over the last couple of years, the forty-nine-year-old former tax inspector has faced a slew of charges that his supporters decry as politically motivated, leading to a cycle of mass protests and violent state backlash.

In February 2021, Sonko was accused of raping a twenty-year-old employee of a beauty parlor, setting off violent demonstrations resulting in fourteen deaths — twelve of them due to gunshots fired by security and defense forces, according to Amnesty International. The highly anticipated case concluded this June, when a court acquitted Sonko of rape charges but sentenced him to two years in prison for “corrupting youth” — a conviction that could legally prevent him from running for president next February. That news sparked yet another round of mass protests, which resulted in sixteen deaths and five hundred arrests. As the New York Times reported, death certificates showed that many of the victims were shot with live ammunition.

Also fueling outrage on the streets was President Sall’s refusal to rule out a third term, despite the Constitution limiting presidents to two terms. For over a year, Sall openly flirted with the possibility of running again. Only in early July did he concede that he would indeed step down once his current term is over.

But that hasn’t eased the clampdown on his rivals. Last Monday, Sonko, who hadn’t even begun his prison sentence for “corrupting youth,” was detained and hit with separate charges, accused this time of “fomenting insurrection.” Then, after temporarily shutting down mobile internet networks, the country’s Ministry of the Interior announced a formal ban of Sonko’s party PASEF. It marks the first time a party has been outlawed since Senegal won independence from France in 1960.

Last month, authorities also detained Sonko’s lawyer Juan Branco, a well-known French writer, before deporting him to France.

Elite Fears

According to Félix Atchadé, elite fears of Sonko stem in part from his political program. The former civil servant and trade union activist has famously called for Senegal to leave the CFA franc, a currency founded in the colonial era which, pegged to the euro, is still today used by fourteen African countries.

“There are two things that irritate,” Atchadé told Jacobin:

He calls for monetary sovereignty, which hurts the interests of the comprador bourgeoisie who wants there to be a CFA franc linked to the euro, which helps these people maintain their advantages. The second source of irritation is that he appears to take seriously the critique of international financial institutions over what’s called “bad governance” in Africa. He’s someone who says “there are problems of bad governance and corruption and they need to come to an end.” This is common in African political discourse — anybody aspiring for higher office or already in power says this. But there’s a way of saying it and conceptualizing it that can scare certain people.

Sonko’s experience as a tax inspector lends his political discourse extra weight. Calls to rein in tax fraud and corruption are grounded in his firsthand experience of the system.

But even beyond his political program, Atchadé said that Sonko’s base of support and apparent disinterest in making peace with ruling élites have made many of the latter uneasy.

“Sonko’s party doesn’t fall within the bounds of how the dominant classes conceive of handing over power,” the columnist told Jacobin. “The social forces that support Ousmane Sonko are social forces that are truly at odds with the system as it is, with the inequalities that continue to grow, even within the elites. These are the forces that support Sonko and his party, and that scares some people. That’s why the repression taking place is happening amidst the silence of these elites.”

Ties With Paris

That apparent unwillingness to speak out extends beyond Senegalese borders.

Much like the United States, the French government has been reluctant to publicly criticize the democratic backsliding in Senegal, a former colony and ally with which it has enjoyed warm relations for decades. While Paris may want to avoid the impression of interference, Human Rights Watch’s Carine Kaneza Nantulya said that Western governments could still be more proactive in their condemnation of abuses. “When you have the excessive use of force, we should hear the voice of France and the US,” she told Jacobin. “African citizens should hear their voices and not in small diplomatic meetings behind closed doors. They need to be louder.”

Arnaud Le Gall, an MP from the left-populist France Insoumise and member of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs commission, agreed that President Emmanuel Macron should speak out, but remained skeptical. “He should do it,” Le Gall said. “But given the domestic situation in France, I don’t know how he would. He’s more of a symptom of what’s happening around the world, which is the authoritarian drift of neoliberalism.”

Senegalese authorities also maintain friendly relations with French business leaders. While today it has dropped behind China, France has historically been Senegal’s largest source of foreign investment, with companies like Auchan, Décathlon, and Total familiar to many residents of Senegal. In addition to meeting with Macron, President Sall has cultivated ties with Marine Le Pen, even meeting the far-right politician in January when she visited a rice farm majority-owned by a French shareholder and a sugar production facility owned by a French billionaire.

Against this backdrop and the broader history of French colonialism, Sonko’s critique of “neocolonialism” has real popular appeal. In an interview with Jacobin, Dr Dialo Diop, a longtime activist and vice president of PASTEF, whose responsibilities include questions related to Pan-Africanism and historical memory, strongly denied that the party is “anti-French.”

“Talking about anti-French sentiment is a very politician-like and very French way to belittle a movement with ambitions that are continent-wide,” Diop said. “This is about a position that is defended by entire populations and represents a massive desire to break with Françafrique, its crimes, its misdeeds, its pillage, and its dispossession.”

“We’re African patriots and Pan-African democrats,” he continued. “We’re only against contempt, anti-black racism and racist crimes against black people, wherever they are.”

For similar reasons, Diop said that he did not want to see Senegal dragged into a war driven by what he viewed as Western interests. “The threat to intervene, driven by the French and the Americans, is in the natural order of neocolonialism, but in today’s context, it’s no longer tolerated or accepted by African peoples,” he said. “The world has changed.”

Fellow PASTEF member Guy Marius Sagna, a member of Senegal’s National Assembly, recently criticized the government’s support for an invasion of Niger. Corresponding with Jacobin over WhatsApp, he shared one of his formal written questions to the government. It asks how “one of the world’s thirty poorest countries” could be brought into a conflict with Niger and expresses Sagna’s “total disagreement”: “A war against Niger in which Senegal participates: not in my name!”