Written by: Jadalyn Eagens
On March 3, 2021, protests uncharacteristically broke out in Senegal. According to the Economist, the country has been considered as one of the “beacons of peace and democracy” within Africa, further stating that Senegal had never faced a coup or harsh authoritarianism. So what made this relatively peaceful country break out in the largest protests that it has seen in years?
At the center of the controversy stands one unnamed woman. The 20-year old masseuse accused popular opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, of raping and threatening her in Feburary. It was then on March 3 that Ousmane Sonko headed to court to face these allegations. However, while on his way to the courthouse, he stopped to greet his supporters on the streets. Because of this, Sonko was arrested and charged with disturbing the public order along with participating in an illegal demonstration. Sonko’s supporters then rushed to the streets to air their grievances with the current government.
A significant component of these protests is the unnamed woman who stands in the middle of it. As a result of her publicly voicing the rape accusations, the masseuse became a target for Sonko’s supporters. Her identity was revealed to the public and her picture was passed along through WhatsApp. This public backlash is mainly due to Sonko denying the accusations as an attempt by the current president, Macky Sall, to sabotage and even silence his political opposition. In claiming this, however, academic Rama Salla Dieng says that the victim’s character has been, “dragged through the mud by the press and her life put on display for public consumption, while Ousmane Sonko has been painted as innocent before any legal inquiry.” Many feminist organizations are also fearful that the politicization of Sonko’s rape accusations would make it even harder for victims to come forward.
Contrarily, Sonko’s claims could hold some semblance of truth to them. Sall has been known to arrest and sideline his opponents. In 2007, Sall brought his opponent, Karim Wade, to parliament to testify for charges of corruption. Then in 2018, new rival Khalifa Sall (no relation) was arrested and jailed also over corruption charges. Currently, Sonko has proven to be popular among young voters, and in the 2019 presidential elections he came in third, taking about 15.67% of the vote. As a result, Sonko does seem like a powerful opponent for the upcoming 2024 elections, and it seemed to ring true for many people that Sall could be trying to sideline his opponent early. Therefore, part of the reason that protestors were taking to the streets was to fight the perceived power grabbing of the Macky Sall administration.
Yet, there was another dimension to the protests, which was the growing frustration over the economic inequalities within the nation. According to the Economist, in the six years prior to COVID-19, Senegal’s GDP was growing at a rate of 5% per year. But, these gains were mostly captured by the rich. Additionally, there has been high unemployment among young people, where one in five were found to be unemployed pre-pandemic.
Furthermore, the protests are fueled by anti-French sentiment. Senegal was a former colony of France and many of the protestors believe that the Sall administration is working with France to make Senegal a vehicle for France’s economic interests. The French dominate some of the Senegalese import markets, making it difficult for the average Senegalese person to obtain certain items. Therefore, during the protest, certain businesses had been targeted such as French-owned gas stations and supermarkets.
All of these dimensions created such a large, multi-faceted protest that turned violent. Police shot teargas, rubber bullets, and sometimes even live bullets at protestors. Protestors responded by throwing rocks, burning tires, and destroying property. In the end, eight to ten people were killed and hundreds of others were injured. Sonko was released on bail on March 8; however, his release hasn’t seemed to quell the revolutionary sentiment. In a tweet, Sonko stated, “We don’t want to take responsibility for undermining our democracy. But let’s be clear, the revolution is on the march toward 2024.” To some, Sall’s response to the demonstrations has seemed lack-luster because he never addressed any of the grievances of the protestors or sincerely apologized for the deaths of protestors at the hands of the Sengalese armed forces.
While the protests themselves have stopped, tensions are running high in Senegal. From the context of Sonko’s tweet, there is a possibility of further protests in the future. The concerns surrounding victims’ rights have also yet to be addressed. Particularly with the release of Sonko, it seems like public opinion is unwilling to stand on the side of the victims. In addition, there was nothing done to discuss the income inequality within the nation. Furthermore, the destroying of French-owned property could land Senegal in a difficult place when it comes to foreign policy. Overall, the nature of Senegal’s democracy is up in the air and there are significant issues that the country could be forced to address in the near term.