June 22, 2023

IntelBrief: Violent Protests Erupt in Senegal, a Once Peaceful Outlier in the Sahel

AP Photo/Leo Correa

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Violent protests erupted in Senegal after the popular opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison for “corrupting the youth.”
  • The protests involve youth – including some children younger than ten – and have been marked by high levels of violence, including the government’s alleged use of armed civilians to quell the unrest.
  • Public frustrations in Senegal have mounted over high youth unemployment, accusations of systemic government corruption, and the erosion of democratic norms by President Macky Sall.
  • The recent outburst of unrest is a troubling development in a country previously heralded as a stable outlier in the Sahel, a region that has become the epicenter of global terrorist activity.

Violent protests erupted in Senegal earlier this month after the popular opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison for “corrupting the youth.” Sonko has not been seen since the verdict was passed down on June 1, and is believed to be in his home awaiting arrest. Known as a firebrand politician, Sonko’s attacks on Senegal’s elites have drawn a large following of young people disillusioned with the country’s economic prospects. In 2021, Sonko was charged with counts of rape and issuing death threats against a woman who worked in a beauty salon. The announcement of the original charges resulted in riots, looting, and the death of a dozen people. Sonko has denied the allegations and has called for the public to protest en masse against the hearings. Although he was ultimately acquitted of the rape charges and death threats, his conviction for “corrupting the youth” is seen by supporters as a ploy to prevent him from running in the February 2024 presidential elections, especially since MPs in the country are granted immunity from arrest. Two other opponents of Senegalese President Macky Sall faced criminal charges that prevented them from running in the 2019 presidential election. Sonko is considered President Macky Sall’s main competition after placing third in the 2019 election.

Rioters have torched cars, ransacked businesses, blocked traffic and streets, and vandalized infrastructure. The government claims these disruptive and violent acts have cost the country millions of dollars. The involvement of youth in the unrest – including some younger than ten years old – as well as the level of violence, make the protests particularly notable. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has strongly condemned the participation of children in protests. In the immediate aftermath of the unrest, the government suspended mobile internet access and restricted access to social media and messaging platforms to quell what it called the spread of “hateful and subversive messages.” The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported over 500 arrests and 350 injuries during the three days of protests at the beginning of the month. Government figures included 63 minors among those arrested. Reports of the death toll range from at least 16 people, according to government sources, to as many as 28 people, according to Amnesty International, including three young people between the ages of 16 and 17 years old. Human rights groups have accused Senegalese security forces of arbitrary arrests and excessive use of force, charges denied by the government. Videos circulating on social media of gendarmes using children as human shields have increased anger toward the government. Protestors and human rights groups have also said men in plainclothes fired guns at protestors and appeared to be fighting alongside police. “Nervis,” a French word for “thugs” used in Senegal to refer to gunmen for hire that are deployed to shut down protests, have been seen outside the ruling party’s headquarters, allegedly collaborated with the police to quell the protests, and are reportedly responsible for deaths of protestors, including children. Senegalese authorities have denied working with armed civilians.

Public frustrations in Senegal have mounted recently over high youth unemployment and accusations of systemic government corruption, including the erosion of democratic norms by President Sall. Since taking office in 2012, he has cracked down on freedom of the press, jailed journalists and political opponents, and amended the country’s constitution to increase presidential term limits. Some fear Sall will utilize this provision to run for a third term. Many Senegalese are frustrated at what they view as a betrayal by the president for reneging on campaign promises to limit presidential terms. The issue became a flashpoint during the previous administration of Abdoulaye Wade, who extended the constitutional limit on presidential terms from five to seven years and secured permission from the country’s highest court to run for a third term, defying the constitutional term limits Wade himself had set earlier in his tenure. The move resulted in protests before the 2012 elections, with some fearing that the tensions could boil over into civil war. Sall’s promise to limit his presidential term was welcome by many Senegalese and was viewed as part of his eventual success over Wade. Sall’s failure to rule out the possibility of running for a third term and perceptions that Sonko’s conviction was politically motivated have fueled grievances and the disillusionment of the current unrest. The government has said that Sonko could petition for a retrial following his impending arrest.

The recent outburst is a troubling development in a country that has been widely heralded as a stable outlier in the Sahel, a region that has become the epicenter of terrorist activity globally. According to the Global Terrorism Index, the Sahel region accounted for 43 percent of terrorism deaths globally in 2022, compared to just one percent of total deaths in 2007. Violence in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali have have spilled over into the region more broadly. Other coastal Western African states, such as Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, and Ghana, appeared to be secure from the reach of regional jihadist groups until recently, but are now experiencing the spread of violence and encroachment by terrorist groups. Togo and Benin had some of their worst Global Terrorism Index scores on record in 2022. The mounting frustrations in Senegal, including economic disillusionment, police violence, and accusations of corruption, have served as conditions that terrorist groups have capitalized on throughout the region. Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS) have taken advantage of porous borders, corruption, weak rule of law, and other multifaceted regional challenges like environmental degradation, food insecurity, migration, and economic instability. These complex and systemic issues, and terrorist groups’ ability to capitalize and amplify them, also hinder efforts to build societal resilience and, ultimately, the conditions necessary for peace to break the cycles of violence. Though the violence has seemed to calm down in Senegal for the time being, the impending arrest of the opposition leader Sonko is likely to result in renewed unrest.