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A Political Crisis in Senegal

Over the decades, Senegal has earned a reputation as a reliably stable democracy in West Africa. But recent events have put that reputation to test.  Over the last month, Senegal has been rocked by widespread protests against the government of President Macky Sall. These protests were sparked by the arrest and conviction of a prominent opposition party leader, Ousmane Sanko. The government response to these protests has been brutal. More than a dozen people have been killed, many by live ammunition fired into crowds of protesters.

Joining me to discuss recent events in Senegal is Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy director within the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. We discuss what lead to these protests and what Human Rights Watch uncovered about the government’s deadly response. We then have a broader discussion about what is driving democratic backsliding in Senegal.

Episode is available on all podcast apps, here. 

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Transcript Lightly Edited

Why Did Major Protests Erupt in Senegal?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:02:43] Can I have you describe the circumstances around why it was that demonstrations broke out in Dakar on May 31st? 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:02:52] Well, the demonstrations broke out in Dakar on May 31st after a criminal court sentenced a prominent opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, who’s the head of political party, the quite popular Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l’éthique et la fraternité, the acronym is PASTEF. So the criminal court sentenced him to two years in jail for allegedly corrupting youth, which ultimately undermined his chances to run next year in the 2024 presidential election. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:26] Can I ask you about that specific conviction? Because it is odd to hear in English someone convicted for the crime of “corrupting the youth.” What did that mean in practice? 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:03:39] Well, this is not the first time Mr. Ousmane Sonko has had to face court sentences. You may remember a few years back he had been faced with a charge of rape, which was eventually dropped. And for this specific one, this falls within an increasing crackdown on opposition political dissent. Some may have accused the government for politicizing the judiciary. 

[00:04:14] The independence of the judiciary has been called into question specifically when it comes to the different charges that have been brought before

[00:04:30] It’s a broad sentencing that may fall within a law that was promulgated, I believe, in June 2021, which provides broad police surveillance powers around the activities of the political opposition. It curtails the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:52] So it sounds like it’s a flimsy and spurious thing to be convicted of, corrupting the youth. However, he was acquitted earlier of a rape trial as well. So he was convicted of this odd charge of corrupting the youth. What happened upon his conviction? 

What Human Rights Watch Discovered About the Deadly Crackdown on Protesters in Senegal

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:05:16] So the demonstrations broke out — Ousmane’s a very popular figure amongst the youth. They took their grievances and their protests to the streets. And when we were doing our research, we interviewed about 19 people, including protesters, civil society activists, members of the opposition and journalists, lawyers. And we also reviewed reports by different national and international media outlets, photographs, videos, etc.. 

[00:05:41] And what we were able to document is that demonstrators built barricades. They blocked main roads, they burned tires, they destroyed and looted public and private property. And there was a face off with the police. They threw stones at the police and the police responded with tear gas. 

[00:05:58] One journalist told us that the police fired so many tear gas that he couldn’t breathe. On another incident, there were reports of the presence of thugs among the security forces — these are thugs called nervis. They ride cars without plates and act, as a journalist said, with impunity under the protection of security forces. 

[00:06:20] So some sort of thuggish groups that move with the security forces in other places. For instance, on June 1st in northern Senegal, security forces arrested 40 people, including a woman and 27 children as young as 11 years old, after a demonstration in support of Osman Sonko. 

[00:06:40] Most of them were members of Sonko’s political party. And we were told that the woman who was arrested as part of the 40 people. And that person said to us that the policeman stopped the woman and told her, “We know you are a PASTEF leader,” and they beat her brutally. 

[00:07:01] But it’s important to highlight these latest demonstrations, because this is not the first incident of violent demonstrations. It’s been a trend. It’s been a dynamic that we’ve seen, at least from Human Rights Watch since 2021. 

[00:07:17] And all these demonstrations are occurring amid a general unrest in Senegal, and most of them protests are linked to President Macky Sall’s silence on whether he would run for a third term in office. And of course, the court case that’s involving Sonko. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:33] You mentioned that really this cycle of protest and repression began in 2021. 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:07:40] We saw this more acutely in 2021. Correct. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:44] And what was the spark back in 2021? We saw, of course, in June, the most proximate spark was the conviction of Ousmane Sonko on that charge of corrupting the youth. What happened in 2021 to kick start the cycle that we’re seeing now, this very escalatory cycle that we’re seeing? 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:08:09] One has to link it to a broader dynamic within the promises of the current administration that at least is perceived to have failed delivering. In 2021 we can see young people taking up the streets with grievances around the lack of employment, the lack of access to education. Again, 2021 is also really within the height of the impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic. It’s important to remember that. 

[00:08:39] Again, we see security forces responding violently, arbitrarily arresting and detaining different constituencies, different groups of people, including, again, members of Sonko’s political party, and other political groups, including journalists and activists. So we see an increase in the crackdown by the government that is now increasingly met by a political opposition that is very defiant and that is not afraid to even protest violently. 

[00:09:14] As we saw in these recent demonstrations, we have many different coalition groups. So besides the political opposition parties like myself, we also see other networks, coalition groups from civil society, these Pan-Africanist groups that are now increasingly aligning themselves with the discourse of PASTEF and who are openly rallying and mobilizing the youth again for more protests in the coming months. 

[00:09:42] We’ve made it very call to the Human Rights Watch and the African Union to look at these trends and take them seriously because they do not bode well with the 2024 presidential elections. 

Why Senegal President Macky Sall is Flirting With a Constitutionally Dubious Third Term?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:58] You mentioned earlier that these protests are driven also by public flirtations, by Macky Sall of going for a constitutionally dubious third term in office. What do we know about his decision making there? Because, Senegal has a reputation for presidents abiding by the Constitution. But here it seems that Macky Sall might diverge from history and indeed go for that constitutionally dubious third term. 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:10:35] We’ve not heard a clear answer to that question from President Macky Sall. We know that Senegal has always been grounded and presented as an example of stability in a region that is increasingly being faced with coups and constitutional changes of governance. Let’s also remember that Macky Sall became president in 2012 after former president Wade, against whom there were also some rumors and accusations around whether he was going to go for a third term. 

[00:11:10] So third term-ism in Senegal is also part of a recent discourse within the population, within young people where they basically say we’re not going to have a third term now because we don’t have a third term. 

[00:11:24] When you talk to people, especially in Dakar, you hear that rhetoric quite strongly where they talk about them not wanting to allow a precedent taking place in Senegal. These are some of the key issues that President Macky Sall and his supporters and his partners and the broader region will have to be faced with. 

[00:11:47] Can Senegal afford to go down a path of instability because of the desire overstaying Michy Sall’s reign? That’s a question to be answered. But from a human rights perspective, I think there are other questions that are very important, regardless of what Macky Sall would like to do. Number one, we have victims who have died. 

How Many People Were Killed During the Protests in Senegal?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:10] At least 14 is the number that I saw most recently cited by the press. 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:12:14] Yes, we have about 16 deaths. Obviously, that’s a conservative number. And people who are still in prisons said to us in our interviews that they’ve never seen so many political prisoners since the sixties in Senegal. Victims and their families need to know the whereabouts of some of the family members. They need to know the circumstances of the deaths of their loved ones. They need justice. Members of security forces who use lethal force, which led to the death of so many Senegalese men and women, need to account for those crimes. 

[00:13:04] And these are questions that are becoming more urgent by the day as more protests are being organized, as more young people do not seem to be scared by the crackdown and the lethal force that they may have to face on the other side. These are questions that need to be answered. That’s why Human Rights Watch is calling for an investigation. We are calling for the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to pronounce itself and to actually carry out a fact finding mission. 

Why is Senegal Experiencing Democratic Backsliding?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:36] So everything you just said now just reinforces to me to a certain extent, how odd it is to be having this conversation in the first place for the reason you cited earlier, which is that Senegal has this reputation as a regional bastion of stability, of multiparty democracy, of a place where one can freely express one’s political opinion. Yet that’s obviously not the case. 

[00:14:01] You’ve just described horrific human rights abuses in which the government and affiliated paramilitary thugs, as you called them, shot live rounds into crowds, killing lots of people. This just is not something that we’re accustomed to hearing coming from Senegal. So I’m curious to learn from you what happened here. What is driving this backsliding that we’re seeing in Senegal today? 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:14:27] Generally speaking, there’s been a backsliding in terms of democracy in West Africa. I was talking to some of our partners and colleagues, and you hear more and more words like, where are the giants of Africa? We once had the Nelson Mandelas and South Africa, yes but we also had Isatou Touray in West Africa. Where are these strong men and women really used to influence and leverage their leadership in a way that some of this violence was actually being tackled decisively? 

[00:15:07] Going back to the nineties and early 2000, we saw stronger economic intergration across West Africa like ECOWAS, which is a regional grouping of West African states within the African Union. And we saw more and more the issue of military regimes being tackled by different governments to a point where we saw opposition parties rotating and coming in. We saw all the parties that had been in power for 40 years, leaving the stage and basically seeing some democratic dividends taking place — Senegal is a good example. 

[00:15:46] And in the last few years, we’re seeing a return of military coups. We see a return of a very worrying rhetoric against the political opposition and the media, Mebers of civil society organizations. Where does it come from? I think there’s a number of factors, really. But maybe the one that speaks to Human Rights Watch and falls within our mandate is impunity. It’s really impunity. 

[00:16:18] It’s the fact that ever since we’ve documented these attacks and the violence and the crackdown by security forces, we haven’t seen justice and accountability being taken seriously or being implemented. As I mentioned before, victims have not seen justice. And that creates a pattern. It creates a pattern of impunity and it breeds into more violence. Unfortunately, as Senegal really on this terrible path. 

[00:16:49] And are we talking about a path of non-return? I wouldn’t think so. That’s not what I’m saying. I think what we need to see is really a concerted effort by the government, including myself. Obviously my government will talk about my concerns government, but also regional institutions like ECOWAS, the African Union, to put pressure on the Senegalese government and refuse to see Senegal going the path of some of its neighbors. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:21] Do you see it as inevitable that Senegal may indeed go the path of its neighbors who have experienced high levels of violence and political instability if indeed Macky Sall does run for a third term for elected? Elections  are scheduled in 2024. If he does go the third-termism route, do you just foresee there to be more conflict and violence in the country? 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:17:52] There’s definitely going to be more disturbances. Is there going to be more violence? That will depend on two stakeholders. One is the military. The second one is the judiciary. We’ve heard that the government may want to carry out some investigation. We haven’t seen much. There was a statement put out by the Minister of Foreign Affairs recently in response to a statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

[00:18:22] The Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the use of firearms in a statement and in response to the statements of the UN, the Minister of Foreign Affairs said that this recent protest of early June had absolutely nothing to do with the exercise of the rights of expression and demonstration, but rather were attacks against the state amounting to terrorism. And this is something we saw in 2021. 

[00:18:47] Such statements should not take place. What I’m trying to say is that the government has the room, it has the freedom and the possibility to make sure that i can curb its rhetoric and its stance on issues of peaceful dissent, the right to freedom of expression, the right to assembly, the right to access information. During the recent protests, internet was shut down for a few days. These are some of the trends we’re looking at and we call on the government to address them before there’s more violence, a deterioration of the security situation. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:26] Looking ahead, are there any indicators or inflection points that you will be monitoring that will suggest to you whether or not the unrest may subside or, the other hand, escalate? 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:19:42] I think the first entry point for us would be to really look at the actions taken by security forces when demonstrations take place. It will be to look at how the access to Internet and social media is being regulated. Another indicator would be the number of court cases presented against Sonko and besides Sonko, other members of political parties, including journalists and activist. Those are some of the trends we are currently monitoring. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:17] Carine, thank you so much for your time. 

Carine Kaneza Nantulya [00:20:19] Thank you for having me.