Resisting state brutality in Senegal

The current political crisis in Senegal is neither a symptom of ‘democracy dying in Africa’ nor the country being ‘on the brink’ as some headlines from the western media would have it. On the contrary, this illusion does not hold when one considers the country’s political history stained by state and police brutality and human rights violations since independence.

This article was originally published in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE), by Rama Salla Dieng. It is being re-published here in the context of this week’s election where Diomaye Faye has won over 50% of the vote and is expecting to be officially confirmed as president in the coming days. He is extremely popular amongst the youth and has run on a campaign aimed against persistent poverty and corruption.

Police during a protests in Dakar in 2008. Photo credit: ROAPE

From 1960, Senegal has experienced four long periods of non-military rule: Léopold Sédar Senghor (1960–80), Abdou Diouf (1980–2000), Abdoulaye Wade (2000–12) and Macky Sall (2012–April 2024, pending elections). Yet, the recent parliamentary decision to postpone the February 2024 presidential elections is considered by many to be an institutional coup by the incumbent president. Rejected by the Constitutional Court, the decision catalysed mass uprisings in major Senegalese cities in which four protestors died.

This essay takes a longue durée approach to explain that the pre-electoral period has always been a trying time for the Senegalese democracy. All incumbent presidents have attempted to remain in power through manipulating electoral laws. This is well-illustrated by Macky Sall’s postponement of the February elections to 2 June by mobilising a parliamentary vote backed by the majority of coalition MPs and the intervention of the police on the street to subdue the protest. This moment is comparable to the major institutional crisis of 1962 which resulted in Senegal adopting a presidential regime. In addition, the prevailing state and EU-sponsored police brutality is reminiscent of the crackdown against the May 1968 mass protests that erupted for similar reasons. Finally, the government’s Amnesty bill related to the deadly protests between March 2021 and February 2024, which is being discussed by the Senegalese Parliament on 6 March 2024, is comparable to the 2005 Ezzan law.

Momar Coumba Diop rightly reminds us that in reconfiguring forces in Senegalese society, the ruling elites were not successful in asserting ‘lasting moral and intellectual leadership over the society’. Consequently, groups challenging the legitimacy of the ruling class have developed a ‘riot culture’.

The current 2024 political crisis which started with the March 2021 citizen protest has led to the highest number of killings (over 60) and unlawful imprisonments that the country has known. But I argue that what we are currently witnessing in Senegal is neither ‘democracy dying in Africa’ nor the country being ‘on the brink’ as per some catastrophist headlines from the British media. On the contrary, the roots of the current crisis are to be found in the highly centralised Senegalese political system which allows for extreme concentration of powers in the hands of the president. Senegal’s home-grown model of democracy from below explains the historical struggle against constitutional coups.

An unprecedented parliamentary crisis?

The institutional crisis which started on 5 February 2024 is not an unprecedented. It was under President Léopold Sédar Senghor that the young Republic experienced its first major crisis in December 1962 resulting in the arrest and life imprisonment of the then Prime Minister Mamadou Dia. A few days later, on 19 December 1962, the parliament approved President Senghor’s decision to merge the functions of Prime Minister and President, thereby confirming President Senghor as the new head of government. It was following this internal coup, orchestrated by Senghor, that the referendum organised in March 1963 sealed the adoption of a presidential regime in Senegal.

Remember May 1968!

On 3 February 1967, with the assassination of the MP Demba Diop in a parking lot in Thiès followed by the attempted assassination of President Senghor, two people were caught, tried and executed the same year. Senghor was re-elected in 1968 against this background after which his government passed an austerity package affecting student welfare programmes. This prompted unprecedented strike actions at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. The strike, which constituted the twilight hours of revolutionary politics in Senegal according to Pascal Bianchini, became generalised when major labour unions joined in, later amplified by peasant organising, leading to student and worker arrests and deaths. To address the political crisis a cabinet reshuffle was introduced followed by a state of emergency, declared in May 1968.

In a similar fashion, the 2021 protests resulted in at least 60 un-investigated deaths, including students, and the closure of the main university sites. As was the objective of the May 1968 students, workers and peasants, the protests were aimed at fighting the high costs of living in rural and urban centres.

How to get away with murder?

The outgoing president and government’s proposed fast-track Amnesty bill related to the deadly protests between March 2021 and February 2024, is being discussed by the Senegalese Parliament on 6 March 2024. The proposed Amnesty bill which would cover ‘all acts likely to be classified as criminal or correctional offences committed between February 1, 2021 and February 25, 2024, both in Senegal and abroad, relating to demonstrations or having political motivations’. This would open the door to impunity and would be the ultimate affront to victims and survivors of protests and their families according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The Amnesty bill is comparable to the 2005 Ezzan Amnesty law which was contested by the opposition and the civil society. The Article 1 of the Ezzan bill granted a ‘complete amnesty for all crimes committed in Senegal and abroad, relating to the general or local elections or committed with political motivations between 1 January 1983 and 31 December 2004, whether the authors have been judged or not.’ As for the law’s article 2, which was found unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court on 12 February 2005, it sought to grant a similar amnesty for all crimes committed in relation to the death of Babacar Sèye. Sèye, a judge and then Vice-President of the Constitutional Court, was assassinated on 15 May 1993, the day after the results of the legislative elections (won by the Senegalese Socialist Party-PS) results were announced.

Despite the case being still unresolved, three men including Cledor Sene were condemned in 1994 for murder and arrested. Both human rights organisations and the local civil society have indicated their suspicions of a political killing and pointed to the responsibility of activists in the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) then led by Abdoulaye Wade. Abdou Latif Coulibaly, an investigative journalist and former minister (who resigned during the February events) also suspected that Judge Sèye’s assassination was a contract killing and the liberation of Sene and his co-accused in 2002 by Wade, two years after he became president fuelled the suspicions on his involvement.

Considering this past and the fact that the first Amnesty law in Senegal was introduced by President Senghor to ‘pardon’ his former prime minister Mamadou Dia in 1976, and the 2005 Ezzan Amnesty bill introduced by Wade, the  question must be asked: is history repeating itself in 2024 with Macky Sall proposed Amnesty?

Legacies of 23 June 2011

President Sall has been testing the quality of the Senegalese institutions, which he has spent two terms undermining. The illustration here is the lack of separation between the executive, the parliament, and the judiciary. The current coup by Macky Sall reminds many of his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade’s attempt to change the constitution for a third term, despite his promise of Sopi (radical change) which saw him elected in 2000 in a tide of popular support but led to extreme confrontations between citizens and the police within and outside parliament on 23 June 2011.

Similarly, we witnessed how on 5 February, a majority of coalition MPs forced a vote to delay the elections until 15 December despite the opposition MPs’ disagreement. This push was forced through with the intervention of the police inside parliament. We also witnessed the release of at least 300 unlawfully imprisoned protestors and political opponents since 16 February 2024 and the unconstitutional decision by Macky Sall to propose an amnesty law that would liberate the remaining political prisoners such as opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and the candidate of his party Bassirou Diomaye Faye.

Despite the president’s constitutional meddling aimed at postponing the elections, the decision of the Constitutional Council to overturn Sall’s decree was met with joy and celebrations from most Senegalese citizens. This euphoria was short lived with the president’s decision to unilaterally hold a national dialogue on 26 and 27 February and the subsequent announcement that the government approved Sall’s proposal to hold new elections in June 2024.

Citizen mobilisations against democratic backsliding

There is much to fear from the political instability in the region, more so now after Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger decided to leave ECOWAS. There is fear of a ripple effect with political instability dominant in the region, and ECOWAS’s failure to become an ‘ECOWAS of the people’ as opposed to a tool that furthers the control of its Heads of States. Therefore, with persisting security challenges for Senegal at its borders, including with Mali, Senegal needs to strengthen its institutions from within.

The role of the EU-funded Rapid Action Surveillance and Intervention Group (also known as GAR-SI) in violently crushing Senegalese protestors revives questions of accountability on the one hand and sovereignty from former imperial powers on the other, within the struggle of Senegalese citizens rethinking their social contract with the ruling class. As Mamadou Diouf reminds us, the 2000 and 2012 political transitions were marked by the same seal: rejection of the political and economic status quo and lack of accountability.

Senegalese women are not second-class citizens!

Senegalese citizens have always been politically educated. As a result, they have a desire to establish more equitable and mutually beneficial relations with political leaders on the one hand, and the powers of the North and South on the other. With regard to the social contract, citizens have mobilised restlessly in defence of the constitutional and Republican order, against state violence. These incidents include the murderous repression of the defence and security forces and riot police in Dakar, Ziguinchor and other towns, as well as arbitrary detentions and unlawful torture.

Senegalese women especially are treated as second-class citizens whose bodies have historically been weaponised as a battlefield in political struggles. This is illustrated by the arrests of Yewwu Yewwi activist and journalist Eugénie Rokhaya Aw under Senghor and under Macky Sall’s regime, the Adji-Sarr and Ousmane Sonko case, the rape case in which former minister Sitor Ndour was implicated in the assault of a pregnant MP at the National Assembly.

Recently, journalists, among the few stakeholders publicly involved in the debate and coverage of the elections, have also not been spared. The recent arrests and violence against Absa Hane, a journalist with Seneweb, and the stabbing of Maimouna Ndour Faye on her way home from recording a programme are just two examples.

In a pre-electoral landscape dominated by the words of men it is urgent to collectively rethink our project for society as well as the future. To quote Ndèye Khady Babou of the Senegalese Feminist Network: ‘we are entering the month dedicated to women’s struggle sad and angry. We were dismayed to learn of the assassination attempt on journalist Maimouna Ndour Faye of 7tv, and we hope that justice will do its job to ensure that the guilty parties are punished’. Gender-based violence is not just a women’s issue. It’s a societal problem that only together we can eradicate.

Conclusion

At odds with voices presenting the parliamentary decision backed by the president as an unprecedented crisis for the ‘Senegalese-exception-in-the-troubled-Sahelian-region’, I argue that such a narrative does not hold when one considers the country’s political history in the longue durée, stained by state and police brutality and human rights violations. There is a strong belief that with the resiliency of its institutions, and with adequate in-depth institutional reform such as the rethinking of the hyper presidentialist regime which lacks clear separation of powers, Senegal will emerge stronger from this crisis. Citizens understand that this heritage is at stake, hence the urgency to rethink the social contract, especially in the run-up to presidential elections.

An earlier version of this post has been published on African Arguments and can be found here.

Rama Salla Dieng is a scholar activist and currently a lecturer at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh and an Associate researcher of the Laboratory for Research on Social and Economic Transformations, University of Dakar. She is the author of Féminismes Africains: Une histoire Décoloniale (Présence Africaine, Paris, 2021), co-author of Gagner le Monde, Quelques Héritages Féministes (La Fabrique, Paris, 2023) and the co-editor of Feminist Parenting, Perspectives from Africa and Beyond (Demeter Press, Canada, 2020). She is also an editor of ROAPE.

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here