Senegal, known for being one of the most stable countries in Africa, experienced its most tragic week between March 3 and 8. The arrest of an opposition leader, a relatively frequent event on the continent, was enough for all the anger, despair and frustrations accumulated by the bad government, the cuts to freedoms and the economic crisis aggravated by COVID-19 to converge on six days of protests, looting and looting that ended with 13 deaths, according to the opposition’s count, a dozen business establishments razed and an earthquake that has turned the political scene upside down and has not yet said its last word.
“Senegal has been experiencing a worrying political regression for some time with serious threats to freedoms, there are many worrying signs. To this is added the restrictions due to the covid, the curfew, the impossibility of moving, which have lasted for a year. It was a pressure cooker, ”says political analyst Gilles Yabi. The latest Afrobarometer, published at the beginning of March, revealed two disturbing facts: two out of three Senegalese think that the laws treat them unequally and four out of five think they should be careful when talking about politics. Revealing for a country that considers itself a consolidated democracy. “That is very relative, democracy takes steps forward and steps back,” Yabi emphasizes.
Just five years ago, Ousmane Sonko was an unknown Customs inspector. However, his book Oil and gas in Senegal, chronicle of a looting, in which he brought to light the supposedly corrupt behaviors of President Macky Sall and his brother Aliou in the management of the newly discovered hydrocarbons in the country, were his starting gun. The book, which cost him his dismissal, began to circulate in WhatsApp groups like wildfire and tens of thousands of Senegalese appreciated his audacity. Sonko then made the leap into politics.
In 2017, his small party, Senegalese Patriots for Ethics, Work and Fraternity (Pastef), won a meager 1% of the votes, which, however, opened the doors of the National Assembly for him. As a deputy in a bland Parliament dominated by the roll of the ruling majority, Sonko marked distances with a disruptive speech denouncing corruption and truffled with patriotism and pan-Africanism that quickly connected with young people who dream of a future, but face the harsh reality of a country with high unemployment rates and almost 40% of the population (out of a total of 16 million) below the poverty line.
“Sonko was the trigger, the spark that caused the fire, but what happened is not explained only by him,” says economist Demba Moussa Dembélé. In his opinion, “the economic situation is catastrophic. According to a report from September, as a result of COVID-19 there are two million more poor people in the country, 85% of households have seen their income reduced and some 40,000 jobs have been destroyed. Five or six people lived on each of those salaries. And here the informal sector is not included, the livelihood of the majority of the population ”. Dembélé recalls that in Senegal, unlike Europe, there is no unemployment benefit or temporary regulation files. “We do not have lifejacket state. Young people do not see any future, how can you explain if not that they risk their lives in the cayucos? ”.
For many of them, Sonko, 46, represents hope for change. Hence, in 2019 he obtained a meritorious 15.6% of the votes in his first participation in a presidential election. All this, despite having become the main objective to be beaten from power, which tried to question its sources of financing and attributed an alleged affiliation to radical Islamism. Far from being intimidated, the opposition leader gradually established himself in the immense empty space that had been left to him by the disappearance of the political scene of the traditional left, absorbed by the coalition in power.
Until February 3 arrived and a young employee of a Dakar massage parlor went to court to denounce Sonko for an alleged rape. “She is as much a victim as Sonko himself, if not more, she is an orphan in a precarious situation that they have taken advantage of,” says Senegalese feminist Bombo N’Dir. “Justice must do its job and clarify the truth. It pains me that something as serious as an alleged rape is used for the political game. We must protect this innocent that we have not yet listened to ”. The opponent has denied the facts and denounced the existence of a plot to end his political career. In the heads of thousands of Senegalese, the memory of Khalifa Sall, former mayor of Dakar and also a rival of Macky Sall, was convicted of embezzlement of public funds in a judicial process that cast many doubts.
The protests spread rapidly across the country, with particular intensity in Dakar and in the southern region of Casamance, where Sonko hails from. French supermarkets and gas stations were particularly angered by the protesters and were looted. The police, sometimes accompanied by armed civilians whose presence has been the subject of controversy, were unable to contain the youths and responded to the throwing of stones with tear gas. The first dead fell. The government, also overwhelmed, cut the broadcast of two private channels and mobilized the Army. In response, groups of young people set fire to the premises of a television station close to the regime and of the government newspaper, scenes of violence that the country had not experienced in a long time.
On Friday, after more than 48 hours of chaos, Antoine Diome, Minister of the Interior, appeared on the screens to accuse the protesters of being moved by “dark forces” and to point out the possible commission of “acts of a terrorist nature”. The tone couldn’t have been more threatening. Calls for restraint by social and religious actors remained ineffective and the weekend was peppered with new protests here and there. Until last Monday Sonko was taken to testify before the magistrate, who issued his provisional release under judicial control. The Government speaks of four deceased; the opposition, of 13.
The protesters celebrated it as a victory. That same afternoon, the opposition leader gave a speech to his followers amid a feeling of contained euphoria; minutes later, the president made a televised statement in which he was uncomfortable, almost defeated. “I have understood the message,” he told the young people and announced the delay of the start of the curfew, from nine to twelve at night, as well as measures to promote employment.
“Sall seemed disconnected from reality, he did not depart from the classic intervention full of figures; meanwhile, Sonko adopted an almost presidential tone, ”says Yabi. “The difference in age, trajectory and aspirations was clearly seen.” For Dembélé, “Sall knows that things will no longer be the same. For the first time he has been scared, he has lost confidence. After nine years in power, he suffers his first setback. Sonko, on the contrary, has become the great leader of the opposition, not only political, but also civil.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.