Senegal’s Critical Juncture The Meaning of Senegal’s Ongoing Protests

As the situation in Senegal unfolds, the country finds itself at a critical juncture. The manner in which the government addresses the ongoing protests, and the underlying issues will determine Senegal’s political trajectory for the foreseeable future.

The arrest of popular opposition leader Ousmane Sonko in early June 2023 marked the ignition point for widespread protests gripping Senegal. Representing the Patriotes Africanis du Sénégal pour le travail, L’éthique et la Fraternité (PASTEF) party, Sonko was apprehended on charges of ‘corrupting youth’, disrupting public order and resisting arrest during a court appearance related to rape accusations. His supporters have vehemently contested these allegations, deeming them politically motivated. 

However, Sonko’s arrest merely catalyses a much larger wave of discontent sweeping Senegal. Economic struggles intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, an endemic youth unemployment crisis, and perceptions of entrenched government corruption constitute the combustible material that has fuelled these demonstrations. 

Sonko, a figure who has consistently challenged the status quo, represents a symbol of change for many Senegalese citizens. The PASTEF leader ran for president in the 2019 election, coming in third place with 16 per cent. Running on an anti-CFA Franc platform, he advocated for a ‘responsible and intelligent’ exit from the CFA franc—the West African single currency that some consider a colonial relic. However, in a series of actions that were decidedly underhanded, Sonko found himself under constant attack. Faceless individuals repeatedly employed false documents and made unsubstantiated claims about him. As such, his recent sentencing is perceived not only as an assault on an individual but also as an attack on the possibility of a fresh political dawn. 


This is not the first time Sonko has faced such charges. In 2021, he was accused of rape, leading to widespread demonstrations in his support. Sonko has consistently maintained that these charges are part of a broader political conspiracy designed to curb his political ascendancy. 

The current protests go beyond Sonko’s legal troubles and expose a broader disquiet with the government of President Macky Sall. Over the years, Sall’s administration has increasingly been viewed as authoritarian. Judicial independence has been called into question, freedom of speech has been curtailed, and allegations of nepotism have run rife. Against this backdrop, there is a rising apprehension that Sall might manipulate the constitution to circumvent the two-term presidential limit, thereby prolonging his rule. It is important to note that Sall has been unclear about his intention in seeking another term in office. The sentencing of Sonko, judged in absentia, only raises doubts regarding Sall’s intentions.  


The government’s response to the protests has been a matter of significant concern. The security forces have been accused of using undue force in their attempts to quell the demonstrations, leading to at least 16 deaths and numerous injuries. Moreover, on 4 June, the government imposed a blackout on mobile Internet services, ostensibly to maintain law and order. Critics, however, see this as a veiled attempt to stifle dissent and control the narrative surrounding the protests. 

Despite the international outcry, the government insists that the charges against Sonko are part of the normal judicial process and not politically motivated. The heavy-handed response to the protests, combined with the media blackout during the most violent episodes, has led to widespread scepticism and further fuelled the protests. 


For many Senegalese, the protests go beyond the immediate political crisis to encapsulate a broader dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation in the country. Economic hardship, particularly among the youth, a perceived lack of opportunities, and growing inequality have culminated in a potent mix of frustration and anger. Many Senegalese citizens view the current political system as serving a small, elite minority while the majority grapple with hardships.  

The population’s demands for a Senegal that prioritizes its people above political machinations have echoed throughout the country, resonating particularly among the younger generation. As Alioune Ndiaye, a student who joined protests, told Democracy Now, ‘It’s unfortunate. We don’t want things to be like this because we all want to learn and finish the year. But since the state has done what it wants, we, too, have our opinion. That’s it.’ His voice, among many others, call for an end to inequality, corruption, and political manipulation and for the birth of a new era of governance responsive to its citizens’ needs and aspirations.


Various local and international organizations have been actively responding to the situation. Within Senegal, civil society groups, such as the Movement for the Defence of Democracy, have been organizing peaceful protests and promoting dialogue, advocating for political reform, and demanding accountability for the deaths and injuries that have occurred during the demonstrations. 

Internationally, organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed grave concern about the government’s harsh response to the protests and called for independent investigations into the reported deaths and injuries. They have urged the government to exercise restraint and respect the citizens’ right to peaceful protest. 

Major regional and international bodies have also voiced their concerns. The UN and African Union have both called for calm, emphasizing the need for dialogue and respect for democratic principles. Similarly, the Economic Community of West African States has urged the Senegalese government to uphold the rule of law and protect the fundamental human rights of its citizens. 

As the situation in Senegal unfolds, the country finds itself at a critical juncture. The manner in which the government addresses these protests, and the underlying issues will determine Senegal’s political trajectory for the foreseeable future. What is at stake extends beyond the fate of an opposition leader and touches upon the very essence of Senegal’s democracy and rule of law. The events of the coming days and weeks will be pivotal in defining the course of this vibrant West African nation

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