Senegal’s crisis-tested democracy faces growing social demands

Between 2021 and 2024, Senegal was plunged into persistent political, economic and social crises. It was an almost unprecedented situation in a country once considered to be a bastion of democracy that was respectful of the rule of law and good governance. In response to these crises, civil society, including the trade unions, has stepped up and played its part to the full. While it fought fiercely with the outgoing government to ensure that the republican timetable was respected, it also expects the new President to provide concrete and urgent responses to social demands.

On 31 March 2021, Ousmane Sonko, an opponent of then President Macky Sall and one of the main likely candidates for the 2024 presidential election, was arrested on charges of rape. Sonko’s supporters denounced his arrest as a plot orchestrated by the government. The demonstrations that followed turned into riots with disastrous consequences, including clashes with law enforcement, looting, ransacking of public and private property, numerous injuries and several deaths.

The violence was unique in that it was virtually national in scope. Demonstrations took place in almost every region of Senegal. In many ways, they were reminiscent of the events that took place at the end of President Abdoulaye Wade’s term of office in 2011, when the population, already reeling from a socio-economic crisis, refused to let those in power change the rules of the game. Protests gave rise to the 23 June Movement opposing President Wade’s attempt – validated by the Constitutional Council – to change the presidential voting system and run for a third term.

A desire for profound political change

These events show the extent to which people are mobilised by electoral and constitutional issues, and that the demonstrations cannot be read solely from a socio-economic perspective.

While the government had proposed emergency social and economic measures, it was very discreet when it comes to institutional and democratic concerns. And while socio-economic grievances are certainly the backdrop of the current discontent, it has also been fuelled by the desire for profound political change on the part of a large segment of the population. The Covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken by the Senegalese government to contain it have of course had an undeniable impact, hitting entire sectors of the economy hard, particularly the informal sector. In this difficult context, it is no surprise that the initially political demonstrations have spread to other grievances and have been accompanied by looting.

The start of legal proceedings against opposition politician Sonko, accused of rape by a massage parlour employee, set off a firestorm. Sonko denied the accusations and characterised them as a plot to get rid of him, a claim that his supporters had no trouble believing, given the high level of distrust in the judiciary and the government.

The history of the political and judicial elimination of opponents by President Sall, who himself has proclaimed his desire to “reduce the opposition to its simplest expression,” gave this case a political dimension from the outset, which Sonko had no difficulty in amplifying through his defence strategy. Sonko refused to succumb to the same fate as Karim Wade (imprisoned for three years, partially pardoned and then ‘exiled’ to Qatar) or Khalifa Sall, the former socialist mayor of Dakar, who was jailed for two and a half years (March 2017 to September 2019) and thus prevented from competing in the February 2019 presidential election.

Questionable political practices were legion: mishandling of the rule of law, tinkering with the constitution, cooptation or judicial elimination of opponents, not to mention the mind-boggling lifestyles of the presidential entourage and ministers. This hegemonic phase wore thing during Sall’s second term. Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic and a new generation of political engaged citizens in a young country, who had not experienced the previous regime, Sall became increasingly unpopular. His pursuit of a third term simply added fuel to an already heated political fire.

Postponing the presidential election: a tipping point for mobilisation

Elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2019, Macky Sall provoked an outcry well beyond the opposition when he announced on 3 February 2024 that the presidential election, then three weeks away, would be postponed. The National Assembly set the new electoral date for 15 December 2024 and extended President Sall’s term, due to expire on 2 April, until his successor took office.

The postponement of the presidential election and the Constitutional Council’s overturning of the postponement plunged Senegal into a serious political crisis that had repercussions for Senegalese society and for certain businesses in particular. Internet blackouts and driving bans on motorbikes aggravated the situation. The opposition characterised it as “constitutional coup”. The security forces put down attempted demonstrations. Three people were killed in clashes. According to the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and the opposition, more than 260 people were arrested.

After a demonstration was banned, civil society continued to put pressure on the government. A group of civil society organisations launched a campaign against the postponement. “We invite all citizens concerned by the preservation of democratic gains to mobilise en masse throughout the country and in the diaspora to prevent this seizure of power” read a statement issued by the newly formed platform Aar Sunu Election (Let’s Protect Our Election). The collective included some 40 citizens’, religious and professional groups, including several education unions.

The trade union centres were contacted by the leaders of Aar Sunu Election but ultimately did not think it appropriate to be drawn into a coalition whose contours were unclear to them, even though they considered its demands to be relevant.

They decided to avoid any ties with political groups and instead mount their own responses to the excesses of the ruling coalition. The coalition of International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-affiliated trade union centres, comprising the CNTS, UNSAS, CNTS/FC, CSA and UDTS, ultimately issued a statement denouncing the violence, mass arrests, ransacking and failure to respect the republican timetable, and calling for the presidential election to be held on time. The CNTS, UNSAS and CSA each separately issued press releases denouncing the same abuses and calling for the republican timetable to be respected.

Aar Sunu Election organised a major demonstration where speakers called for a general strike on an unspecified date and a walkout in the education sector. In a written declaration, the platform called on citizens to attend Friday Muslim prayers dressed in white and displaying national colours. The families of political prisoners also mobilised to demand their “immediate release”. These families estimate the number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience at 1,500.

A new president faced with growing social demands

The date of 2 June 2024 proposed for the first round of voting was contested by the Constitutional Council, as was the partial resumption of the selection process for the 19 candidates, which gave a second chance to many candidates contesting the invalidation of their candidacy. The Constitutional Council also ruled that the election be held before the end of President Macky Sall’s term of office on 2 April 2024. The Council of Ministers finally set Sunday 24 March 2024 as the date for the first round of the election.

Senegalese opposition leader Bassirou Diomaye Faye, Ousmane Sonko’s replacement candidate, won the presidential election by a wide margin in the first round with 54.28 per cent of the vote, well ahead of the government candidate Amadou Ba with 35.79 per cent. The slogan “Diomaye égale Sonko, Sonko égale Diomaye” was able to convince a majority of voters that a vote for one was equal to a vote for the other.

With a new government in charge, the main concern of Senegalese workers is rising prices and the high cost of living. The trade unions are unanimous on this point and expect strong action from the government.

“Prices are rising while wages are falling. We need to see a reduction in the price of basic goods because inflation is here to stay. The authorities are very aware of this now. Obviously they’ve just assumed power, so we don’t expect all the issues to be resolved,” says Mody Guiro, general secretary of the National Confederation of Senegalese Workers (CNTS), the largest representative trade union confederation in Senegal.

Another issue awaiting a concrete response from the new government is pay equity. Many trade unions have denounced the large disparity in pay between the country’s roughly 175,000 civil servants. Inequalities are sometimes found within the same profession, such as among teachers. For Amidou Diédhiou, secretary general of the Senegal Free Teachers’ Union (SELS), this problem must be resolved urgently, as “back in 2018, the education unions raised the issue of the system of remuneration. There is a high level of injustice, which is why, in our view, state resources, however meagre, must be fairly redistributed”.

The unions also advocate for extending social protection to workers in the informal sector, which accounts for a significant proportion of Senegal’s working population (around 70 per cent). Trade unions complain that positive laws are ill-suited for this category of workers, who are deprived of social protection and exposed to all kinds of social risks.

Employment is also a social demand, the scale of which can be seen in the staggering number of desperate young people who continue to take the dangerous route of irregular emigration that leads them through the desert and the oceans.

This article has been translated from French.