Between 01 and 04 June Senegal was rocked by its deadliest wave of unrest in years in response to opposition leader Ousmane Sonko being handed a two-year prison sentence for a charge opposition activists claim is fabricated for political means. The ensuing protests have seen at least 23 people die, over 400 sustain injuries, and 500 be detained by security services. The unrest has been aggravated by underlying political grievances with President Sall, most notably his refusal to rule out breaching the constitution to stand for a third term in February’s presidential election. With Sall giving little indication of backing down, the political environment is extremely tense, meaning such unrest is likely to persist in the coming months.
Catalyst for Protest
The catalyst for the latest round of unrest occurred on 01 June when opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was handed a two-year prison sentence. The charge stems from allegations of rape and sexual assault, which Sonko has vehemently denied. Though Sonko was acquitted of the rape charge, he was found guilty of “corruption of youth” – the woman he is alleged to have assaulted was under 21 at the time of the incident.
Opposition activists have long insisted the charge has been fabricated for political means and that the guilty verdict will be leveraged by the government to render Sonko ineligible for next year’s presidential election. Moreover, seeing as Sonko did not appear in court – having cited threats to his own safety – Sonko will not be able to appeal the verdict.
The recent wave of unrest comes amid a spell of periodic outbursts that have emerged since March 2021, when the charge implicating Sonko was first announced. In March 2021, 14 protestors were killed and over 590 people were injured following a pro-Sonko rally that descended into violence, including the use of tear gas and live fire from security services. In March 2023, when Sonko’s trial first commenced, a protest in Dakar was attended by over 10,000 participants.
The recent unrest unfolded with such intensity due to the entrenched grievances against President Sall from opposition activists. In recent years Senegal has witnessed democratic backsliding amid a series of increasingly authoritarian actions from the government. This has fuelled an undercurrent of discontent towards the Sall regime, which is reflected in polling data: a June 2023 survey by Afrobarometer revealed that 53% of respondents now believe that Senegal “is not a democracy” or is a “democracy with major problems”.
The most salient concern for many Senegalese centres around February 2024’s presidential election. President Sall has thus far refused to confirm whether he will run for a constitutionally prohibited third term; it is feared he will argue that a constitutional reform adopted in 2016 (which reduced term lengths from seven to five years) effectively reset his tenure, mandating him with the constitutional right to run in the election. The uncertainty surrounding Sall’s intentions ahead of the election is an underlying grievance that has been a key driver of unrest.
The increasingly authoritarian actions of Sall have also been demonstrated in his treatment of opposition figures and curtailment of civil liberties. Ahead of the 2019 presidential election, two prominent opposition candidates, Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, were both barred from running having been spuriously charged with corruption. In January 2021, a new law was passed which stipulates journalists may receive prison time of up to two years for defamation and three years for publishing “fake news aimed at discrediting public institutions”; in 2022 the law was evoked to detain journalists during the parliamentary elections and has induced many others to self-censor.
Such grievances have aggravated the impact of the unrest inspired by Sonko’s guilty verdict and morphed the protests into broader anti-government unrest. Whilst such grievances remain unaddressed, it is extremely likely that periodic unrest will continue until the February 2024 election.
Nature of the Unrest
The unrest between 01 and 04 June killed at least 23 people, led to over 400 injuries, and saw over 500 people detained by security services. The scale of the unrest makes it Senegal’s deadliest for decades, provoking Amnesty International to call for an independent inquiry into the violence. The unrest spread across vast swathes of Dakar district and other towns nationwide.
In Dakar city centre, unrest was reported in: Medina District, HLM District, Ngor residential neighbourhood, Ouakam District, Yoff District, Parcelles Assainies, and the area surrounding Independence Square; in the wider Dakar district, unrest was reported in: Guédiawaye, Pikine, Keur Massar, Sangalkam, Bargny, Rufisque and Diamniadio. Outside of Dakar, clashes were reported in Cap Skirring, Mbour, Ziguinchor (where Ousnamne Sonko is Mayor), Kaolack and Louga.
Demonstrators erected roadblocks, burned rubbish and tyres in the street, attacked supermarkets, shops, and banks as part of an overarching strategy to cause as much disruption to everyday commercial and economic activity as possible. Other noteworthy targets of the unrest included the TER (train) station in Rufisque which was completely incinerated, and the central campus of Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University, which has reportedly lost over 200,000 documents after being targeted by Molotov cocktails.
The response of state security services intensified as the unrest progressed throughout the week. On 01 June, security services deployed tear gas and water canon to disperse protestors (as is consistent with previous bouts of unrest) and briefly restricted access to social media platforms to restrict any coordination of further unrest. By 03 June, footage was widely disseminated on social media of the Senegalese military (including tanks) being deployed to the streets of Dakar to maintain order.
According to opposition activists affiliated with Sonko, the unrest has been intentionally orchestrated to maximise disruption to the fabric of daily life. However, the nature of the unrest contradicts the notion of intimate control by Sonko. The unrest was characterised by decentralised, disorganised instances of unrest occurring at a vast array of locations, not a unified rally spearheaded by Sonko allies. This illustrates that although Sonko’s arrest was an important trigger in stimulating the unrest, it was severely aggravated by underlying grievances.
The unrest witnessed between 01 and 04 June is the latest chapter of periodic unrest which has been witnessed in Senegal since March 2021, albeit the most intense. Periodic unrest is extremely likely to continue in the coming months leading up to the election period in February 2024, with outbursts likely to be triggered according to political developments. If President Sall confirms his intention to breach constitutional limits and stand in the election, this is likely to trigger even more intense unrest, with the potential to severely destabilise the economy and the historically volatile Casamance region.
–Avoid all non-essential travel into central Dakar
–Avoid all protests, do not take photographs of violent unrest and security forces
–Establish pre-arranged itinerary and ensure tracking capability is operable at all stages of travel in Senegal
–Employ the services of a trusted local fixer for security and transport, including to/from the airport
–Establish a staff check-in system to give assurance that travellers are safe throughout
–Regularly monitor local news and social media to be informed of any upcoming protests
–Comply with any demands made by security services
Author: Edward Bach, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
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