Violent protests triggered by the sentencing of opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, in June 2023 have raised concerns over the governments growing clampdown on opposition, and incumbent President Macky Sall's ambitions for a controversial third term in office. These factors could exacerbate anti-government sentiment and drive intensified unrest ahead of the February 2024 election, writes Erin Drake.
Senegal's 2012 elections, wherein President Macky Sall was elected on a platform of anti-corruption and democratic principles, led to optimism among observers and investors. But despite Sall's posturing as a pro-reform leader, he has increasingly moved to curtail opposition ambitions for the 2024 general election and has hinted at running for a controversial third term. These moves have escalated frustrations among voters. The most vocal are supporters of prominent opposition figure, Ousmane Sonko. Sonko, however, was arrested in 2021 on what his supporters view as politically motivated charges of rape and defamation. Early in June 2023, Sonko received a two-year sentence for corrupting the youth, barring him from participating in the 2024 election, and sparking widespread protests in Dakar by his supporters. The deployment of military personnel and ensuing clashes between protesters and security forces resulted in at least 16 deaths, 350 injuries, and 500 arrests, with protesters reporting the use of live ammunition by police. Armed civilian militia allegedly assaulted protesters on behalf of the administration, although the government has denied backing these groups. Meanwhile, protesters vandalised commercial and public property, including setting fire to a train station and looting a supermarket in Dakar. Amid heightened tensions between Sonko's supporters and the incumbent administration, uncertainty regarding Sonko's election eligibility, and a precedent for election-related unrest, there remains a high threat of sporadic, violent demonstrations ahead of the February 2024 vote.
Anti-government protests, including the recent unrest in June, have been led by supporters of Sonko's Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l’éthique et la fraternité.
Precedent for protest
This is not the first time unrest and associated violence have accompanied elections in Senegal nor is it the first time an incumbent president has sought to exceed his two-term tenure. In 2012, for example, Sall won the election after widespread backlash against former President Abdoulaye Wade seeking a third term; Wade had argued that a 2001 constitutional change“ imposing a two-term limit on the presidency“ was retroactive and therefore did not apply to his full time in office. The Supreme Court's affirmative ruling and Wade's subsequent participation in elections sparked violence in Dakar for several days as anti-government protesters clashed with security forces. The 2012 unrest largely reflects the current situation, highlighting the potential for election-related violence in the coming months, particularly if Sall confirms his intent to run for a third term off the back of a similar argument following a constitutional amendment in 2016.
There is also precedent for violence among rival opposition supporters; in the 2019 elections, fighting broke out between factions loyal to Sall, Sonko, former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall, and former minister and son of Abdoulaye Wade, Karim Wade, after the latter two candidates were banned from participation for alleged misuse of public funds one month ahead of elections. Sall's moves to suppress Sonko's rise as a prominent opposition leader have already driven sporadic retaliatory unrest; in March 2021, for example, when Sonko was first arrested on route to a hearing, he called on supporters to protest in response, prompting a brief period of violent, fatal clashes between his supporters and police.
Despite legal challenges, Sonko “ an anti-corruption whistleblower “ has continued to attract support, especially among youth in urban centres like Dakar and Ziguinchor. Anti-government protests, including the recent unrest in June, have been led by supporters of Sonko's Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l’éthique et la fraternité (PASTEF) party, particularly by graduates, unemployed youth, and others dissatisfied with perceived corruption and an entrenched political elite.
National unemployment has declined over the last few years but remains highest among the youth population aged 15-35. And, although significant economic growth has taken place under Sall, this growth has not necessarily translated into widespread improvements in living conditions for many, with rapid urbanisation in recent years placing strain on housing availability, healthcare, sanitation and other services, and contributing to a rise in urban slums. This has been particularly acute in Dakar, which houses around 50 percent of Senegal's urban population. In this context, Sonko's anti-establishment, anti-corruption rhetoric, while often vague regarding specific implementation plans, has captured youth sentiment around these issues and he is likely to remain a popular and influential figure as a result.
Sonko's ability to participate in the election remains unclear, and at the time of writing he has not yet been detained. While Sonko's conviction will limit his ability to lead opposition convoys, marches and campaign rallies in the coming months, he has nevertheless demonstrated the requisite intent and capabilities to mobilise supporters to stage disruptive demonstrations, as evidenced on the day of his sentencing. Moves to arrest Sonko “ who remains under lockdown in his home in Ziguinchor “ could prompt renewed clashes. Meanwhile, although Sonko will potentially challenge his sentence, the timeline for this is uncertain and may be delayed. Efforts to appeal his conviction will also sustain tensions and the potential for associated unrest between his supporters and government forces ahead of elections. This unrest is likely to centre on Dakar, where any related hearings and court appearances will take place, as well as Sonko's hometown, Ziguinchor.
In this context, should Sall confirm his intent to run, it could trigger an escalation in opposition-led unrest and clashes with security forces, especially in Dakar as the Electoral Council deliberates on the constitutionality of Sall's third term. Perceived efforts to influence the Council's decision, and related moves to crack down on protesters or opposition candidates, will further fuel public frustrations, and could trigger additional demonstrations over the coming months.
In the longer term, there is also potential for sustained political instability to roll back progress made in fostering Senegal's democracy. The current trajectory of Senegal's political and security environment remains unclear, and this uncertainty will continue to be a significant factor in sustaining the threat of unrest.
Oil and Gas sector outlook
A number of oil and gas projects will kick-off in 2023 and 2024 as Senegal begins developing offshore projects as part of its plan to foster economic growth. Despite political uncertainty and a high likelihood of further sporadic violent unrest in the coming months, there have been no indications that foreign investors have moved to withdraw or suspend investments in the sector. In fact, credit ratings agencies like Standard and Poor have forecast a generally stable macroeconomic outlook, and it is unlikely that a new government, or a continuation of the current administration, will look to roll back projects in the sector. Precedent suggests that demonstrations associated with the current political standoff between President Sall, opposition leader Sonko, and the wider anti-government opposition supporters will remain largely isolated to city centres and are not likely to significantly affect offshore activities. Investors will, nonetheless, be watching developments onshore closely amid concerns of rising and potentially protracted political instability in the country.