Senegal: Protests and demands for a new government continues

Campaign image used in the protest.

Friday will be a national day of mourning in Senegal. But the start of the week was anything but peaceful, despite both the government and the opposition calling for calm, and the military closing down large parts of the capital Dakar. There were reports of more fatal shootings of protesters, which triggered more unrest and demands for compensation for the families of the dead. At the same time, Monday was a political triumph for the opposition with the leader Ousmane Sonko released on bail. During the day a long-awaited first statement also came from President Macky Sall. 

The articles has been updated with new information on the 11th of March

For the Senegalese, Monday 8th March was a day of both political triumphs and grief over more casualties when protesters were again met by bullets during peaceful demonstrations. Protests continued all over Senegal during the day.

During the violent protests in the country, at least nine people have been shot dead, but according to human rights activists, the number could be much higher, with several killed on Monday when a father of four, a young woman and a young man carrying a Senegalese flag were among the victims. They had all participated in peaceful demonstrations. The Red Cross states that more than 250 people received injuries that required hospital care up to Sunday. There has been great outrage over both the fatal shootings and the brutality. Never before have protesters been shot and beaten in this way in our country, activists say.

Amnesty also reported that one of the organization’s rapporteurs in the country had been beaten by police on Sunday when he tried to intervene to stop ongoing police violence against peaceful protesters. In a statement, Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s head of the West and Central Africa, called on the authorities to launch an independent inquiry into what had happened and to ensure that people could exercise their right to peaceful protest.

A large number of videos have been spread on social media showing how uniformed police shoot at protesters and how armed men in plainclothes are chasing young people firing live rounds. The media have been the subject of interventions, two television stations were shut down when they broadcast live from the demonstrations and did not open until 72 hours later. Also, the internet was blocked on Thursday and Friday. There has been stone-throwing, burnt-out cars, and looting during the demonstrations and mainly French businesses have been targeted, like the chain Auchan and the Total gas stations, but other businesses have also been vandalized, among them Youssou N’Dours radio station GFM and a number of police stations around the country.

Soldiers who were ordered out into the streets to protect public buildings, among other things, have not yet been accused of violence, on the contrary, they have rather shown sympathy for the protesters, which was captured in several videos during Monday.

I spoke to Alassane Sene, one of the many young Senegalese who have been out protesting and gathering on various social media platforms to share their experiences and discuss how to move on.
”We are out on the streets because our president has stopped speaking to his nation”, he told me, and continued:
”Our young people should not have to die because they want to defend democracy in Senegal. We want Macky Sall to speak to us, and promise that he will not try to run for a third term in breach of the Constitution.”

I met Alassane in the Clubhouse app during the weekend where activists were sharing facts about the number of injured, killed, and imprisoned, and listened to radio, television, and various testimonies together. In one of the conversations a young man, we can call him Alioune, who was arrested during the demonstrations but received help from his family and was released, testified about the conditions in the detention center. According to his testimony, one of the arrested youths in his cell was only 12 years old. 

Now, with the help of volunteers, Alioune had driven out food to those who were still imprisoned because the only thing they got to eat when he himself was in custody was water and some white bread early in the morning and late in the evening.

Together with several others, he had also started to crowdfund quite successfully, collecting money for food and lawyers for those who are still in custody and hopefully soon will get a trial. Many of the crowdfund contributors are Senegalese in the diaspora, in Europe and the United States, who have not been able to participate in the manifestations themselves.

“A majority of those who were arrested together with Alioune could not read or understand French, which is the language legal documents are written in. They do not know their rights and that’s why we want to help them get legal defenders so that they do not sign false confessions and end up in prison”, says Alassane Sene.

Another testimony, which was relayed via a participant’s computer, was that of Captain Oumar Touré, former head of the preliminary investigation in the case of rape allegations against the opposition politician Ousmane Sonko, who has questioned those involved. Touré has now resigned and refuses to be involved with the case. In the testimony, he says that he and his family have been threatened by government party members since he resigned and that he wants to tell the public about this so that everyone will know who is behind it if he should happen to disappear. This and the fact that no one actually knew the whereabouts of the Captain, was intensely discussed for a while in the room.

Sonko, whose problems with the Senegalese justice sparked the protests, is a fairly young politician (46 years old) who previously worked for the Senegalese tax authorities. According to his supporters, he revealed how both companies and individuals are evading paying taxes in Senegal and demanded change. When nothing happened, he became a politician instead. He became popular because of his irreconcilable attitude towards the government, but he has also spoken out controversially. Among other things, according to the BBC, he has said three years ago that politicians who allow corruption should be executed. 

When I ask the activists why the dissatisfaction with the government is so deep, they say there are many reasons. A majority of Senegal’s population is under the age of 20, many feel hopeless about the future, and every year some young people still choose to make the life-threatening journey across Europe across the seas, even though their families are trying to dissuade them. Activists are counting the dead.

“It is a trauma for our country. 480 people have drowned in the oceans in recent years, on their way to Europe, and our President Macky Sall has not even talked about it”, says Alassane Sene. 
“Nothing has gotten better under Macky, opposed to what everyone thought would happen when he came to power in 2012. Now young people are driving the protests. The fact that Ousmane Sonko was arrested on Wednesday, March 4:th, was just the igniting spark. People have had enough. There is a curfew every night at nine o’clock, many young people are unemployed, living conditions are precarious, and the government is trying to manipulate the legal system and incriminate the politicians of the opposition so that they will not be able to stand in any elections”.

How did the government manipulate the legal system?
“When Sonko was accused of rape, a number of other opposition politicians and activists from his party Pasteef (Patriots) had already been arrested on the pretext that they were preparing for riots and posed a danger to the country’s security. Facts have also emerged about a number of irregularities surrounding the prosecution of Sonko. The head of the preliminary investigation has resigned in protest and even the first judge has resigned, the new judge is known for participating in sentencing political dissidents. When Sonko was on his way to court, he was arrested for inciting riots even though he was sitting in his car and the result was that he was not heard in court, neither for the original indictment nor for the new charges, until Monday this week”.

Why do you gather also on social media?
“Social media has great power in Senegal. Almost everyone, both in the countryside and in the big city, is digitally literate and uses WhatsApp or Facebook. When Macky was first elected president, when everyone thought he would save us from corruption and dictatorship, it was social media that helped him to get elected. The government has understood this and now they are doing everything, with the help of expensive consultants, to strengthen Macky Sall’s online brand, and slander the opposition. Accounts that post photos, videos, and information about the reasons for the protests, stand the risk of being reported and blocked, and the opposition is called terrorists, Salafists, and extremists. So, we are careful, sensitive information is never shared in the conversations, instead, we turn to the app Telegram or one-on-one conversations”.

Who are the people protesting?
“We are ordinary citizens. There are several different movements, Y’en a Marre (we have had enough) is one, M2D (movement for democracy) is another, and then Aar Sunu Democracy (defend our democracy). There is also a women’s movement. But above all we are a bunch of people from civil society who have gotten to know each other since the protests began”.

What do you hope to achieve with the demonstrations?
“We all have the same goal, that Senegal should continue to be a democracy. We want to put pressure on the president, Macky Sall, so that he understands that he cannot remain in office for another term, after the next election in 2024. And above all, we want him to speak to us. He has not condemned the shootings of protesters, and he did not give a speech until Monday this week. Much of the anger in the streets has been due to that. Young people have died, it’s so unnecessary and we wanted him to talk to the nation about it.”

Why do you think he wants to stay for another term?
“When Macky Sall was elected president, one of his election promises was to shorten the term of office. He was elected for seven years but then five-year terms were voted through and when he was re-elected in 2019, it was for five years. We are now in the situation that he does not want to answer the question of whether he wants to run for a third term. It would be illegal under the present constitution and that’s our worry, that Macky will try to change the constitution to be able to remain as president even after the next election in 2024. There are many around him who do not want him to resign, who benefit from him staying in office. One of many examples of corruption and nepotism is that Macky’s brother, who has no previous experience of selling oil, suddenly became responsible for all of Senegal’s oil contracts abroad. No one knows how much money the contracts generate, or where the profits go. I could list many more examples but we will not be done with this interview today if I go on”. 

There were reports of major military mobilization in Dakar on Sunday, March 7:th?
“Yes, several videos showed long convoys of soldiers on their way to Dakar, but I do not think they will intervene against manifestations, even if they could claim that we are not allowed to march due to covid-19. It is probably more a demonstration of strength, that they want to show they intend to guard government buildings and perhaps also scare those who have been out looting”.

What is happening now, are you going to manifest again?
“Yes, we will continue. Even the religious leaders, who have great influence in Senegal, have said that those who want to demonstrate are not allowed to do so in the holy cities, such as Touba and Tivaouane, but they can travel to Dakar and manifest if they do so peacefully”.

Late Sunday evening, the opposition leader Ousman Sonko’s bodyguard and cameraman were released. Sonko himself was to remain in custody until he could be heard by a judge the next day. When the announced interrogation took place Monday noon, thousands of people had gathered outside the Palace of Justice in Dakar to demonstrate against the imprisonment of both Sonko and other political activists. The TV station Walf, which was shut down for 72 hours last week, broadcasted live from the manifestation where the participants chanted: ”Down with the dictatorship” and ”Resign Macky Sall”. When Sonko was later released, he was met by jubilant supporters. Some other politically active people were also released during the day.

Sonko is thus free but is still indicted and under surveillance until the trial, which has been postponed until March 15. According to the popular movement Aar Sunu Democracy and others, this means that Ousmane Sonko is no longer at the center of the anger against poverty, inequality, and corruption that has exploded in protests throughout Senegal the last week. But the release of him and other political activists will likely somewhat calm the emotions of many of those who are protesting.

During a press conference Monday afternoon, Sonko confirmed this:
“I am sitting here today with a heavy heart. Too many people have already died and President Macky Sall is responsible for this, in a country that does not have a tradition of violence against its people. Politics should be about serving one’s country, not making money. What Macky Sall is doing is not right. The revolution is already here, no one can stop it, but it has to be peaceful. We must continue with the demonstrations, one million Senegalese should take to the streets. Macky Sall is no longer a legitimate leader of our country”, he said.

Among the last ones to speak on Monday, except for political commentators, was President Macky Sall. His speech, in French, was received with disappointment by many Senegalese who have been deeply shocked by the police’s continued shooting at the protesters.

“It has really been outrageous, many need support both psychologically and financially after all that has happened. Who will provide support to the families of the victims? The state must compensate them”, said a young woman I spoke to on Monday night. “It is also extremely angering that the president, when he finally spoke to us, more or less blamed the deaths on the opposition, that we should not have participated in the protests. He did not condemn the actions that lead to loss of lives, instead, he put the same emphasis on loss of property”, she added.

In a press release the organization Aar Sunu Democracy (Defend Our Democracy) stated Monday that the responsibility for the dead must lie with the president, no one else:

”The police killed peaceful demonstrators on the orders of President Macky Sall, shooting with live ammunition. The government hired bandits, armed them with rifles and other weapons to terrorize the population, and have taken measures that pose a serious threat to freedom of the press and freedom of information.” … “The death toll is currently up to 19 people in just four days of peaceful protests. This is the worst crisis Senegal has experienced in 40 years! What is happening in Senegal is a serious threat to our country’s youth and future. We appeal to you, who read this, to do what you can to spread information about the real reasons behind the protests, and show that the world is witnessing what is happening in Senegal.”

A statement was also published Monday by 19 foreign embassies in Senegal, expressing concern over the violence they have witnessed in the country in recent days, sending condolences to the families and friends of the victims, appealing for the protection of people in the country from continued violence, and to restore calm and peaceful dialogue.

Six days of violence have left the nation in suspense, trying to summarize the deaths, the violence, the anger, and the demands for political change. Or, as the writer and blogger Khalil Diallo, talking about the odyssé of the forgotten, put it:

”The sun rises in pain, and it’s like the first day after the apocalypse”.

Friday has been proclaimed a day of national mourning.

Aminata Grut


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