Over the last few days, a social eruption has shaken the West African country of Senegal. The movement, emerging apparently from nowhere, has quickly gained insurrectionary features with the state completely losing control of big parts of the capital Dakar to the demonstrators.
The New York Times described Senegal as “one of West Africa’s most stable countries.” But under the surface of apparent calm, powerful forces have been at work. We have seen the sudden eruption of the class struggle, insurrectionary movements and revolutions in one country after another over the last period as the objective conditions are forcing millions of people to seek solutions to the intolerable burden that capitalism is placing upon us. This is precisely what is happening in Senegal.
The immediate cause for the mass movement is the arrest and detention of one of the leading opposition figures, Ousmane Sonko. Sonko was summoned to appear in court last Wednesday on allegations of raping a young woman who worked in a massage parlour. His supporters believe the accusation is politically motivated, referring to a long list of similar accusations made by the government against other political opponents.
Before he could arrive at court to face these charges, however, he was suddenly arrested and detained for "disturbing the public peace”, because he refused to take a different route to the court building. A crowd of hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the courthouse.
Then the police attacked the demonstrators with tear gas to try to disperse the gathering. This only poured petrol into the flames. Huge clashes broke out around the court building which quickly spread throughout Dakar. Large crowds of young people threw stones at the police, who were firing tear gas.
For the next few days, the movement took off and has since swept throughout the country. Much of Dakar turned into a warzone last week as police clashed with thousands of angry protesters. Many shops, fuel stations and banks were closed for days.
The state responded by deploying police and soldiers. However, there were numerous occasions where the movement was so powerful that it simply overwhelmed the forces of repression. In fact, the movement gained insurrectionary features on Friday with masses of people attacking police vehicles, the main courthouse, government buildings and even houses of political figures.
After news came out of the death of a 17-year old who was shot, the protesters in the southern town of Diaobe overran the police station and completely destroyed it. Demonstrators then set up barricades all over Dakar. They also targeted French-owned businesses because, as one demonstrator put it “under [President] Macky Sall, France has extended its economic interests in the former colony”.
The thin veil of ‘democracy’
However, to understand the real causes of the huge explosion of anger that followed the arrest of Sonko, it is necessary to look deeper than simply this individual. Since he took power in 2012, Sall seemed to be in total control of the situation. The February 2019 presidential election saw him win a second term. In 2017, the coalition led by his Benno Bokk Yakaar party won 125 of 165 seats in the national assembly.
But there is a darker side to this. For years, all of his most prominent opponents, one after the other, have been arrested and charged with all kinds of allegations, making them ineligible to run against him. Interestingly, the Financial Times link this to the involvement of the French:
“France maintains closer ties to its ex-colonies than most other former colonial powers in West Africa. France is more vested in the presidents and presidential candidates who will uphold France's interest. That includes Senegal’s president Macky Sall, who has been accused of targeting his political opponents with investigations that would disqualify them from office.”
There has been a systematic and ongoing process of clamping down on anyone opposing Sall. Abdou Karim Gueye, a rapper and activist, was arrested after publishing a live video on social media that encouraged people to join him in a peaceful protest following the unofficial announcement of the 2019 presidential election results. He was charged with “calling for an unauthorised protest without weapons'' and “insults by means of press”. He received a one-month suspended prison sentence and was fined.
In the aftermath of the presidential election, at least 17 opposition supporters were arrested for “public disorder and provocation of revolt”.
On 16 July that year, activist Guy Marius Sagna was arrested and questioned over his Facebook posts about the lack of adequate medical facilities in Senegal and for a post on Facebook about French military presence in Africa. On 5 August, he was charged with “false alert of terrorism” and detained at Rebeuss prison in Dakar. He was released on bail on 16 August.
Adama Gaye, a journalist, was arrested on 29 July after publishing Facebook posts criticising President Sall. He was charged with “offending the Head of State” and ‘‘acting to compromise public security’’ before being released on bail on 20 September.
On 22 November, Oudy Diallo, an environmentalist, was arrested and detained at Kedougou prison after publishing a Facebook post in which he denounced the quotas of land allocated to administrative authorities. He was given a two-month suspended sentence and released on 2 December.
On 14 June, authorities banned a demonstration in Dakar, organised by opposition parties and civil society organisations in protest against alleged corruption practices, implicating the Guediawaye Mayor, who is the president’s brother, relating to oil and gas extraction projects in the country. At least 20 protesters were arrested.
Guy Marius Sagna, Prof. Babacar Diop and seven other activists were arrested on 29 November at a peaceful protest. They were charged with “participation in an unauthorised gathering”. Sagna, out on bail from his July arrest over Facebook posts, was charged with “provocation of gathering” and “rebellion”.
In the eyes of the masses, who have been observing these events for years, the arrest of Sonko was part of this pattern. With Sonko eliminated, Sall would virtually run unopposed in the next election in 2024. In addition to this, Sall has also launched a constitutional review process leading to talk that he might want to change the constitution to allow him to exceed his current two-term limit. The arrest of Sonko simply provided the spark that ignited the powder keg.
The demise of the PS
There is another element to this. The rise of Ousmane Sonko has been facilitated by the huge vacuum that has opened as a result of the crisis of the Socialist Party (PS). For 40 years prior to March 2000, Senegal was ruled by the Socialist Party of Leopold Sedar Senghor, Senegal’s first president since independence in 1960, and his hand-picked successor Abdou Diouf, who became president in 1981. People had been united behind this party due to the anti-colonial history that continued to exist a few years after independence.
However, the Socialist Party continued to rule the country on capitalist lines with the emergence of a new capitalist elite class, tied hand and foot to French imperialism. They presided over growing economic inequalities, especially between Senegal`s regions. This bred gradual opposition to the Socialist Party administrations of Senghor and later Diouf. They also implemented an Economic Structural Adjustment Programme during the 1980s, which led to a massive fall in living standards.
As a result of growing dissatisfaction, and civic mobilisation to change the status quo, a coalition of Senegalese opposition parties, headed by Abdoulaye Wade and his Senegalese Socialist Party (PDS), defeated the ruling Socialist Party in the second round of polls in 2000. But as with the PS, there was nothing ‘socialist’ about the PDS, and effectively continued with the same pro-capitalist programme as his predecessors, which eventually led to his overthrow in 2012 as a result of mass mobilisation.
The Socialist Party (PS) then threw in its lot with Macky Sall, and as a reward for joining ‘Macky 2012’, party leader Tanor Dieng was appointed President of the High Commission of Local Government. Two of his entourage were also granted government jobs: Aminata Mbengue Ndiaye (Minister of Livestock Farming, and then Minister of Fisheries) and Sérigne Mbaye Thiam (Minister of Education, and then Minister of Water and Sanitation).
Things got even worse when the Socialist Party doubled down on its decision to refrain from presenting a candidate in the presidential elections of 2019. Party leaders said the decision was due to its continuing alliance with the majority. These decisions have laid the basis for the complete demise of the party. Over the last few years, the Socialist Party has been a de facto member of the ruling coalition, headed by Benno Bokk Yakaar. This is the result of the long decline of the party, due its class-collaborationist policies.
A political outsider
It is in this context that the figure of Ousmane Sonko should be understood. He has been a thorn in the side of the Dakar elite for the last few years. He was fired from his full-time job as tax inspector for publicly speaking out about murky public-sector contracts and calling out the corrupt relationship of the Senegalese elite with big multinational corporations. But after he was fired he proved to be an even bigger critic of the elite from the outside.
He appeared on television and radio shows disclosing the shenanigans of the rich and powerful. In one interview he said: “Theoretically, no politician in Senegal should be very, very rich, because we know, often, where the wealth of politicians comes from. It's wealth which comes from embezzlement of public funds.” With statements such as this, he was giving a voice to the deep economic inequalities and concerns over young people's standard of living.
This made him very popular, especially amongst the youth who are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. At the same time it was a huge embarrassment to the rich and powerful in Dakar.
From this platform, he was elected as an MP by running on an anti-establishment ticket. His programme included debt relief for students and small businesses, poverty relief measures, measures against food insecurity, measures against under-funded health and education systems and corruption. In 2014 he formed his own party, Pastef-Les Patriotes, to contest the next local and legislative elections.
With most of the prominent opposition barred from running against Macky Sall on all kinds of criminal charges, he was the last serious challenger. As noted, he is particularly popular with the youth with his blunt and vociferous attacks on what he calls “the system.” In one instance, he said that “there is enormous potential in this country. It is unacceptable to see the suffering of our people. Our politicians are criminals. Those who rule Senegal from the beginning deserve to be shot.”
Social and economic crisis
At the root of this is the economic and social crisis that has hit the country. As an Al Jazeera reporter said: “There is a feeling that this is not just about politics —it is about a social movement.”
Senegal used to be one Africa’s most stable countries, with three major peaceful political transitions since independence in 1960. Economic growth has been among the highest in Africa between 2014 and 2018, remaining above 5 percent annually. GDP growth was 6.7 percent in 2016 and 5.3 percent in 2019, down from 6.3 percent in 2017.
However, even during this period, 40 percent of the people live below the poverty line. It was clear that only a tiny elite befitted from the high economic growth. Deep in society, there was an accumulation of frustration and rage. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its restrictions on small-scale trading that forms the backbone of the economy, exacerbated the crisis. Already in January there were signs of a coming explosion when clashes erupted over the imposition of a curfew.
Economic growth has slowed significantly to less than 1.3 percent in 2020, with services such as tourism, transport and exports particularly hard hit. The government has responded with what it calls “containment measures” and a “comprehensive economic stimulus plan”. However, the safety nets had massive holes. Millions of people fell into poverty, especially from the large informal sector. To add to the misery, the healthcare system was overrun by the pandemic and collapsed.
There is a deep crisis of capitalism in Senegal, and this is what lies at the heart of the current explosion. The masses hate the whole political and economic establishment, together with their imperialist backers in Paris. With the drastic fall in living standards, the masses feel that everything is slipping out of their hands. What we are seeing now is the beginning of a process in which the masses are attempting to take matters into their own hands.
Ousmane Sonko is scheduled to appear in court again today. The opposition alliance known as the Movement to Defend Democracy (M2D), which includes Sonko’s Pastef party, called for three days of protests starting today, urging people to “massively descend onto the streets”. This effectively amounts to a three-day general strike. Meanwhile, all schools have also been shut and university students have walked out. Students from the University of Dakar have taken to the streets to demand the release of teachers who were previously arrested.
Large numbers of soldiers have been deployed ahead of today's protests. There is therefore potential for massive clashes in the next few days. However, it must also be noted that troops were also deployed on Friday but they were never used after scenes of fraternisation with the protestors. In this situation, the use of troops could backfire and spark an all-out insurrection, which could be difficult to control from the side of the state. Dakar is on a knife-edge ahead of the court appearance and demonstrations.
These events follow on the heels of the #ENDSARS movement in Nigeria. They are being followed very closely throughout the West African region. This is because the same processes are taking place in one country after another. Similar conditions tend to produce similar results.
Authorities in Niger have shut down the internet and charged a former prime minister with attempting to overthrow the government following a disputed election last month. In Chad, security forces engaged in a gun battle at the main opposition candidate’s house, in which his mother was killed, ahead of elections next month. In Benin, where elections are also taking place in April, opposition candidates have been effectively outlawed thanks to a recent change in electoral law.
All these countries are plagued by the same political, economic and social problems. What we are seeing today in Senegal could spill over into the rest of West Africa, resulting in a revolutionary wave sweeping the region against all the rotten regimes currently in power, and their imperialist benefactors.