Senegal’s Democracy Is in Peril
Macky Sall, Senegal’s president, is displayed on a screen speaking during the Mouvement des entreprises de France business conference at Longchamps racecourse in Paris. (Photographer: Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg)

Senegal’s Democracy Is in Peril

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Senegal’s President Macky Sall seems finally to have quelled the violence that marked two weeks of opposition protests and government crackdowns and left at least eight dead. But repairing the reputational damage to one of Africa’s most peaceful and stable countries will require statesmanship of a higher order than Sall has so far shown.

The question now is whether the president can arrest the democratic backsliding that has characterized his second term in office. Even before the latest upheaval, the U.S. nonprofit Freedom House had downgraded the country from “Free” to “Partly Free” in its annual report on the state of democracy worldwide, ending Senegal’s distinction as a rare exception to the trend in western, central and eastern Africa. (Of the countries in those regions, only Ghana and Cabo Verde are now categorized as “Free.”) 

The key to restoring Senegal’s standing lies in fixing the anomalies in its justice system. An independent and transparent law-and-order system is essential to preventing misrule and instability. This is also essential for securing the confidence of international investors, who are crucial to sustaining the country’s recent economic success. What Sall does next may determine whether Senegal, with its offshore natural-gas fields, can avoid the “resource curse” that has bedeviled its neighbors.

The latest crisis revolves around rape allegations against Ousmane Sonko, the country’s most prominent opposition politician. He has denied the charges, but was stripped of parliamentary immunity and arrested, before being released on bail. His supporters clashed with the police, and a coalition of opposition parties called for nationwide protests.

Sonko came third in the 2019 presidential election, with 16% of the vote — the second-place finisher has since joined Sall’s government — and his supporters accuse the president of political sabotage. It didn’t help that police transcripts were leaked, or that the government shut down TV stations after the arrest.

If convicted, Sonko would serve up to 10 years in jail and be barred from contesting the next presidential election, scheduled for 2024. That was the fate of Khalifa Sall, a former mayor of Dakar who was widely expected to run for the presidency. Convicted of corruption charges his supporters believe were trumped up, he was not pardoned until after the 2019 vote. Although Senegal’s presidents are limited to two terms, some in the opposition worry Macky Sall is planning to change the constitution and extend his hold on power.

But as the opposition demonstrations turned violent, they reflected deeper economic anxieties as well as political grievances. Protestors targeted French businesses, including Auchan Holdings SA supermarkets and Total SE filling stations, that are perceived as having hurt local entrepreneurs. Sall is sometimes accused of pandering to Senegal’s onetime colonial master.

The president has tried to distance himself from the controversy. “Let justice take its course independently,” he said in a televised broadcast. But, as his critics have pointed out, the judiciary is hardly independent. Sall heads the High Council of the Magistrates and appoints judges to the supreme court, making him vulnerable to accusations of political interference. His opponents say he’s failed to uphold the rule of law against his allies implicated in corruption — including his brother Aliou.

Sall missed an opportunity to completely separate the powers of the judiciary and executive in 2016, when he put other constitutional amendments, including cutting the presidential mandate to five years from seven years, to a referendum. With the political atmosphere now poisoned by the Sonko affair, he will need to work much harder to overcome suspicions of his intentions. 

A good start would be to recuse himself from the high council, and give the opposition a bigger say in the appointment of judges, pending more thorough constitutional reforms. His government should also commit to a fair and transparent trial for Sonko. That would reassure his countrymen who are proud of their country’s democratic record, as well as foreigners who have a stake in its preservation.

It would allow Senegal to once again set an example for Africa to follow.   

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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