Why Protests Have Engulfed Normally Peaceful Senegal
Protests in Dakar on March 8. (Photographer: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)

Why Protests Have Engulfed Normally Peaceful Senegal

The arrest for alleged rape of a popular opposition leader in Senegal has triggered mass protests, undermining the nation’s reputation as a bastion of stability in West Africa. At least eight people died in running battles between stone-throwing mobs and riot police in the capital, Dakar, and elsewhere, with stores looted and torched. The U.S. and former colonial power France joined Senegal’s neighbors in calling for restraint. Quelling the unrest could prove the greatest challenge yet for President Macky Sall, who coasted to a second straight victory in elections two years ago.

1. Why are demonstrators so angry?

They claim the charge is the latest trumped-up allegation against an opposition figure. Protests erupted after Ousmane Sonko, who came third in the 2019 presidential vote, was accused of rape by a beauty salon employee, had his parliamentary immunity revoked and was summoned to court. His accuser went into hiding after her identity was made public, and civil rights groups have called for justice to take its course. On bail pending trial, the 46-year-old Sonko said the charge is bogus and aimed at derailing his political career. The Movement to Defend Democracy coalition, a driving force for the protests, also points to the imprisonment of two opposition figures -- former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of ex-President Abdoulaye Wade -- that kept them out of the 2019 elections. Although both were pardoned, they’re now ineligible to stand for public office. The heavy-handed response to the protesters, with Interior Minister Antoine Felix Diome accusing them of insurrection, further inflamed tensions.

Why Protests Have Engulfed Normally Peaceful Senegal

2. Are there other issues?

Yes. Sall’s opponents say he’s failed to uphold the rule of law and act against his allies who’ve been implicated in corruption. There’s also concern the 59-year-old is harboring ambitions to extend his rule beyond 2024, despite the constitution restricting presidents to two terms. Some Senegalese see him as being too closely aligned to France. During the protests, French businesses were targeted including Auchan Holdings SA supermarkets and Total SE filling stations. Public anger has also been stoked by the economic hardship wrought by the coronavirus as well as a curfew and other restrictions to curb its spread.

3. How’s Sall performed since taking office?

By most economic measures exceptionally well. Elected to office in 2012, he pledged to ensure there was “sober and virtuous governance,” and established a new panel to tackle corruption. He also set about addressing energy shortages by encouraging private producers to invest in solar plants -- electricity production has doubled since he became president. His plans to uplift rural areas, primarily by building new infrastructure, have drawn praise from the United Nations. While Senegal’s annual economic growth rate averaged almost 6% under Sall’s tenure, his opponents say he has not done enough to tackle youth unemployment or to reduce poverty.

4. Could he be toppled?

Senegal is the only West African nation that’s never had a coup, and it’s unlikely Sall will become its first leader to be forced from office. While some demonstrators called for his removal, he remains popular with many Senegalese -- he won 58% of the 2019 vote -- and retains control of the security forces and other key levers of power. Even Sonko, a former tax inspector who won 16% support in 2019, has said he isn’t calling on his supporters to unseat Sall but that he’s preparing the ground to take office in 2024. Presidential terms were cut to five years from seven from 2019.

5. What’s at stake for investors?

The unrest hasn’t dimmed Senegal’s bright economic prospects. Gas production from the $4.8 billion Grand Tortue Ahmeyim field development, which straddles the waters offshore Senegal and Mauritania, is expected to begin in 2023, bolstering energy supply and tax revenue. Oil output from the $4.2 billion Sangomar project, developed by Australia’s Woodside Energy, is also expected to start in 2023. Other major investors in Senegal include France’s Orange SA and Nigeria’s Dangote Cement Plc. Continued unrest could unnerve some international investors who’ve been attracted to the political stability and sterling economic growth. Yields on Senegal’s Eurobonds reached a five-month high at the peak of the violence, while the country’s sovereign spread, or risk premium over U.S. Treasuries, has markedly widened. Senegal’s currency is unaffected -- the country is one of eight members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union that uses the CFA franc, which is pegged to the euro.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg story on the protests and another on Sall’s re-election.
  • More on Senegal’s oil and gas production plans.
  • Amnesty International’s call for restraint after the protests erupted.
  • The International Monetary Fund’s home page on Senegal.

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