- Following last week’s large-scale protests, the situation remains tense after the conditional release of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.
- The protests are a conflux of socio-economic grievances and rising criticism of President Macky Sall’s rule, which is increasingly perceived as authoritarian.
- The lifting of restrictions of movement imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 would provide the most obvious short-term remedy.
On 8 March, Sonko was released under judicial supervision, while the army was deployed in the capital Dakar. Following three days of violent protests nationwide starting on 3 March over Sonko’s arrest, the situation remains tense as the opposition has called for further protests. The largest and most violent protests in a decade have been fueled by a mix of socio-economic grievances, aggravated by the impact of Covid-19, and concerns over what is perceived as President Macky Sall’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The protests show the pitfalls of Sall’s strategy to remain ambiguous about whether or not he will seek a third term by 2024. However, the most powerful short-term remedy for Sall would be the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions on movement, which may be facilitated by the vaccination campaign which started in late February.
Protests erupted when Sonko was taken into police custody for “disturbing public order” and “participation in an unauthorized demonstration” when supporters escorting his convoy clashed with security forces. Sonko had been on his way to a hearing concerning rape allegations levelled against him in February by a female employee of a massage parlor he admits to frequent regularly to treat his back pain. On 26 February, parliament had lifted his immunity, which triggered a first, though still limited, round of protests in Dakar.
On 7 March, the newly formed Movement for the Defense of Democracy (M2D), a coalition of Sonko’s PASTEF party, a few other opposition parties and civil society groups, called for three consecutive days of peaceful demonstrations starting on 8 March. The previous week’s protests had quickly resulted in large-scale violent clashes in Dakar and other cities during which at least five protesters were killed. While the army has meanwhile been deployed in the streets of Dakar, another violent escalation cannot be ruled out, despite Sonko’s conditional release earlier today.
Sonko, whose core base is the southern Casamance region, came in third in the February 2019 presidential election with 15.7% of the vote, trailing Sall (58%) and Idrissa Seck (20.5%). However, ever since a November 2020 cabinet reshuffle during which Seck and other opposition figures were coopted into government, Sonko has effectively become the main opposition leader.
Meanwhile, rumors that Sall may be eyeing a third term by 2024, despite the constitution’s two-term limit, have been fueled by the abolition of the post of prime minister in 2019 as well as Sall’s ambiguous stance on the issue. As argued previously, such rumors may be premature, as Sall’s primary motivation may be to avoid becoming a lame duck early in his final term, though he certainly wants to remain in charge of the succession debate. Nevertheless, as two of the main opposition candidates had been legally barred from participating in the 2019 election, Sonko’s allegation that Sall wants to eliminate him ahead of 2024 with trumped-up charges feeds into an established narrative – regardless of whether there is any substance to the rape accusation levelled against him.
However, while last week’s protests were arguably the largest since June 2011, when then-president Abdoulaye Wade (2000-2012) was forced to abandon his plans to alter the constitution in order to run for a third term, there are important differences. Sonko, with his support concentrated in the southern Casamance region, would yet have to grow his voter base nationwide. Furthermore, the hastily formed M2D movement is, as yet, no match to the Y’en a Marre movement that organized protests back then and helped Sall win the 2012 elections.
Consequently, protests last week were also much less controlled or coordinated than a decade ago, yet more violent. The reportedly widespread looting of supermarkets points to socio-economic grievances underpinning the escalation. Sall’s popularity hinges on raising living standards (large segments of the population live below the poverty line) and employment opportunities (55% of the population are below the age of 20). Sall’s record on both fronts has taken a major hit due to the pandemic: in 2020, GDP contracted by an estimated 0.7% and major oil and gas projects had to be postponed. Protests already flared up during a short-lived lockdown in spring 2020. As such, the most immediate remedy at Sall’s disposal would be to lift the similarly unpopular dusk-to-dawn curfew currently in place. Rapid progress in the vaccination campaign that began on 23 February, bolstered by the first major vaccine delivery via COVAX last week, could enable him to pursue this path without jeopardizing his credentials as a pandemic crisis manager.