Senegal Protests: What’s at Stake
Senegal has seen a wave of protests in recent weeks that have left at least 16 dead and show no signs of abating. These come after the recent conviction of opposition leader Osmane Sonko and the March announcement that President Macky Sall will seek an unprecedented third term in office in the 2024 elections despite opposition claims of its unconstitutionality. Should the protests continue, it is possible that they could threaten regional stability as well as several major ongoing international projects in the country once seen as a model of stability for Africa.
Conviction of opposition leader sparks widespread protests
Although Ousmane Sonko was acquitted of raping a massage parlor employee and later making death threats against her, he was convicted of the lesser charge of corrupting the youth and sentenced to two years in prison, effectively barring him from a 2024 run. Protests erupted across the country in response, leading to the deaths of 16 people, although other sources claim that the number of fatalities is much higher. Riot police have been called in across Dakar and there have also been reports of armed men in civilian clothes getting out of pick-up trucks and shooting at protesters. A three-day series of protests previously erupted across the country on March 14 when Sonko was being tried in a libel case. Senegal’s Justice Minister has stated that Sonko could be remanded into custody at any moment, increasing the chance of further protests.
Potential threat to recent peace deals with Casamance separatists
This eruption of protests could also have consequences outside of Senegal’s democratic institutions. On August 5, 2022, the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance signed a peace deal with the Sall government, vowing to lay down their arms after a 40-year insurgency. This was followed by a second agreement with the Diakaye Fighters just weeks before the latest protests. Should these groups lose confidence in the current government, it could result in their rearmament moving forward. This could have regional consequences as the previous government in The Gambia had supported Casamance rebel groups until 2017 and the latest peace deal was negotiated by Guinea Bissau acting in its capacity as chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Moreover, the Senegalese government accused Iran of providing weapons to insurgent groups in Casamance in 2011, demonstrating a strong possibility that these groups may be able to seek assistance from major global arms sellers.
On June 7, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called President Sall to discuss the current protests, offering his condolences for those who had been killed and injured while stressing Washington’s support for Senegal and its democratic institutions. Senegal enjoys close relations with the United States and a member of its State Partnership Program in which it is partnered with the Vermont National Guard. Senegal is also a host of the African Lion 23, the largest annual exercise conducted by US African Command that commenced on May 13 and will run until June 18. Dakar was visited by Major General Todd Wasmund, commander of the US Army Southern Europe – Africa Task Force in December 2022 as well as Marine General Michael Langley, Commanding General of Africa Command in March of this year. It appears that Washington is currently relying on its close relationship with Sall but could take a stance against him should the situation deteriorate.
International investment projects, questions over corruption
Under the presidency of Macky Sall, Senegal has seen a large influx of foreign investment into new projects that, if successful, would increase Senegal’s role in the regional economy. In February of this year, it was announced that long-delayed upgrades on the Ndayane Deepwater Port would commence following a US $1.1 billion investment from the Emirati logistics firm DP World, its largest ever in an overseas venture. In January, it was announced that French construction firm Vinci SA commenced work on the Sambangalou Hydroelectric Station: scheduled for completion in 2027, the US $415 million project is projected to irrigate some 90,000 hectares of farmland and generate an estimated 128 MW of electricity. With electricity production on the rise, arrangements have been made to provide 50 MW to The Gambia under a power purchasing agreement under the Gambia River Basin Development Organization, which also includes Guinea-Bissau as a member.
Senegal is also emerging as an important producer of minerals and hydrocarbons. The east of the country has seen a gold rush in recent years following several major discoveries. Moreover, offshore oil and gas development has been growing with one joint venture between the Senegalese state-owned Petrosen, British Petroleum (BP) and the Australian company Woodside projected to produce some US $1.5 billion in revenue between 2023 and 2025, according to forecasts. Petrosen is currently working to displace French energy giant Total as Senegal’s largest supplier of gasoline, is currently working on several offshore exploration projects with international partners, and saw its turnover rise by nearly 824.3% to US $860 million between 2021 and 2022.
Although Macky Sall has engaged in a widescale anti-corruption campaign since coming to power in 2012, critics claim that this has been used as a means of targeting his political opponents. Moreover, Sall has been personally linked to at least one potential corruption scandal when in 2019 when the BBC alleged that BP agreed to pay US $10 billion for a suspicious gas deal involving Aliou Sall, the president’s brother. Although the president denied his brother’s role in any wrongdoing, he failed to call for an investigation. Aliou Sall has since stepped down from his government post in a body linked to the national treasury and the case brought against him by the country’s top prosecutor was quashed by a senior judge.
Analysis: Macky Sall plays a high-risk game
With ongoing protests threatening to undermine his legitimacy and destabilize the country’s longstanding democratic institutions and national security, Macky Sall is risking much in his bid to maintain power in an unprecedented third term. If the allegations of his corruption are to be believed, Sall has ample reason to hold onto power as energy and infrastructure development projects are core ways that leaders around the world engage in rent-seeking behavior. However, with the protests showing no signs of abating and the death toll continuing to rise, whether Macky Sall’s bid to hold onto power is still a realistic goal remains to be seen