IFEX Africa Editor Reyhana Masters underscores how civic space and key free expression rights have been undermined in the West African country, and implications for its upcoming election – and beyond.
What can we expect?
Dominating the African landscape will be polarised positions exacerbated by a rise in manipulated information, fervently peddled by paid social media influencers, as we witnessed during elections in Nigeria and Kenya. The control and flow of information will be exercised through the strategic use of legal frameworks to aggressively oppose dissent. The quelling of protests will be more brutal than ever before, as governments focus their energies on retention of power. Undoubtedly, freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom will come under duress, even in countries considered democratically progressive and politically stable.
The case of Senegal
Possibly the most visible faltering of democratic principles has been observed in Senegal – which heads to the polls in February. Considered one of the secure countries in the Sahel region – where coups became a common feature of the political landscape – Senegal’s reputation as an outlier has taken a battering in recent years.
In the run up to elections there has been a brutal clampdown on protests, an upsurge in arbitrary detentions, the suspension of media outlets, arrest of journalists, disruption of the internet and the jailing of political opponents. As the analysis by Control Risks points out:
Ousmane Sonko, leader of the opposition party, has been at the centre of Senegal’s downward spiral into repression and violent clampdown of ongoing protests. Together with his party Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l’éthique et la fraternité (Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity, or PASTEF as it is more popularly known) this “rising political star who fired up Senegal’s youth,” has been a target from the time he participated in the 2019 presidential election.
Sonko has spent the last few years fighting off a sustained legal campaign initiated with charges of rape, for which he was acquitted. A civil libel suit filed against him ended with a suspended two-year prison sentence. This was then followed by charges of fomenting insurrection, and on 1 July he was sentenced to two years in prison for corrupting youth. In between the intermittent protests, and the courtroom back and forth, Human Rights Watch reported that Senegal’s interior minister announced the dissolution of the opposition party “for rallying its supporters during violent protests in June this year and in March 2021. On the same day, the government also restricted access to mobile data internet services to stop what it called the spread of “hateful and subversive” messages on social media.”
Media outlets and journalists covering the trial or even commenting on Sonko’s case, have faced similar legal harassment – with arbitrary arrests, prolonged detention, constant court delays and the threat of heavy penalties if convicted.
Pape Alé Niang, the director of the privately owned news site Dakar Matin, has been arrested, released, rearrested, imprisoned, placed on probation, prohibited from commenting on Sonko’s case and barred from leaving the country. On 29 May 2023, Aliou Sané, the coordinator of “Y’en A Marre”, a popular citizens’ movement advocating for good governance in Senegal, was arrested while visiting Sonko.
The efforts to have Sonko removed from the electoral process came to a head at the beginning of 2024 when he, along with Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, were excluded from the final list of candidates approved for next month’s presidential election by the country’s powerful Constitutional Council.
How did we get here?
The first faltering misstep dates back to 2016 when President Macky Sall was halfway through his first term. Committing to the promise he made before he was elected, Senegal held a successful constitutional referendum, which approved amendments, including the reduction of the presidential term from seven to five years, and a limit of two five-year terms for the president. Based on optics alone, this referendum was reassuring, as it exhibited a break from the continental trend of leaders circumventing term limits.
However, President Sall then alienated a large portion of the public when he intimated that he was considering running for a third term, as his first term was under the previous constitution. It was only in July 2023 that he finally declared: “There has been much speculation and commentary on my eventual candidature on this election. My decision, carefully considered… is not to run as a candidate in the upcoming election.”
While this news was celebrated for “diffusing a political timebomb”, Moumoudou Samb, a driver of an informal taxi, told VOA: “I’m impressed by his graceful exit, but it’s too late – too many people have needlessly died,” said Samb. “But at least he’s ending his reign on a high note.”
As highlighted by Al Jazeera: “In Sall’s 12 years in office, Senegal has dropped from “free” to “partly free,” in global democracy rankings from the Washington-based NGO Freedom House. Over the same era, Senegal dropped from a “flawed democracy” to a “hybrid regime”, as per The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2022 Democracy Index. And yet, those flaws – as well as the deaths of protesters killed by security forces or the jailing of journalists and opposition politicians under his tenure – may soon be forgotten by an international community that was happy to see him decide to stand down.
Nationally, citizens may not be so easily pacified.
Tools to push back
The sustained pushback from civil society organisations and an energised youth movement has helped to some extent keep Senegal in check and prevent it from sliding further down on the democratic barometer. Information collected thanks to concerted efforts by IFEX member the MFWA to document violations and monitor the freedom of expression environment can be used to lobby and advocate both nationally and regionally.
Support has to be given to organisations like Amnesty International, whose submission for the 45th Session of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group for January-February 2024 gives a detailed outline of the deterioration of Senegal’s political landscape. The contents of the report can be used to develop a scorecard, against which promises made by the incoming head of state can be measured.
Another useful resource – developed by the International Press Institute (IPI), Senegalese digital rights group Junction and the MFWA – is a tool kit on the legal and regulatory frameworks governing the media in Senegal. As MFWA’s 18 December launch article states: