Nationwide civil unrest

Senegal: President Macky Sall under fire for Sonko affair

By Marième Soumaré, Mehdi Ba

Posted on March 26, 2021 11:48

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-03-25T17-20-40.718Z Senegalese President Macky Sall in Dakar on 28 January 2020 © Ercin Top / Anadolu Agency / AFP
Senegalese President Macky Sall in Dakar on 28 January 2020 © Ercin Top / Anadolu Agency / AFP

Confronted with urban riots after the judicial indictment of oppositionist leader Ousmane Sonko, Senegal’s President Macky Sall is experiencing the most serious crisis since his accession to power.

Demonstrators were dispersed and pursued in the streets of Dakar by armed rioters that the forces of order turned a blind eye to. Total stations and Auchan supermarkets were ransacked by protesters. Tear gas and stun grenades were thrown in response to stone-throwing. Army tanks were positioned at strategic points in the capital.

And finally, according to Amnesty International, 11 people – including a 12-year-old child – died from bullets fired by the forces of order.

Not since the protests held in 2011-2012 against the controversial constitutional reform project and Aboulaye Wade’s third presidential candidacy, has Dakar experienced such scenes of rioting.

For Senegal’s President Macky Sall, re-elected in February 2019 to a five-year term, the riots at the start of March were a late baptism by fire.

“We are all witnesses to the demonstrations of rare violence that have broken out in recent days in Dakar. Nothing, no cause, can justify these regrettable acts,” said the head of state on the evening of 8 March, in an impromptu speech intended to lower the tension.

Usually praised for its stability, the country of Teranga has made an unusual appearance on the front pages of international media because of this outbreak of discontent which also set other cities in the country ablaze, from Thies to Ziguinchor.

“We didn’t expect such demonstrations, we were taken by surprise,” says a minister. While one editor described it as a barricaded regime, some government ministers chose to lodge their families in hotels while waiting for a lull.


At the heart of this unprecedented wave of protests lies a legal case that could have remained confined to the news. It concerns an accusation of rape made by the employee of a Dakar massage parlour.

The only difference is that Ousmane Sonko, the 46-year-old politician targeted by the young woman, is now seen as one of the last surviving members of a Senegalese opposition weakened by successive scandals and accusations of corruption which have targeted several of its leaders.

These include Khalifa Sall, Dakar’s former mayor, who has been stripped of his post due to a judicial conviction and former minister Karim Wade, who has been exiled to Qatar since 2016 after a stay of more than three years in Rebeuss prison.

Might Will Sonko, a former tax inspector who entered politics late in life, be next on the list? Since 3 March, the day he was taken into custody while on his way to a court summons, his supporters and sympathisers have demonstrated their hostility to this scenario, to the point of causing chaos in the streets of the capital.


Five days later, after an initial appearance before the senior investigating judge, the leader of the Pastef-les Patriotes party was finally released under judicial supervision.

This measure has probably restored some calm in the country, even if it is far from putting an end to the political confrontation that is simmering under the ashes. That same evening, the confrontation crystallised through a dual televised broadcast.

Sonko, for his part, accused Sall of “having betrayed the Senegalese people” at a long press conference. The Head of State, on the other hand, delivered a brief speech calling for appeasement and saying that justice must be allowed to “run its course, free from interference.”

It would have taken more to calm people’s spirits, because in Senegal many believe that the President of the Republic is following the case (too) closely. Firstly, because the accusations against Sonko were relayed by the Prosecutor’s Office, which is itself subject to the minister of justice and ultimately under the head of state’s authority. Secondly, because Sonko’s judicial fate will weigh heavily on the next presidential election in 2024.

However, this is a critical moment in view of two observations. Firstly because, according to the Constitution, the President of the Republic “can only be re-elected once.” Secondly, because despite this, everyone is speculating that Sall will run for a third term – with the Constitutional Council’s approval – as Wade did before him.

This is a debate that the person concerned, reputed to be a shrewd tactician, still refuses to settle. On 12 March, in front of a civil society delegation, Sall limited himself to an understatement intended to cut short the controversy. “Stop this debate and let’s work. I never said I would serve a third term.” But Sall never said the opposite either, which worries the opposition.

“Acts of terrorism”

In May 2019, just after being re-elected, the head of state made the unexpected decision to abolish the post of prime minister. 18 months later, through a ministerial reshuffle, he dismissed several prominent members of his government, including Aly Ngouille Ndiaye, his interior minister.

These risky measures meant that the head of state would find himself exposed, with nowhere to turn, in the event of a nationwide social crisis. “There were a few blunders in the government’s communication,” said a minister.

In fact, at the height of the unrest, newly appointed minister of the interior Antoine Félix Diome’s televised address did nothing to calm people’s spirits. “Despite [the state of the ongoing health crisis], meetings, groupings, conspiracies against the state, acts of terrorism and vandalism have all been noted.

They are, according to all evidence, organised crime and insurrection,” said this former deputy prosecutor of the Cour de Répresssion de l’Enrichissement Illicite (Crei), who was the main architect responsible for convicting Wade in 2015.

“The speech of the Minister of the Interior, who appeared very threatening, was perceived as a desire by the government to increase repression. This has further inflamed the situation,” says Seydi Gassama of Amnesty International Senegal.

As for Sall, a lawyer who became minister of justice, he made a questionable statement on France 24, suggesting that wrestlers – who participate in wrestling matches across Senegal, an iconic sport in the country – had turned up in large numbers during the riots because of the idleness linked to Covid-19. This was enough to add fuel to the fire.


After several days of rioting, the Khalifa General of the Murids and his emissaries’ mediation helped to restore calm. The Mouvement de Défense de la Démocratie (M2D) agreed to postpone the demonstrations and sent a list of 10 demands to Sall, which included “the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners from prison.”

But this lull seems precarious, given the fact that the judicial case against Sonko is still in its infancy. Even though the oppositionist has been released under judicial supervision, he is still charged with acts punishable by up to 20 years in prison. This case weighs heavily on him and could very well nip in the bud his political ambitions.

In the event that he is prevented from running in the 2024 presidential election and that Sall, at the head of a coalition more powerful than ever, runs for a third term, it is difficult not to fear renewed unrest. This is especially possible if there is a lack of choice at the ballot box.

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