Senegal is experiencing Africa’s first post-Covid protests

Supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was indicted and released on bail under judicial supervision, attend a demonstration in front of the court in Dakar on March 8.
Supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was indicted and released on bail under judicial supervision, attend a demonstration in front of the court in Dakar on March 8.
Image: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra
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Deadly protests have rocked Senegal in the last week, as anger over corruption and a crackdown on political opponents have come to a head. But they have been compounded by frustration over economic disruptions from Covid-19, a potential warning sign for the region in the months to come.

Senegal has been much more stable relative to regional neighbors Mali, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire, which have seen substantial political and civil unrest in the past year. The country tipped into turmoil last week, with at least eight protesters killed in clashes with security forces in the capital, Dakar.

The protests were sparked by the arrest of popular opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, on charges of disrupting public order and rape. Sonko denies the charges and has since been released on bail. Protesters say Sonko’s arrest is a symptom of corruption and the abuse of the judiciary and security forces to deal with dissent.

“One reason why the protests are now spreading has been the government’s reactionary response,” says Eric Humphery-Smith, research analyst for Africa at global risk consulting firm Maplecroft. “The authorities flooded the streets with soldiers while simultaneously accusing protestors of being the source of the violence.”

Economists and analysts also believe that disgruntlement over a worsening economy hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and ongoing restrictions, are the reasons anger has been so sustained.

Fallout from Covid-19 lockdowns

Senegal joined other African countries in imposing lockdown and curfew measures in the past year to deal with the pandemic. President Macky Sall declared a state of emergency last March—including an 8pm to 5am curfew—after the first few cases were confirmed in the west African country. The restrictions were lifted in June, but re-introduced barely two months later as a second wave of infections started to emerge across Africa, worsening towards the end of the year, and peaking in January in some countries.

Senegal has recorded around 36,000 cases of Covid-19 in the last year, and 930 deaths. Senegalese youths, who have been hammered the most by pandemic restrictions, have not taken the measures implemented to curb further spread of the virus lightly. In January this year, they protested against the reintroduction of the night-time curfew, which was revised to midnight to 6am this week. Vaccines have also started to arrive in the country although the pace of inoculation has been slow, a reflection of the slow roll-out of vaccine programs across Africa.

In the meantime, Senegal’s real GDP growth is estimated to have grown by just 0.9% in 2020, down from 5.3% a year earlier, according to Chiedza Madzima, head of operational risk at Fitch Solutions. While the country will likely see growth of just over 5.2% in 2021, Madzima says that social instability could pose risks to the near-term growth outlook.

Household incomes have been squeezed, with disruptions to the normal functioning of economic activity hitting the informal sector particularly hard. Sall’s administration is facing an arduous task in building back informal wages which, like much of the region, provide a big percentage of earned income.

Accusations of judicial abuse

Sall, who came into office in 2012, has been accused of using the justice system to dispatch his opponents. Opposition leader Karim Wade was jailed in 2015 over corruption while another rival, Khalifa Sall (no relation to the president), was jailed for embezzlement before being pardoned in 2019.

So when Sonko was detained last week, the protests grew louder, prompting the government to shut down social media platforms ahead of his appearance in court on Friday. Two television stations were also suspended by regulators “over their coverage” of the protests.

However, with Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp appearing to be back online, the hashtags #SaveSenegal and #FreeSenegal are trending, highlighting the medley of frustration over corruption, human rights abuses, and poor economic conditions.

Sonko’s release on Monday, and a state address by Sall calling for calm, have not eased the flaring tempers of those demonstrating on the streets of Dakar.

Covid-19 economic impacts in focus

Senegal is not the only country in the region that has taken a massive economic knock from the coronavirus pandemic; data from South Africa today showed the economy contracted by 7% in 2020, its first annual GDP contraction in over 10 years.

Last year, Zimbabwe officials instituted a curfew under the banner of pandemic protections, in the midst of rising anger over corruption and economic conditions—raising concerns that African governments were using coronavirus lockdowns to quell demonstrations. Zimbabwean activists went to the web instead, birthing #SaveZimbabweanLives, an online protest which received international attention.

“Tensions around unemployment and a lack of economic opportunity have been simmering under the surface in sub-Saharan Africa throughout the pandemic,” notes Humphery-Smith. “The protests in Senegal may yet prove the tip of the spear, as governments across the region struggle to manage the social and economic fallout. The Senegalese youth’s economic grievances are real.”

Protests are also tapping into another grievance: the dominance of French companies in Senegal, 60 years after independence from the European nation. Businesses with links to France, including petrol stations and supermarkets, appear to be a target of looting and destruction by protestors, some reports show. French media have criticized their government for its silence on human rights issues in west Africa, despite its continued economic and political involvement in the region.

François Conradie, the lead political economist at NKC African Economics, says Senegal’s protests speak to “the cozy relationship between government and business, especially French business… which breeds resentment among the pan-Africanist radicals” to whom Sonko appeals.