Power to the People:
Senegal’s civic demonstrations hold promise but Macky Sall is still left unaccountable
Author: Rachel Greenwood
Senegal’s recent protests in response to the sentencing of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko were met with extreme human rights violations at the hands of President Macky Sall’s government. They highlight the ongoing need to protect human rights and the civic space in Africa. The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights ensures a number of rights for all Africans, including rights to freedom of speech and association, but more must be done to ensure that these rights are safeguarded.
During the protests, the Senegalese government responded to demonstrators with extreme violence, arbitrary arrests, and an Internet shutdown. Over less than two weeks of protest, over 500 people were arrested, 350 injured, and 16 killed. These actions were in direct violation of African Charter rights and pose a threat in a subregion where peace and security apparatuses are already weak or weakening. In addition, the United States, a key economic and security partner, has failed to protect Senegal’s civic space. We, therefore, call on the AU to enforce the protections guaranteed by the African Charter and ask the US government to extend its partnership to protection of the civic space.
During the protests, demonstrators suffered great harm at the hands of President Sall’s government. Human rights violations included excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests. For example, protestors were arrested and then beaten for possible connections to civil society organizations. In addition, government forces intimidated journalists, while protestors were choked by tear gas. Five people were also killed, including a 15-year old boy and a 26-year old male student.
These human rights abuses follow a concerning pattern that has been growing since 2021. While President Sall revealed recently that he will not run for an unconstitutional third term, he has worked hard to crackdown on the opposition and repress demonstrators. His crackdown on Sonko showed a neglect of young people and the diaspora – who have been Sonko’s primary supporters.
Further, Sonko’s prison sentencing and the subsequent crackdown on protests demonstrate just how fragile the civic space has become in Senegal. It also threatens democracy in the country. And though recent demonstrations proved successful in moving Sall to reject seeking a third term, his human rights violations have gone mostly ignored by the greater African and international community, especially the AU and US government. Anyone who cares about democracy and the freedom to demonstrate should be concerned by what happened in Senegal.
Civic protest has become increasingly dangerous on the continent. Protestors are met with violence at the hands of the government and their rights ignored. Indeed, Sall’s recent violations threaten the basic freedoms guaranteed by the African Charter and set a dangerous precedent for future democratic protest, which the AU and international community should not ignore.
If protections are not upheld now and government actors are left unaccountable, it is easy to see how future democratic protest becomes fraught and could contribute to the civic space’s shrinking. The AU must be more engaged on Senegal’s crisis of human rights and democracy because what happens there will undoubtedly impact similar spaces across the rest of the continent.
Here is an overview of AU and US government responses.
First, let us examine the relevant African Union mechanisms that could be applied in Senegal:
- African Charter
Senegal is a signatory to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. As a member state of the AU, Senegal is bound by the provisions of the Charter and is expected to promote and protect the rights enshrined in it. Relevant articles include Articles 9,10, 11, and 13.
- Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression
- Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders
- Focal Person on Reprisals
Here are the key actions:
- AU issued a press release on June 2, saying that Moussa Faki Mahamat, Commission President, strongly condemned the violence and urged leaders to avoid acts, which “tarnish the face of Senegalese democracy, of which Africa has always been proud.”
- ECOWAS called on all parties to “defend the country’s laudable reputation as a bastion of peace and stability.”
Interestingly, Senegal’s President, Macky Sall, was chairperson of the AU in 2022, and could perhaps be playing a role in the AU’s decision to overlook the human rights violations happening in his country.
Different from the AU, the US role to Senegal has been one of economic and security partnership, and that partnership should extend to Senegalese citizens and the protection of their civic space. However, the United States, in its response to Sall’s recent violations, has not addressed the government directly and has ignored its violent and arbitrary treatment of the demonstrators.
For example, on June 3, the Department of State released a statement urging “all parties to voice their views in a peaceful manner.” In addition, the US offered “our deep condolences to the families and friends of those who have died, and we wish a fast and full recovery to those injured.” Notably, these statements do not address how the government’s actions could change the partnership and, from this lackluster statement, it seems like it will not change at all.
The stakes are high for holding Sall accountable for his recent human rights violations. It is not enough to applaud him for sticking to Senegal’s constitutionally mandated limits.
The recommendations address the AU and US government.
- Support civil society investigations into the violence against protestors. Help CSOs document human rights abuses at the hands of Sall’s government and outline recommendations to the government for protecting protesters rights.
- Recognize that Senegal has not upheld the African Charter and assert consequences as such.
- Re-evaluate how to uphold the AU Charter and other mechanisms across the continent.
- Engage civil society leaders on the continent and ensure that they receive protection from their government.
- Ensure that economic and security partnership to the government is linked to protection of the civic space.
- Engage diaspora civil society and build partnerships across countries to stand up for the freedom to protest and assemble.
- Support AU projects to ensure that the organization is effective on the continent.
Call to action:
- Support the work of Global Rights in advocating for the rights of civilians in armed conflict in African countries.
- For our US audience – ask your congressperson what is being done and what the US ought to do.
- For our global audience – Africans can ask their government to be more invested in protecting the civilian population in their own country and advocating for them to be more vocal at the AU level.
- Mobilize on social media and show your support for civil society. Contact organizers and ask how you can get involved from your own country.
1. OHCHR. “Senegal – Protests and Communications Clampdown,” n.d. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-briefing-notes/2023/06/senegal-protests-and-communications-clampdown.
2. “Communiqué sur la situation au Sénégal | Union africaine,” n.d. https://au.int/fr/pressreleases/20230602/communique-sur-la-situation-au-senegal.
3. Jazeera, Al. “UN, AU Call for Calm as Death Toll in Senegal Violence Rises.” Protests News | Al Jazeera, June 3, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/6/3/un-au-call-for-calm-as-death-toll-in-senegal-violence-rises.
4. United States Department of State. “On the Unrest in Senegal – United States Department of State,” June 3, 2023. https://www.state.gov/on-the-unrest-in-senegal/.
5. Jazeera, Al. “Senegal’s Macky Sall Rules out Third Term after Deadly Protests.” Politics News | Al Jazeera, July 4, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/7/4/senegals-macky-sall-rules-out-third-term-after-violent-unrest#:~:text=Senegal’s%20President%20Macky%20Sall%20has,deadly%20opposition%20protests%20last%20month