The current situation in Senegal is one of social and political unrest, with young people at the forefront of demonstrations that have swept the country ever since charges were brought against leading opposition figure Ousmane Sonko in 2021.
After months of sporadic demonstrations, violent protests erupted once again last Thursday after Sonko was tried then sentenced to two years in prison on charges of “corrupting” youth, despite being acquitted of rape charges.
Claiming that the verdict was the outcome of a political ploy aimed at preventing Sonko from participating in Senegal’s presidential elections next year, supporters clashed with security forces in the country’s capital Dakar, leading to 16 deaths and hundreds of arrests.
In an attempt to quell the raging waves of protests, the government on Thursday restricted access to several social media and messaging platforms and has temporarily suspended mobile phone data from Sunday to Tuesday.
Despite the temporary calm restored to the streets of Dakar, tensions continue to run high among Sonko’s overwhelmingly young supporters, who have vowed to defend their leader’s claim of innocence.
Leader of the young
Young and charismatic, Sonko, who came in third during Senegal’s 2019 presidential elections, has gathered huge support from young people in the West African nation, with many seeing him as the potential winner in the upcoming elections.
“He [Sonko] is very much the leader of the young, which opposes him to [Senegal’s President] Macky Sall,” said Douglas Yates, African politics expert and Professor of Political Science at the American Graduate School in Paris.
While Sall has remained strategically silent on his intentions regarding the 2024 presidential elections, political opponents are convinced that the Senegalese president has his eyes set on a third term in office, despite the country’s constitution.
Sall, who came to power in 2012, had previously been an outspoken proponent of term limits.
“There’s a lot of anger and frustration … and young people see Sonko as the last chance to potentially oust Sall,” said Danielle Resnick, political scientist specialising in sub-Saharan Africa and David Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution, adding that Sonko has attracted support by employing a nationalist rhetoric.
“There’s a lot of anti-French discourse, a lot of pro-nationalist discourse, which I think has given the youth hope that he’ll do something different,” said Resnick.
With promises that span from increasing employment opportunities to promoting sustainable development, Sonko garners strong support from young voters facing low economic prospects.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Senegalese economy is decelerating: gross domestic product growth is estimated to have declined to 4.2 percent in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels of 5.5 percent, World Bank data shows.
The sluggish economic growth compounded with soaring inflation have dealt a heavy blow to Senegalese households while dampening young people’s financial outlooks.
“We are looking at young people with secondary and higher education that can hardly find a job in the formal [labour] market,” said Resnick, adding that some have had to resort to working on the black market.
“People are working, but the incomes that they’re getting are very small and the conditions are terrible … it’s very difficult for a youth to start a family [as they see] little options of social mobility,” said Resnick, pointing to the mounting discontent among young people.
Higher expectations driven by the consumption of social media and online content are also fuelling young people’s anger and frustration, said Yates.
“They are hooked to the internet, they see what’s going on in the world, they’re young and their actual lives are probably better than those twenty years ago, but compared to what they had hoped for, they don’t feel that the leaders have delivered,” said Yates.
Democracy at stake
While multiple factors contribute to Sonko’s popularity among young people, many have rallied to his cause because of his anti-authoritarian stance amid increasing worries over democratic rule in Senegal.
As President Sall continues to refuse to rule out his candidacy in the upcoming elections, experts have voiced growing concerns over potential changes to the constitution that would allow Sall a third term in office.
“It weakens democracy [if] he reruns for president because it would set a precedent,” said Yates
Pointing to the low level of confidence in the current regime, Resnick said Sall’s candidacy would further undermine the people’s trust in government, which could potentially exacerbate Senegal’s deteriorating social climate.
With last week’s deadly protests fresh in mind, there are fears of more clashes breaking out in the country.
“But people are not going to take up arms … there will still be elections, and compared to any other country in the region, Senegal is still the most democratic,” said Yates.