Critical Conversations

Uprising in Senegal: Twisted Tales from Endless Protests

No work of art best captures happenings in recent times than William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”, written decades ago. The poem captures an apocalyptic odiousness, characteristic of the uprising ravaging the political turf of some countries like India, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and other countries around the globe today.

As the world experiences a rising spate of social unrest from mass protests, Senegal seems to be the latest hit in Africa. According to public analysts, this is the worst unrest in decades in a country recognized by many as an emblem of peace and stability. The unrest started from mass protests that accompanied the arrest of prominent 46-year old opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko.

Sonko was arrested on charges of public disorder. This came as he was making his way to court for a rape case filed against him. He was accompanied by supporters. The move sparked outrage and resulted in violent demonstrations leading to massive looting of shops and destruction of property. Five people were reported to have been killed in violent clashes between security forces and supporters of the opposition who posited that the rape allegation against their principal was politically motivated.

Schools in Dakar were ordered to close for at least a week. The United Nations and countries bordering with Senegal expressed deep concerns over the rising political tensions. Religious leaders equally added their voices, calling for calm. Although Sonko was released, the charges of rape against him remained, with President Sall appealing for calm from protesters, while insisting that the courts should be left to do their job “in all independence”.

In spite of Sall’s nationwide address on Monday, 8 of March 2021, asking protesters to “silence our bitterness and avoid the negative logic of confrontation which can lead to things getting worse”, Sonko, popular with Senegalese young population, went ahead to call for “much larger” protests. Although he urged that it should be non-violent, calls from the opposition for citizens to take to the streets fed concerns that imminent violence was looming.

Protests are ordinarily legitimate. The right to protest is a fundamental one. For instance, Nigerians rights to protest are safeguarded under sections 38, 39, 40, and 41 of the 1999 constitution. Under Section 40 of the constitution, every person is entitled to assemble freely and associates with other persons. Section 45 however permits these rights to be restricted in the interest of security, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, or to protect the rights or freedom of others. This is the standard globally.

But the question is, can protests really be peaceful, especially when it involves warring factions or opposing sides that are massively aggrieved? In other words, is it possible to have protests without some form of violence once the dynamite of bottled-up emotions explodes? A lot of passion prompts people to embark on mass protests. With those emotions, especially from a strong point of aggrieved feelings, it is almost unlikely that some sort of violence would not spark in the heat of pains and fatigue.

It is noteworthy that while we have seen some peaceful protests in the past, it is not the case in recent times. Late February, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General issued a statement expressing deep concern about the Myanmar protest which had now become bloody with at least 54 fatalities and detention of 1, 700. He described as unacceptable reports of violence, harassment, and intimidation by security forces. The protesters had originally employed peaceful and nonviolent forms of protests, which included labour strikes, a military boycott campaign, a nationwide mass movement, a red ribbon campaign, civil disobedience, public protests. It however turned out to be something else just a week ago. Massive destruction took over.

The protests in Myanmar which started out peacefully turned violent with the deadliest day recording the death of 38 protesters. The second deadliest day saw the death of eighteen persons. The people embarked on a mass campaign to protest against the military who were trying to pull a “stop-the-steal” facsimile in the third-world country. Their demand was for the release of Ms. San Suu Kyi, along with senior members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. The protesters defied military’s warning, putting their lives on the line against all odds.

Even in South Africa, things are about to explode fully with protesting students taking the battle to police officers. One person is reported to have died from the altercation. Students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, were protesting over the financial exclusion of those with historic debts. The CEO of Universities South Africa, Ahmed Bawa, however, cleared that there was no way the students’ demand for the cancellation of their debt would ever happen. He said student debt in South Africa was more than the equivalent of $663 million, including more than $16 million for WITS alone.

The developments in Johannesburg reveal that the student debt crisis is far from limited to the United States, where nearly $2 trillion in loans remain unpaid and rapidly accruing interest.

According to former United Nations Population Division Director, Joseph Chamie, the growing student debt crisis in South Africa, in particular, was prompted by increased demand for jobs that require higher education, prompting a surge of student enrollment.

The trend of violent protest, even over frivolities, seems to be expanding with the current hard times globally. Who can forget the US Capitol Invasion where at least five people were said to have died following the “stop the steal” protest that turned violent? The EndSARS protests in Nigeria was in fact the precursor to all the others that followed.

In the case of Nigeria, the U.S, and now Senegal, it is important to note that violence that erupted from mass protest happened due to what can be classified as “opposition wings”. These include but are not limited to enemies of government, leaders who fail to exercise self-restraint, egoistical political figures, and witch-hunters.

For instance in Senegal, Ousmane Sonko who emerged second-runner up at the 2019 presidential elections in Senegal has been very critical of the Macky Sall-led government ever since the president took office.

Even though he opposed any attempt to remove Sall from office by force, Sonko noted that the President had no legitimate right to lead the country. He acknowledged the chant from hundreds of his supporters hailing the radical opposition leader as “president! president!”

Read Also: The #ENDSARS Protests; A Fundamental Lesson in Democratic Government

But President Macky Sall was the one elected legitimately. He took 58% of the vote in the 2019 presidential poll against four challengers. But we see Ousmane Sonko insisting that he has no legitimate right to lead the country. If he has no right to lead, why didn’t he challenge Sall soon after he won the elections in court?

Inasmuch as bad leaders deserve to be drawn by the ears, opposition parties and their leaders have been very careless and have equally failed in separating the role of acting as a watchdog and playing politics of bitterness. In recent times, their role has been deliberate efforts to heighten tension. Unfortunately, innocent citizens get caught in the middle of all the cross-fires.

Andy Charles

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