Senegal Protests

Senegal might seem an unlikely site for a sub-Saharan African protest movement: the only West African nation never to have had a military coup, it achieved a peaceful democratic transition from incumbent to opposition in 2000 and frequently receives accolades for its political stability and independent media.

On the other hand, Senegal might seem the perfect staging ground for a sub-Saharan African protest movement: incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade, an octogenarian planning to seek a third term next year, is widely seen as planning a “dynastic” succession to his son Karim. Wade has presided over economic stagnation and a deeply unpopular electricity crisis. In February, a Senegalese veteran set himself on fire in front of the presidential palace, evidently taking inspiration from the Tunisian whose suicide helped launch the Arab protest wave.

At that time, I wrote, “It still seems unlikely that Senegal will see an Egypt-style protest movement, but last week’s self-immolation of a former soldier shows that events in North Africa have resonated deeply with some segments of the population in this West African country.”

I may have underestimated the anger in Senegal. Demonstrators headed to Dakar’s Independence Square Saturday to protest Wade’s rule on the 11th anniversary of his ascension. The protest appears to have been medium-sized – 3,000-5,000, by various estimates – and drew primarily young men. Significantly, though, one primary organizer was Sidi Lamine Niasse, the editor of Wal Fadjri, a major independent newspaper in Senegal. Niasse’s participation signals a willingness on the part of some elites to participate in a protest movement.

Demonstrators and organizers alike seem to agree that the goal is not to oust Wade immediately, but rather to send a message to the government that its current policies are failing to meet people’s needs. The protest also shows that the 2012 race is already underway, though Senegal’s fragmented opposition may find difficulty if it tries to turn the energy of the demonstrators into a united political force for change.

The government’s response to the protest included the deployment of riot police, but reports indicated the protest went fairly peacefully. A bigger part of the government’s reaction was its announcement that it had foiled a coup plot, an assertion many protesters and opposition figures scornfully dismissed.

“It’s plain to see,” Moustapha Niasse, one of the leaders of the Benno Siggil Senegal (Together for the Renewal of Senegal) coalition and head of the Alliance of Forces for Progress (AFP) said during a demonstration in Rufisque, to the east of Dakar.

“Coups are perpetrated by the military and not by civil activists. So it is utterly ridiculous,” he added.

“This simply shows panic on the part of the state authorities who think any demonstration by young people is an attempt to destabilise the regime.”

True or not, the regime’s announcement of the coup plot serves as a reminder of Senegal’s stability, a political feat Wade is implicitly taking some credit for. “It could be much worse,” seems to be one underlying message.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the state’s response also entailed a counter-demonstration of sorts: “About 10,000 Wade supporters meanwhile marched to the presidential palace under heavy police protection to mark the anniversary of their idol’s accession to power.” This show of political strength, where supporters apparently outnumbered opponents of the president, suggests that Wade still enjoys many voters’ loyalty.

Does the Senegalese protest movement have a future? The context differs greatly from the situation in Egypt, where protesters widely felt that “elections” scheduled for this year would return Hosni Mubarak to power without a real contest. In Senegal, the outcome of next year’s elections is much less sure. Even cynics who believe that Wade rigged the results in 2007 (he won by about 56%) cannot say for certain that opposition candidates have no chance – after all, there is the counterexample of Wade’s own victory in 2000. The approach of the elections offers a political outlet that was not available in Egypt, and Senegalese activists have compelling reasons to devote their energies to sustained electoral organizing, rather than sustained protests in Dakar.

Still, the anger in the capital and elsewhere is real. Whether or not a major protest movement develops (and that would still surprise me), the next year or so will likely see major activity in Senegalese politics.

For those who speak French, here is the first part of Wade’s speech from Saturday (find the rest here). The opposition underestimates him at their political peril: