Calls for regional action rise as Senegal crisis escalates

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By KEMO CHAM

Regional bodies – the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) – have come under increasing pressure to take responsibility and deal with the escalating situation in Senegal.

Protests continued to worsen in the West African country on Sunday as defiant protesters took to the streets following the controversial decision by President Macky Sall to postpone presidential elections initially scheduled for February 25.

The new date for the elections has been set for December 15. But activists and opposition political parties say Mr Sall, whose term ends in April, has no mandate to change the initial date. Parliament, earlier last week, also extended his term until after the elections.

Read: Senegal lawmakers vote to postpone presidential election

Several civil society groups both within Senegal and in the wider West Africa bloc have been calling for action to end the crisis, throwing their support behind the Senegalese people.

Call to action

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The West African Civil Society Forum (Wacsof) said the action of the government has placed Senegal on an “unprecedented and dangerous” path away from the constitution, which threatened its democracy with the potential to undermine decades of progress in one of a few democratic countries in the region.

“Contempt for the constitution is one of the stages preceding dictatorship,” Wacsof said in a statement specifically addressed to the regional bodies and the Senegalese people.

The more than 1,000-member organisation is the umbrella network of the civil society in West Africa, with representation from all 15 Ecowas countries.

The group said that by this action, the Sall administration violated the African Union’s charter on democracy, elections and governance as well as Ecowas’s protocol on democracy and good governance.

Macky Sall

Senegal’s President Macky Sall attends the opening of German pharmaceuticals company BioNtech mRNA vaccine manufacturing plant to serve the African market in Kigali, Rwanda December 18, 2023. File | Reuters

“Wacsof calls on Ecowas and the African Union to side with the people by clearly and firmly taking their responsibilities while avoiding variable treatment in the face of any act of violation of the constitutional order, both civil and military,” it declared, further calling on civil society and other stakeholders to remain mobilised and play their roles peacefully for a peaceful resolution.

Deadly protests

As per the Senegalese constitution, if the new date set for the election stands, Sall’s mandate will have been extended by nine months. The opposition is determined to prevent that from happening, with more protests called for the coming days.

Already, for most parts of the capital Dakar and in increasing parts across the country, the streets are deserted, except for scenes of protests where angry protesters are setting fire to properties in the face of charging armed security forces.

The death of a 29-year-old Dakar resident on Saturday, after being shot with a live bullet by security forces, brought the death toll to two since protests began, following Sall’s announcement postponing the elections.

The first death occurred in the northern city of Saint-Louis on Friday, after a student succumbed to bullet injuries.

Senegal protests

A Senegalese demonstrator gestures as other are filming during clashes with riot police as they protest against the postponement of the February 25 presidential election, in Dakar, Senegal February 9, 2024. File | AFP

In Dakar, many major roads, rail lines and markets have been closed as a result of the unrest, as security forces fire tear gas, forcing residents to take shelter indoors.

Clampdown

There have also been mass arrests of demonstrators, among them many senior politicians, like former Prime Minister and ex-Sall ally, Aminata Toure, who is also a presidential candidate.

Even lawmakers are not spared. Among those detained are Guy Marius Sagna, an ally of opposition politician Ousmane Sonko, as well as activist turned politician, Prof Daouda Ndiaye, also a presidential candidate and leader of a citizens’ movement.

There have also been growing concerns over restrictions imposed by the government, including interruption of mobile internet and the clampdown on mainstream media, notably the withdrawal of the license of leading television station, Walfadjiri.

The umbrella body of the journalist associations in Senegal, the Coordination of Press Associations or CAP, has called on the Minister of Information, Moussa Bocar Thiam to relax the restrictions on press freedom and especially reverse the cancellation of the broadcasting licence of Walfajri.

“This act is a sneaky blow, a very serious attack on freedom of the press and expression in a country where the press has, for decades, always contributed to the consolidation of democracy, the rule of law and of freedom of expression,” CAP said.

The organisation also expressed concern about the economic implication of the move on employees of the broadcaster, one of the leading independent voices in Senegal.

“We, Coordination of Press Associations, made up of Cedeps, CJRS, Cored, Appel, Synpics, CTPAS, Urac and UNPJS, would like to remind the minister in charge of the sector and any other voice, whatever it may be, that journalists, media professionals and media entrepreneurs in Senegal will not give up in the face of such crimes,” it stressed.

Condemnation

The postponement had been criticised by the United States and European Union, as well as Senegal’s former colonial master, France.

Now calls are coming more from Senegal’s neighbours. The African Elections Observers Network (AfEONet) defended the action of the protesters, noting that it resonated with the core principles of freedom and self-determination that the Network staunchly upholds.

“AfEONet vehemently denounces the postponement and forceful raid within the hallowed halls of the National Assembly, where armed personnel forcibly removed elected representatives voicing their opposition to the deferral of the electoral process…

“Such acts are not only a desecration of the legislative sanctum but also an egregious affront to the pillars of Senegal’s lauded democratic ethos,” it said.

The Nigeria-based Electoral Forum, which comprises African intellectuals and civil society activists working on elections integrity called on the Senegalese government to stop the “constitutional coup” after a meeting it convened on Wednesday. It said the resistance from the Senegalese people is a common struggle for all Africans and democratic forces.

“We call on the Senegalese people to maintain their dogged struggle for the preservation of democracy,” it said in the statement signed by 25 eminent academics and activists.

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