Teranga Tested

In 1960, Senegal gained nationhood in a largely peaceful transfer of power, and since then it has remained a functional democracy in the face of many regional ethnic and religious conflicts.  Two years before my visit to Senegal, however, its capital experienced street protests marked by unprecedented violence.  In fact, some 12 people died in those protests during the spring of 2021.


(For some insight into the protests, consider this brief video report from BBB News, March 27, 2021:  www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=Bk8Lzhpot1c.)


By the time our Fulbright delegation visited Senegal in April and May of 2023, street violence posed little threat to us personally, but we could sense a coming crisis, as Macky Sall continued to hint at running for a third presidential term—despite having advocated at the beginning of his administration for presidential term limits that would have prevented him from running in 2024.


As a Fulbright teacher, my role in Senegal was to listen and observe, to ask an occasional probing question, and to be wary of stating conclusions supported only by my initial impressions.  Throughout my visit, Senegal’s pervasive Teranga impressed me, along with its determined students and committed teachers, its vibrant street life, and its apparent political freedom.  It seemed to me, outsider that I was, that its many ethnic groups enjoyed a relatively harmonious coexistence.  Given its economic poverty, Senegal’s stability and resilience seemed miraculous.


But that same economic poverty alarmed me, too.


Admittedly, my pre-trip research on its economy and educational system had been cursory; but what I read, article after article, was disturbing—especially when I learned about its vulnerability to the planetary climate crisis.  Drought, increasingly violent coastal storm surges, rising sea levels:  Senegal was assailed by multiple environmental demons and, worst of all, because of its economic straits, it could not afford high-dollar technical countermeasures.  Though Senegal has contributed very little to the world climate crisis, it finds itself among the nations most impacted by current climate trends.  A 2019 article in The Nation offers a representative litany of its seemingly insurmountable problems (https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/senegal-climate-injustice/).


However profound my admiration for Senegal, I know that economic injustice and the inevitable scramble for dwindling resources will chisel away at Teranga.  A nation with weaker government and cultural infrastructure than Senegal’s might well have fractured by now under its relentless economic and environmental pressures.


After my fortnight in-country, I left Senegal with deep regard for its people and hope for the nation’s survival.  But hope is just a feeling, really, and too easily summoned.  What Senegal needs most now is support—technical and economic—from wealthy industrialized nations like ours who are willing to do more than hope.  They—we—need to act as if we share the same planet.

On July 4, 2023, Al Jazeera announced that Senegalese President Macky Sall would not seek a third term.


It was news that many had been waiting for.  What better holiday news could I receive on our Independence Day?  I breathed a sigh of relief myself—not that I held any strong opinions about Sall’s tenure as president; what I did hold a strong opinion about was preserving democratic norms and honoring a citizenry’s right to choose their leaders.


My Fulbright colleagues had observed political billboards in Dakar—and graffiti along the highway to Saint-Louis—that hailed opposition leader Ousmane Sonko’s candidacy.  As an outsider, I found it difficult to sort through Sonko’s political assets and liabilities.  On the one hand, he was a whistle-blowing tax inspector who outed corporations that had been using Senegal as a tax haven.  After being dismissed from his inspector’s position, Sonko founded a political party, PASTEF (African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity), whose platform I—and many others—have not been able to clarify.  At a minimum, his party’s opposition to government and corporate corruption seemed laudable.


As Sonko’s political power rose—he finished a respectable 3rd in the 2019 presidential election—he found himself accused of “repetitive rape and death threats” by a female employee of a massage parlor.  He was arrested outside Cheikh Anta Diop University and was detained—which detainment sparked nationwide riots during Spring 2021, that, according to Amnesty International, led to 24 deaths.


Let me be clear:  when women bring accusations of sexual assault against powerful men, I listen.  At the same time, Mr. Sonko accused men with even more power of falsely charging him with a crime, simply for political motives.

Alas, my language deficiencies prevent me from drawing any personal conclusions about Mr. Sonko’s guilt or innocence, so I must rely upon the observations of trusted others.  (What I consider my finely tuned English-language BS-meter is but a crude instrument when I listen to accusations or defenses delivered in Wolof or French.)  Credible reporters spoke of Sonko being framed by the ruling party.


When I read that Macky Sall had decided not to run for reelection in 2024, I lauded him for “taking one for Team Democracy”—even as he insisted that “the constitution grants me the right” to run for that controversial third term.  (“Fine,” I shrugged; “the more the hero he.”)  Props to Sall for recognizing during his public announcement that “Senegal is more than me, and is full of capable leaders for the country’s development.”


Some, like Aminata Toure, a former prime minister of Senegal, viewed Sall’s decision as a response to the violent street protests that had erupted in the capital not long after my Fulbright delegation left Senegal and returned to the States.  According to a report from RTS, Senegal’s public broadcasting network, in the month following our departure from Dakar, those protests (and the response from law enforcement) resulted in 16 deaths, hundreds of arrests, and censure from Amnesty International.


“The people apprehended during these events are mainly armed and dangerous individuals,” Senegalese Director of Public Security, Ibrahima Diop, said in a televised message to the country, adding that some of those arrested were carrying knives, firearms and Molotov cocktails.  Diop reported that more than 500 people had been arrested during the protests.


In light of such unrest, I thought Sall had acted with some courage when he announced that he would not seek reelection.  Would there were more politicians who were willing to sacrifice their careers—and their self-importance—to the greater good!  Sall’s announcement earned him a July 5 BBC headline that suggested genuine statesmanship:  “Senegal's Macky Sall defuses a political timebomb by not seeking a third term.”


As it turned out, in a series of ruling-party crackdowns, Sall negated whatever selflessness he appeared to manifest on behalf of his nation.  Courts sentenced Sonko to two years in prison, which sentence prevent him from running for president in 2024.  On September 8 of this year, Melissa Chemam of Radio France Internationale reported that “Senegalese authorities have experts and rights groups worried by their recent arrests, infringements on press freedom, internet shutdowns, and the repression of protests.


She went on to report regular internet shutdowns, the arrest of prominent human rights activist and journalist Alé Niang who had the audacity to call for Sonko’s release, and the imprisonment and subsequent expulsion (to France) of Sonko’s lawyer.  Most distressing of all was news that Ousmane Sonko had begun a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment and disqualification from candidacy.


Then the most startling news broke:  Just two days ago—on October 23, 2023—Ousmane Sonko slipped into a “deep coma” in a Dakar hospital, a consequence of the hunger strike he resumed earlier this month to “support the opponents to President Macky Sall, and to call for freedom for political prisoners ahead of next year's elections,” according to an October 25 RFI breaking story from Melissa Chemam.


Chemam’s article ended with more alarming news:   “This weekend, presidential candidates in many parts of Senegal denounced a number of arrests of supporters as they collected political sponsorship, a crucial step in the run up to the February 2024 polls.


Autocratic thuggery seems to have been loosed upon the people of Senegal.


It’s essential that Senegal retain its democratic norms and remain a bulwark of democracy in West Africa.  It’s not clear that the United States government has any role in Senegal’s current crisis, other than support for the rule of law—a vague duty that may involve little more than earnest speechifying.  The recent news from my former host country is for me personally heartbreaking, as I think of friends—and the diligent work of the nation’s educators—being met with ruthless crackdowns on free speech.


In the end, I find that my country and Mouhamadou’s are facing some of the same demons.  May our deepest ideals prevail.