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Senegal’s “Unraveling”: President’s Delay of Election Is Latest in String of Anti-Democratic Actions

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Senegal is in the midst of its worst political upheaval in decades after the president postponed this month’s election. More than 200 opposition politicians and protesters have been arrested, and the government has shut down some internet access, amid what the decision’s opponents are describing as a coup. “This is just the latest step in a string of human rights abuses,” says Amnesty International researcher Ousmane Diallo, who says Sall’s latest anti-democratic move is characteristic of an increasingly repressive regime. We also hear from former Prime Minister Aminata Touré, who broke from Sall’s political coalition in 2022 after accusing him of anti-democratic actions. Touré, now a leading opposition figure, was arrested Sunday at a protest. And we are joined by Mamadou Diouf, professor of African studies at Columbia University, who says Sall has been trying to circumvent the Senegalese presidency’s two-term limit since his 2019 reelection. Touré and Diouf describe Senegal as an outlier in West Africa for its postcolonial record of strong democratic systems. “We will do whatever we need to do to keep the foundation of our democracy solid,” says Touré.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Nermeen Shaikh, with Amy Goodman.

We turn now to Senegal, which is in the midst of its worst political upheaval in decades after President Macky Sall postponed this month’s election. More than 200 opposition politicians and protesters have been arrested in recent days, and the government has cut off some internet access. Meanwhile, civil society and opposition groups are calling for a mass mobilization against the delay to the presidential poll.

President Sall, whose second term was due to expire in early April, postponed the February 25th vote, citing an electoral dispute between the parliament and the judiciary regarding some of the candidates. Earlier this week, lawmakers voted to postpone the elections until December. The decision paves the way for Sall to remain in office until at least the end of the year. Opposition leaders and candidates rejected the decision, calling it a coup. Senegal has never experienced a coup since gaining independence from France in 1960. Foreign ministers from the West Africa bloc known as ECOWAS are due to meet for emergency talks today about the crisis.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Mamadou Diouf is a professor of African studies and the director of the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University, where he joins us from. And joining us from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast is Ousmane Diallo, senior researcher for Senegal and the Sahel at the Amnesty International office for West and Central Africa.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I’d like to begin with you, Ousmane Diallo. If you could respond to this latest news, and your assessment of why it is that President Sall has postponed the elections?

OUSMANE DIALLO: I think President Sall has postponed the elections for very personal reasons that are mainly linked to probably dealings within his political party. And what has shocked many Senegalese citizens, whether they are politicians or simple citizens going about their daily activities, is the unilateral way in which elections that were due three weeks from now were delayed to December by using force, such as pushing out opposition MPs from the National Assembly chamber on Monday, in order to vote for the election — for the delay of the elections.

Furthermore, this is just the latest episode in a string of human rights abuses and violations in Senegal. We have seen that internet access via mobile data was cut off between Sunday and Wednesday morning and that many protesters were arrested. But since March 2021, at least 56 people were killed while participating in protests in Senegal. And we have around a thousand people detained in various prisons of the country for participating in elections or calling to protest.

So this is really a downslide in Senegal, a democratic and human rights backsliding. And I think what has irked many citizens about the decision that was announced on Saturday is that this is the latest red line in which the republican and democratic standings of the country is being compromised by none other than the president of the republic.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the former Senegalese Prime Minister Aminata Touré. Democracy Now! reached her last night. On Sunday, she was detained for six hours before being released. This is what she had to say.

AMINATA TOURÉ: I was a candidate myself. And according to the law, there is three ways of collecting sponsorship. You can collect a certain number of parliamentarian or mayor, or you go to what is called the citizens’ sponsorship, which means you have to collect between 44,000 and 58,000 signatures from voters, which I have done. Because I led Macky Sall’s legislative election list two years ago, so I know how to collect this sponsorship, which I have done. And when we came for the control, I mean, it was a foul play. They couldn’t find, they said, 13,000 of my sponsors in the file. I came with the evidence and told them, “Here they are,” in the 2022 file. But they didn’t want to hear anything. So, Macky Sall decided that I would not be a candidate. But before that, last year, he removed me forcedly from the parliament, which is never [inaudible] unheard of. …

On Sunday morning, I went to the rally. And the minute I stepped out of my car, I was picked up by the police. And I spent, you know, hours being arrested, and they released me without telling me what was wrong, what are the charges, because there were none. And that’s the case for thousands of young kids who are protesting in the past months. They are in jail. They are not — you know, they don’t have a court date. And this is a mess, because we are not used to this. I mean, Senegal is known as the most stable democracy in West Africa. And here is President Macky Sall who’s spoiling it. And then we would not let him go; we will not just sit and watch. We will take the street. We will do whatever we need to do to keep the foundation of our democracy solid.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that’s the former Senegalese prime minister, who was arrested on Sunday for six hours, spoke to Democracy Now! yesterday, Aminata Touré, in Dakar, Senegal.

We want to bring professor Mamadou Diouf into this conversation, speaking to us from Columbia University. Hundreds of people have been arrested in the last days, but this isn’t the beginning of the unrest on the ground. Can you respond to what Prime Minister Sall has done? And take us back in time. Put this in a context, back to 1960, when Senegal became an independent nation, headed by Léopold Senghor.

MAMADOU DIOUF: Thank you for having me.

And it’s true that if you want to understand what is happening right now, we have to put it in perspective and have a kind of longue durée approach. Since the independence, what has happened in Senegal is basically the fact that a political system was created using the resources of the colonial and, actually, the resources also of Islam, the kind of precolonial culture which allow the Senegalese political class to build on the colonial foundation of a state I called an Islamo-Wolof state, a state in which you have segment of a population who had been able to build a power base and keep negotiating one with the other. And it’s what the British political scientist Donal Cruise O’Brien called the Senegalese success story, based on a kind of social contract. It did not mean that the country was fully democratic, but it was a country in which you had a kind of open society, engagement between different groups, and possibility always to find a solution to the biggest crises. And I think it’s what made Senegal a kind of exception.

But what we have been experiencing since the President Macky Sall was elected is the unraveling of the system, the fact that he has been attacking what has been the basis of the stability of the country. And the turning point basically is, when he was elected in 2019, he just began planning a possible third term. And that planning is absolutely evident if you look at all his action from 2019. Unfortunately for him, the Senegalese society, this very resourceful society, has been able to resist a third term. And he was soundly defeated by the mobilization of the youth, who had been able to say, “We want this regime to respect the constitution.” And the fight for the constitution forced Macky Sall and his group to finally give up the idea of a third term. But he has been keeping, if you want, an approach which is very repressive, which is unknown in Senegal, an approach of centralization, an approach of actually jailing people, in particular, his main opponent. And this is the term of a process which is a process of systematic destruction of the foundation of one of a few democratic systems in Africa.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mamadou Diouf, I’d like you to, you know, elaborate on why that’s the case. I mean, in this moment, there are people who are speculating that there may actually be some kind of military coup in Senegal. Senegal is, of course, as you said, an exception, considered an exception, the only country in West Africa that has not experienced a military coup. So, first of all, do you think there is a risk that that might happen? And also, what differentiates Senegal, in this sense, the relationship of the military to the government, compared to its neighbors?

MAMADOU DIOUF: Yeah, according, actually, to many scholars who have been paying attention in particular to the military group in West Africa, what they have shown is that the Senegalese military is a very professionalized group and is a well-educated group, who had been really favored by all the regimes since Senghor. And in many cases, times of crises, we know, the military did intervene in the process of — in the dialogue process, in the search of a kind of compromise, but without — always avoiding taking power. And I think that they are still in the same disposition. In 1962, for example, when Senghor was in conflict with the prime minister, Mamadou Dia, though the army actually supported Senghor, they did say that politicians should solve the issue, that the army was not going to intervene. And I think that is what is going to happen if the crisis deepens. They will probably say, “OK, this is a situation in which the question is not the army taking over, but the army will make sure that the right solution is found.”

What has changed, again, with President Macky Sall is today what is called the military police. The gendarmerie, in French, is much better equipped, probably, than the army. And it’s a gendarmerie equipped for repression. And, you know, these last 12 years, Macky Sall has invested more in the repressive equipment than in education and health.

AMY GOODMAN: Ousmane Diallo, we just have a minute. I wanted to go back to you in the Ivory Coast. You’re with Amnesty International, particularly focusing on human rights. I wanted to ask you about the targeting of journalists and media under Sall, and particularly one private TV station losing its license after showing protests on the ground, internet being cut off, difficult to reach people on the ground. The significance of all of this, and where you see the next election happening?

OUSMANE DIALLO: I think those attacks against the press that have occurred over the last three years are very symbolic of the repression against independent voices in Senegal. So, just on this Tuesday, the broadcasting license of the TV station Walfadjri was withdrawn by the minister of telecommunications, who criticized them for covering the protest on Sunday. And this is a very symbolic attack because Walf TV is one of the first TV media — private media houses in Senegal. And we know that private media houses, such as Walf, Walfadjri, and Sud FM, have been key in opening up the democratic voices and paving the way to political change in 2000 and 2012.

And beyond that, I think what have been very hurtful toward Senegalese peoples and their rights have been the recurrent suspension of internet access via mobile data. So, this has happened in between Sunday and Wednesday. It had happened in June 2023. It had happened in March 2021. And every time that there are protests in Senegal, this has become a regular feature of the repression of the regime. And if you look at international rights and the rulings by the ECOWAS Court of Justice regarding the case of Togo, they have been very clear that this suspension of access to internet are attacks against a right to information and press freedom.

And I think, in a general way, the press have been attacked and have been the victim of repression by the current regime, and, as well, have been all of the institutions. Professor Diouf has talked about the army, which has been under stress, but also the Constitutional Court, whose rulings are final, according to the Senegalese Constitution, but whose legitimacy has been criticized and undermined by the actions of the president. And I think all of those contribute to the current stress, the anger and the mobilization that we are seeing among the Senegalese citizenry.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you so much, Ousmane Diallo. We will continue to follow this story. Amnesty International senior researcher for Senegal and the Sahel. And professor Mamadou Diouf, a professor of African studies and director of the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University.

And then, next, a new Oscar-nominated film follows young Senegalese migrants on their journey from West Africa to Italy. We’ll speak with the director and the person who was part of the inspiration for Io Capitano. Back in 20 seconds.

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“Io Capitano”: Oscar-Nominated Film Dramatizes Perilous Migrant Journey from West Africa to Europe

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