Senegal and the Politics of Protest: an Interview With Kelly Duke Bryant

Image Source: Cover art for the book Education as Politics: Colonial Schooling and Political Debate in Senegal by Kelly Duke Bryant

Dr. Kelly Duke Bryant is an associate professor of history at Rowan University and a specialist of Senegal’s history. She is the author of Education as Politics: Colonial Schooling and Political Debate in Senegal, 1850s-1914 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015) and a variety of articles and book chapters. She is currently working on a book on the history of childhood in Senegal. In this interview, exclusive for Counterpunch, she helps break down the historical and political contexts of the ongoing crisis, where to find on the ground information concerning Senegal, and explains what is at stake for activism and the prospects for democracy overall.

Daniel Falcone: Could you give an overview of the greater Senegalese political culture along with some historical context that explains where we are at this moment?

Kelly Duke Bryant: Senegal has long been viewed as a model of democracy and stability in West Africa, a region with many countries that have experienced coups and other forms of political violence. While politics have not always been fully peaceful and nonviolent, Senegal has avoided coups and—until the last few months—more extreme political violence and repression of it.

Many Senegalese people are proud of their country’s history of multiparty democratic elections, political dialog, and peaceful transition of power. People enjoy vigorous debate and exchange of ideas, and they engage in political debates among friends and family, in public gathering places, on social media, and through media outlets like TV and radio. People are engaged in politics, many vote, and some participate in demonstrations, rallies, and other political gatherings. But it is also important to note that despite its reputation for democracy, Senegal has only experienced a transition of power following a presidential election twice before (in 2000, when Abdoulaye Wade defeated incumbent Abdou Diouf in a second round of voting, and in 2012 when current president Macky Sall defeated incumbent Abdoulaye Wade, who was running for a controversial third term.

The first president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor, had been active in politics prior to the country’s independence from French colonial rule in 1960. At independence, he was elected president and retained this position until 1980, when he stepped down and his protégé and chosen successor, Abdou Diouf became president, a choice that voters confirmed by electing him in 1983 and several more times after that, finally losing to Abdoulaye Wade in a runoff election in 2000. The international community was impressed by the peaceful transition of power, but Wade’s presidency was marred by several scandals, including allegations that he squandered money on prestige projects and significant opposition to his decision to run for a third term as president.

Similarly, while Senegal has not experienced the constitutional coups that have taken place in some of its neighbors (whereby national assemblies change term limits or lengths enabling a president to remain in power), this is a significant fear ahead of the presidential election in 2024. Although current President Macky Sall has not yet officially announced his intentions, many of his supporters and opponents believe that he will run for a third term. To orchestrate such a move, Sall could claim that the constitutional reform of 2016, which shortened term limits from seven to five years and reiterated the idea that presidents could serve a maximum of two consecutive terms in office, reset his timeline such that the presidential term beginning after the reform (in 2019) counted as his first term (even though he had held the presidency since 2012).

The current wave of political violence and repression in Senegal was triggered by the ongoing legal woes of Ousmane Sonko, which have intensified in recent months. Sonko is a leading opposition leader and the presidential candidate of choice for many Senegalese youth. Sonko ran for president in 2019 and came in third, garnering some 16% of the vote. Among other things, his candidacy has focused on economic independence for Senegal, change, and an end to political corruption. He stood trial for libel against Senegal’s Minister of Tourism, Mbaye Niang, whom Sonko had accused of embezzling money. This case was decided against Sonko in late March 2023, when a court found him guilty of libel.

Although his two-month sentence was suspended, many of his supporters interpreted this legal case as a ploy to sideline him or to disqualify him from running for the presidency. Many feel the same way about another case against Sonko, this one involving charge that he raped a massage parlor employee in 2021. The verdict in the rape case, which found Sonko guilty of the lesser offense of “corrupting youth,” was announced on June 1, 2023. The June 1 conviction does in fact make him ineligible to run, though there are circumstances under which he might appeal the conviction. Nevertheless, people remain very suspicious of the judicial process here, worsened by the fact that other potential opponents to Macky Sall have also faced judicial proceedings.

I also want to note that youth have often been at the forefront of political change in Senegal, dating at least as far back as the 1914 election of Blaise Diagne as Senegal’s representative to the French National Assembly (during French colonial rule). Youth were hugely significant in the protests of 1968 in Senegal. They demanded change in 1988-89 and worked to bring it about through the Set/Setal movement. They rallied around Abdoulaye Wade when he was an opposition candidate and helped secure his victory in 2000. And many young people supported Macky Sall when he first ran for the presidency in 2012.

Finally, another important context: many accuse the government of curtailing the free press for some time now, and they also point to crackdowns against freedom of expression. There have been arrests of journalists, rappers, activists, and others in the context of these demonstrations.

Daniel Falcone: Mainstream press outlets are commenting on the uprisings in Senegal and trace them back to the treatment of the country’s political opposition. How do economic and social issues serve as root causes to the protests as well?

Kelly Duke Bryant: There is a lot of poverty and unemployment in Senegal, especially among youth. Young people are thus especially motivated to throw their support behind candidates who promise significant economic reform and new opportunity, and to criticize politicians they see as corrupt. This is one reason that so many young people support Ousmane Sonko.

Daniel Falcone: How is the country divided politically by region, demographics, and social class? Readers, I fear, may essentialize a place like Senegal and reduce it to a single story.

Kelly Duke Bryant: As I noted in my response to your first question, I think that generational differences and generational tensions are hugely important in understanding Senegal’s politics. Young people are activists and are demanding change, and this is in a society where tradition holds that elders deserve respect and should have the ability to speak first, or to speak for the society. So, in some ways, youth-led protests may seem to some like young people speaking out of turn. Though on the other hand, youth protest and youth political leadership is nothing new in Senegal.

There are at least six major ethnic groups and many other smaller groups, along with numerous immigrants from neighboring countries and from farther afield. A large majority (perhaps 94%) of the population is Muslim, though there is a small but significant Christian (mostly Catholic) population. There has been a long simmering separatist movement in Casamance, the southern region of the country, since the 1970s, but tensions had been greatly reduced until recently. In the current political situation, tensions have reemerged here. Beyond this separatist movement, there are few significant conflicts that could be classified as “ethnic,” though there are of course sometimes tensions around access to resources (water resources in rural areas, for example).

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on how foreign policy and global actors in a multipolar world factor into the politics of Senegal? What are your thoughts on media coverage of the situation in the west?

Kelly Duke Bryant: Macky Sall served as chair of the African Union in 2022, and in this capacity, he had to represent the continent in geopolitical discussions, especially about the war in Ukraine. This war has contributed to significant declines in food security in several African countries, which imported large quantities of wheat and other agricultural products from Ukraine. The war has made it harder for these countries to access grains. I don’t know that this has affected the current crisis in Senegal, but it does factor into the larger geopolitical context and coverage of Senegal’s leader. Macky Sall’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in June 2022, for example, during which the leader discussed food supplies for the African continent among other things, received a lot of critical press coverage in the west.

Regarding coverage of the current conflict in Senegal in the US and Europe, I think that most mainstream media have the basics right, but as a historian of Africa, I would be remiss if I did not point out that nearly all coverage situates this story firmly in the years since the last presidential election (2019) and since the rape accusation (2021). I think we need to look back decades (at least) to have a fuller picture of the historical context, and of the circumstances that made the current crisis possible, even likely. Perhaps the most comprehensive examination of the crisis that I’ve come across is The Africanist Podcast, hosted by Dr. Bamba Ndiaye, assistant professor of African Studies at Emory. In a two-part series, Ndiaye interviews Senegalese freelance journalist, Borso Tall, about the situation, and they discuss a much richer and more nuanced set of factors that have contributed to the unrest.

It clearly goes beyond Sonko’s legal woes and his candidacy. They discuss wider discontent with the Sall regime, growing distrust of the judiciary and the police, a recent contest over land rights in Ngor, and several other issues. The host, who is from Senegal originally, is personally invested in these issues and very knowledgeable too. I highly recommend it for those who want a very thorough look at what’s happening.

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.