May 1, 2023
Content Warning: Political violence, Violence against migrants
In West Africa, a region known for political instability, military coups, and autocratic regimes, Senegal is unique for having maintained an unbroken and relatively peaceful democratic tradition since its independence from France in 1960. Jutting out of the West African coast in the semi-arid Sahel region between the Sahara to the north and the equatorial tropics to the south, Senegal is a rare success story of orderly political succession in this beleaguered region of the world.
Right now, however, Senegal finds its democratic tradition under siege. The culprit? The current president, Macky Sall, who has reigned since 2012 and who, the Senegalese people fear, may be setting himself up for an unconstitutional third term. His main challenger, political outsider Ousmane Sonko, who leads opinion polls as the most popular politician in the country, is currently facing politically motivated legal charges that threaten to invalidate his candidature in the upcoming 2024 elections. Because Sonko leads the polls, Macky Sall and his government have been doing everything possible to keep Sonko from running in 2024. Why? In a word, corruption. Sonko’s anti-corruption platform threatens the existing political order in Senegal, which is dominated by charismatic, old-school politicians and the illicit movement of embezzled state cash among themselves for personal enrichment. Macky Sall and his government know that if Sonko is elected, as he certainly would be if allowed to run, they might have to answer for their crimes. Surely thanks to the clandestine efforts of the Senegalese state to prevent that scenario at all costs, Sonko has faced assassination attempts and other extreme measures in addition to the trumped-up charges of defamation and rape which he is currently facing in court.
What is happening in Senegal is representative of a global problem—democratic backsliding that arises in reaction to popular movements which threaten the stranglehold of traditional elites on state power and finances. Senegal under Macky Sall is today in the same boat as Brazil under Bolsonaro, the US under Trump, Turkey under Erdogan, Russia under Putin, China under Xi, Hungary under Orbán, etc. The type of autocratization represented by these figures has been on the rise for the past several years, and some of the politicians listed above have succeeded in making themselves effective dictators of their respective states. What is responsible for this shift? Basic self-interest and greed, of course, are major factors. If you want to take power and hold on to it, it behooves you to surround yourself with kowtowing lackeys to whom you can keep the money flowing. It doesn’t matter if they’re good at their jobs. It doesn’t matter if the money they’re supposed to be spending on matters of state goes into their pockets instead. It only matters that they’re loyal. And if they’re well enough paid, their loyalty is guaranteed.
Of course, this kind of politicking has grave consequences. Not only does it allow strongman maniacs like Putin to launch invasions without his underlings ever daring to voice opposition (and if they do, it’s life in prison—or having your underwear poisoned by the FSB, as the case may be). It also perpetuates in some obvious ways the very problems that get people like Ousmane Sonko to finally speak up against corrupt leaders like Macky Sall. Let’s dig a little deeper into the case of Senegal.
Senegal, despite being a regional model of relative democratic stability, remains a poor country with few good opportunities for education or employment for the majority of its young population. It is, therefore, one of the major departure points in West Africa for the thousands of clandestine migrants who make the desperate and dangerous journey to Europe by fishing boat every year. It is not uncommon for several hundred young Senegalese men, women, and children to be packed like sardines into the wooden pirogues that, if they’re lucky, will see them to the coasts of countries like Spain, Portugal, or Morocco a week or two after departing from Dakar. If they’re unlucky, as many are, the boats will capsize at sea. Most don’t know how to swim, and don’t stand much of a chance of survival even if they do. Of course, getting to the shores of Europe is no guarantee of wealth and freedom; most clandestine migrants are soon caught and deported, even if they’re lucky enough to survive the journey there. This became so grave that in 2021, the governments of Spain and Senegal jointly agreed to work bilaterally towards improving migration control. Tellingly, the emphasis was on military and police cooperation more than on addressing the root economic causes of the migration in the first place. This is where the problem of corruption comes in.
Ousmane Sonko is currently facing defamation charges raised by the Minister of Tourism, Mame Mbaye Niang. Sonko accused Niang of embezzling 29 billion CFA francs (that’s over $48 million USD) from a public fund dedicated to developing agriculture in Senegal, one of the country’s most significant economic domains. Since many of the desperate young people boading the deadly boats to Europe come from agricultural parts of the country, using those funds as intended, to improve economic opportunities in agricultural areas, would likely go a long way towards addressing the root causes of the migration crisis. The fact that those vital funds were stolen by a corrupt minister who is now engaged in a coverup, as his allies in the government move to condemn the only man calling out such a flagrant abuse of power (Sonko), attests to the interconnected nature of these issues.
This, too, is a local expression of a global pattern. Think of the legacy of corruption left by Trump and his allies, or Jair Bolsonaro’s economic ties to the cattlemen destroying the Amazon, or Putin’s network of oligarch allies. Everywhere in the world that these people get into power, the corruption that surrounds them does immense harm to people and environment alike in their own countries and beyond. It is up to the people who they hurt to stand up and tell them, in the words of one Sonko supporter here in Senegal, that if they don’t step down, c’est la guerre—it’s war.