- Violent clashes in Senegal continue
- UNICEF enacts emergency alert calling for a ban on child involvement in the riots
- Youths express dissatisfaction with skyrocketing unemployment rates and unsatisfactory governance
The Senegalese youth have taken matters into their own hands regarding the country’s governance. This sounds like a familiar trajectory in the world of politics. Young people make up the largest proportion of Africa’s population and are most affected by a country’s socio-economic and political development or lack thereof. The youth is the future, but what happens when children find themselves front and centre in violent clashes?
This month saw Senegal continue a string of protests set off by the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko at the start of June. Sonko was indicted in 2021 on charges of sexually assaulting and threatening a masseuse at a beauty salon. He denied the allegations and got cleared of the rape charges, but he still faces two years in prison for “corrupting the youth”.
48-year-old Sonko’s popularity, especially among the Senegalese youth, has grown immensely in the past few years following a nearly successful presidential election run that saw him place third. He is seen as the opposition of current president Mackey Sall who has a less than favourable reputation among the youth who believe he has abandoned them. Rising rates of youth unemployment have created a breeding ground of disappointment and desperation, thus the ongoing violent riots in the country.
According to the Accord Organization, “Almost 16 million young Africans – around 13.4% of the total labour force of 15–24-year-olds – are unemployed, more than 40% of young Africans consider their current living situation to be very bad or fairly bad, and 60% of Africans (especially youth) think that their governments are doing a very bad or fairly bad job at addressing the needs of young people.” A sobering reality that many young persons are forced to navigate.
“There is no justice here because we’re living in a dictatorship. I’m crying inside. My heart is bruised,” Youssouf, a 22-year-old law student, told The Guardian why he is involved in the riot. Supporters of Sonko range from ages 18 to 30. However, reports of children as young as ten and under have surfaced, including images of the children being used by gendarmes as human shields.
Founder of the Dakar-based think-tank AfrikaJom Center and the former Amnesty International director for West and Central Africa Alioune Tine expressed shock at the occurrence stating, “This is the first time we’ve seen images like this in Senegal.”
Tine further attributed the presence of children in the demonstrations to young boys witnessing the lack of advancement in their older brothers’ lives despite obtaining qualifications they had been told would open doors for them. “Education no longer holds value,” Tine commented. “So when the youth revolt, their little brothers follow.”
Africa is, unfortunately, well-known for its high rates of child soldiers. The use of children in combatant military roles is a sore spot, as many countries still insist on enlisting minors in this dangerous role. In 2007, 35,500 children were used for military purposes in Africa’s most violent conflicts in North Sudan/Darfur, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Nigeria. Nigeria enlisted 2000 kids in 2016 alone.
UNICEF swiftly intervened, calling for a ban on child participation in the protests. “We’re really troubled. We need everybody to, within their sphere of influence, prioritize the protection of children,” said Nicolette Moodie, the chief of child protection at Unicef Senegal.
According to the state, the riots have claimed 16 lives, including three teenagers aged 16 to 17 years and a police officer run over by a motor vehicle. On record presently are 500 arrests that shockingly include 63 minors.