The late Nigerian musician, activist and pan-African advocate, Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti was unwavering in his submission that democracy does not favour Africa. Like a few other critics, he often argued that this was an alien system of governance that did fit into the semantics of the African leadership structure.
As an advent student of Ghanaian independence Nkrumah, it is unsurprising that Mr Fela Kuti shared this assertion. Although many do not share this assertion, there is no denying that since the wave of independence from colonial rule in the early 1960s, neither the military nor the democratic system of government seems to have solved the leadership problem in Africa.
In all fairness, however, one reason for the apparent failure of democracy in Africa is how many opposition leaders handle their politics and how those in power manage opposition. With this in mind, it is somewhat challenging to denounce the assertion of those who believe democracy remains Africa’s best governance system.
Since democracy, no African country seems to have enjoyed a good parley with opposition. But has the Senegal and Ousmane Sonko riots taken politics and political opposition battles to new heights in Africa? Many critics believe that the time to address politics and political opposition in Africa is now if we genuinely anticipate achieving a united continent.
How It All Started
A court in Senegal sentenced the country’s leading opposition figure, Ousmane Sonko, to two years in prison on Thursday last week after finding him guilty of “corrupting youth.”
The ruling, which for now bars him from running in future elections, throws the West African nation’s political future into uncertainty less than a year before its next presidential contest.
Earlier this year, the opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was accused of raping a massage parlour employee in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, and issuing death threats against her. The court acquitted him of those charges, which he had denied and denounced as an attempt by Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, to sideline him.
But the conviction in absentia of “corrupting youth” — a charge relating to an accusation that Mr Sonko had a sexual relationship with the massage parlour worker, under 21 at the time — renders him ineligible to run in the election.
Interestingly, Mr Sonko cannot appeal the verdict because he did not appear in court for the hearings or the verdict under the grounds that he did not feel safe to appear in court. However, according to Senegal’s justice minister, Ismaïla Madior Fall, an arrest warrant has been issued for him.
However, one of the legal counsels to Mr Sonko, Bamba Cissé, has revealed that Mr Sonko would not surrender “because we’re against a judiciary system perverted by political leaders.
“For two years, Senegal has been told that Mr. Sonko was involved in a rape affair. Today, we have the proof that it was a plot,” he added.
So, to the state, Ousmane Sonko is a fugitive in hiding. But to a large number of his supporters, he remains a man who has the potential of toppling President Macky Sall from power at the next general elections. Hence, the decision of the president to fight him with the instruments of the state at his disposal. They say they are willing to go all the way for Mr Sonko to fight the government of the day, whom they believe is behind the charges.
The Current Situation in Senegal
Following the court judgement, supporters of the presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko have taken to the streets and clashed with police forces in Dakar, throwing stones and setting vehicles alight, resulting in the death of at least nine people.
Protests broke out soon after Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison for ‘corrupting youth’, and the legal team of the presidential hopeful revealed to his supporters that the conviction would bar him from running for the next presidential elections.
Sensing that the conviction was a ploy by the government of the day to prevent Mr Sonko from participating in the upcoming elections, his supporters took to the streets to protest. Clashes erupted between protesters and security forces in Senegal’s largest cities. In Dakar, fires broke out in multiple neighbourhoods and at the main university, where young demonstrators erected barricades and threw stones at the police, who responded with tear gas.
How are the Mighty Fallen
Senegal, a country of 17 million, has long been hailed as a model of political pluralism in Africa. For many years, it was a model for governance in West Africa – a region known for coups and ageing leaders clinging to power.
Elections in Senegal have been peaceful since the country became independent from France in 1960. As a result, the United States, Europe and China hold Senegal as a reliable partner in West Africa due to their political stability.
However, it appears that all hell has broken loose, and the mighty have fallen as the political future of Mr Sonko, who is 48 years, has been accepted by the young Senegalese population. Critics say the popularity has undoubtedly become a big challenge for President Macky Sall.
What the Critics are Saying
“Senegal finds itself in a thick fog, with lots of uncertainties,” said Alioune Tine, a rights expert and founder of the AfrikaJom Center, a Dakar-based research organization. “It has turned into a police state and, increasingly, an authoritarian one.”
“The ‘corrupting youth’ charge comes out of nowhere; it’s pure injustice,” said Mr Ndiaye, a 35-year-old car salesman who said he was going to a Dakar neighborhood where protests were taking place.
Marième Cissé, an expert on gender issues, said Senegalese society still blamed victims of sexual violence. The Sonko trial, she added, gave many Senegalese the impression that a crime as serious as rape had been used for political purposes.
“That instrumentalization has minimized the seriousness of the accusation,” said Ms Cissé, a researcher with the Dakar-based Wathi research organization. “It could discourage women from talking about the abuse they may face.”
Moussa Sané, a 46-year-old businessman who attended the court session on Thursday, said that he was not a Sonko supporter but that the verdict showed the trial’s political motive. “The government is trying its best to prevent Sonko from running in the next election,” he said.
“With Sonko convicted, Macky Sall has made him a political martyr,” said Mr Tine, the rights expert. “And with this third-term issue, he has created another problem for himself.”
This is Not a Senegal Issue. It is an African Issue!
The Senegal and Ousmane Sonko matter is not the first time an issue like this is arising in Africa. Unfortunately, it is almost a norm for the ruling class and the opposition to engage in a series of political tussles – one that the masses are often the victims.
Earlier this month, it was widely reported that Nigeria’s opposition leader Atiku Abubakar who came second in a 25 February presidential poll, took to the streets on Monday along with his supporters to contest the election results. Also, another opposition leader, Peter Obi, who seems to have a lot of support from the youths in the country, is also contesting the results of the just concluded elections.
On 20 March 2023, Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga joined thousands of supporters in the streets of Nairobi to protest against the government of President William Ruto. Odinga’s convoy of dozens of cars drove around the city after being blocked from accessing the central business district.
He made public addresses on several stops, and his motorcade was teargassed several times by Police. In response, his supporters pelted stones at the Police. Odinga asserted that the Police shot at his car, and his party spokesperson shared a photo of a shattered windscreen online.
In the same vein, opposition leader Bobi Wine has been at loggerheads with President Yoweri Museveni. The latter has not hesitated to pour out his wrath on the MP, who continues to contest and lead protests against Museveni’s government. As a result, the government has cancelled several of Bobi Wine’s concerts and arrested the opposition leader on multiple occasions, where he claims he has been subjected to torture and several forms of inhumane treatment.
In 2022, Police in Madagascar detained two leading members of the main opposition party on Saturday during a mass protest in the capital. The Police said they arrested Rina Randriamasinoro, the secretary general of the opposition Tiako I Madagasikara (TIM) party, and its national coordinator Jean-Claude Rakotonirina following tensions between demonstrators and security forces.