The Threats to The Democratic Institutions of Senegal : An Autocracy in the Making Seduced by authoritarianism, the current president of the Republic of Senegal has begun to erode the democratic norms that have held the country together for sixty years to set the foundations for an autocratic regime. Is Senegal moving away from democratic principles rather than strengthening them? The recent events in Senegal suggest that democracy is in decline in this Sub-Saharan Africa country that used to be branded as an exception in Africa.
Stability of Political Institutions and Economic Environment
Today, there is a sense in the general population, particularly among the youth that they are ignored and forgotten by the government, especially in terms of the decision-making process aimed at improving the welfare of citizens and the well-being of the nation. Sixty years after independence, Senegal has managed to build a democratic nation with harmony and peaceful cohabitation amongst the different ethnic groups and religious denomination. Yet, we are witnessing an erosion of the pillars of the democratic institutions that made Senegal the envy of the other states in Sub Saharan Africa. A very serious issue, that is compounded by a failure of the government to deliver an inclusive economic growth with equity (equitable distribution of the income generated in the production process), jobs creation, construction of appropriate infrastructures, efficient investment in health, education, agriculture, and technological sectors.
Before 2012, Senegal had a stable political environment, a geographical position that gives Senegal a comparative advantage, and abundant natural resources. Despite this favorable environment, many Senegalese people still face immense hardship. Many families still live in remote rural areas, subsisting on family-run plots of land. Additionally, 70% of the youth remain unemployed laboring in the informal sector daily to earn a meager income to feed their families. Numerous Senegalese families still lack access to running water, basic sanitation, electricity, health care and education.
However, this somewhat stable political environment barely concealed the grinding poverty that prevailed in the entire country as jobs are almost nonexistent, access to health care very limited, and numerous children are stunted by poor diets or are living in abject poverty with their families, with an increased probability of experiencing hunger and starvation due to the various external shocks. Namely, the pandemic of 2019, the Ukraine war, and the rising energy cost that are being felt all over the world.
Numbers don’t lie. The Senegalese economy is in a very dire strait:
1. Low level of national per capita income ($1540) and insufficient income growth to allow convergence in per capita income toward that achieved in the countries that were at the same level of Senegal sixty years ago (most of the East Asian countries and the So – called the “Asian Tigers”)
2. Extensive material poverty accompanied by food insecurity and hunger (66.8% poverty rate); leading to a worsening of the life expectancy (Senegal’s position dropped from 140 th to 141 st; life expectancy for women 70.2 and for men 66.01)
3. Inequality in the distribution of income and inequity in chances to succeed (growing inequality in Senegal).
4. Vulnerability to shocks (internal and external as well) and risk of falling into poverty (66.8%) and poverty trap.
5. Lack of satisfaction of basic needs in human development, especially health and education. HDI (human Development Index) has barely improved. Senegal’s position changed from 165 to 168 and the HDI improved from 0.487 to 0.512)
6. Unsatisfactory “ quality of life” in a number of dimensions such as individual freedom, human rights (The Human Right Commission just condemned heavily the Senegalese authority by highlighting the arbitrary arrests of opposition figures, use of excessive force by security forces, restrictive civic space, serious human rights abuse; approved of two flawed and overly broad counterterrorism laws with life imprisonment for those found guilty of flouting the laws , but with a partisan judiciary system; sexual and gender based violence unpunished ) capabilities, and happiness or life satisfaction (1)
The Process of Undermining the Political Institutions
Instead of looking at how to reverse the trend of the underdevelopment of the economy and the pauperization of many people in Senegal, the Senegalese government has embarked on repression and weakening of the key political and economic institutions. Here are few examples of how the current government has weaken and continue to weaken the political and economic institutions that have held this country together.
The inclusive institutions, a broad-based representation that has contributed to the election of four presidents with peaceful political transition since independence are being converted to an extractive political institution characterized by narrow representation through a manipulation of the electoral file, the strict control of the issuance of national identification card, the erection of barriers to register legitimate voters, and control of the electoral process. This is perfected through the elimination of the Ministry of Elections created by the previous regime to satisfy the opposition after a day of national political rally in 2011 for political transparency and credibility in the electoral process.
The current government gave back to the Ministry of Interior all its former prerogatives in the organization of elections, de facto removing these two characteristics of the electoral process, namely transparency and credibility.
Recent political events in Senegal demonstrate this changing political stability, events such as:
Denying the main opposition coalition to legitimately participate in the election by a controversial decision (May/ June 2021) of a very partisan Constitutional Court which
plays a very important role in the electoral process.
Preventing the National Assembly from operating with transparency by not respecting the separation of power between the executive branch and the legislative branch since the former disrespectfully decided to occupy the National Assembly with the security forces (September 2022) for the first time in the political history of Senegal.
Other Subtle methods are also used to weaken the democratic norms and corrupt the Senegalese institutions:
Taking down virtuous civil servants and replacing them with cronies, proteges and family members (Appoint his brother at CNDC (Caisse National de Depot et de Consignation) and his brother-in-law as a super minister with very important responsibilities.
Reassigning honest civil servants to less important roles by switching their portfolios as punishment (judge Souleymane Telico and many other judges and civil servants).
Asking trusted official to prepare evidence against political opponents that the regime wants to neutralize (case of Khalifa Sall ex-mayor of Dakar, a former political rival of
the current president).
Building case that can tar the opponent’s reputation particularly if the target has a reputation for being honest and competent (Ousmane Sonko, the main opponent of the current president and the recent event surrounding the security forces (Gendarmery National) that has led to the arrest of a prominent investigative journalist).
Authorizing investigation against people and uses it to blackmail politicians and civil servants so that they can demonstrate their loyalty (list of civil servants embezzling public funds and grabbing land illegally prepared by OFNAC (National Office Against Fraud and Corruption created in December 2012).
This approach known as “digging at the foot of a wall” according to Joseph Torigian (2), is prevalent in autocratic societies such as China, Russia, Turkey, Hungry, North Korea that value pliant people in certain key positions (Attorney General, Interior Ministry, Secretary of Defense. Constitutional Court, Territorial Administration) for the sole
purpose of executing the will of the autocrat.
The freedom of the press which is critical to a democratic society in which the government is accountable to the people is under assault in Senegal (An investigating journalist Pap Ale Niang who just revealed a plot within the security forces with the complicity of some members of the government, is under arrest). This event is very worrisome as independent journalism and investigative journalism is under threat in Senegal. Most of the mainstream media has been neutered and muzzled by intimidation and conflict of interests created by the sprawling conglomerates and the irruption of scrupulous businessmen in this sector that control much of Senegalese media.
Maintaining a free and accessible public square for debate is crucial to defending Senegal’s democracy. Unfortunately, the current government is intent on muzzling the
All the above facts have culminated in the deterioration of the democratic institutions and the erosion of democratic norms in Senegal. In addition to corrupting the government institution as management strategy – this government has compromised the judicial and territorial administrations by appointing relatives or people belonging to the inner circle of the current president.
The Beginning of a Repressive Regime in Senegal
Here are the examples of outright repressions and undermining of the Senegalese people
We have witnessed the elimination of political rivals through an increasingly sophisticated and treacherous campaign of anticorruption purge that sidelined opponents and suppressed potential challengers – real and perceived- to the government under the guise of fighting corruption and graft through CREI (Court of Repression of Illicit Enrichment).
We are also observing an abusive use of the power of the state for heavy handed repressive policies that are imperiling the Senegalese’society (manifestation and protests are prohibited or brutally repressed by the security forces).
The internet is perceived as threatening the authority of the current president; hence a mass electronic surveillance is put in place to assert the power of the state which is risk averse, and dissenters are crushed. This systematic repression is the most extreme manifestation of the obsession of the president of Senegal with eliminating political rivals according to his famous statement “reduce the opposition to its bare bone” at the risk of criticism and domestic suffering in all parts of the society.
The desire to hold on to power due to fear of prosecution under a new regime has led the government to invest heavily in more coercive capacity: military, paramilitary and police forces (proposed budget for police, and the army, recent scandal of the purchase of military equipment for 45 milliards). The resulting outcome of this fear of losing the power is manifested in the following actions:
Jailing people (mostly youth) who are perceived to support the opposition. Incentivizing competition amongst subordinates to make them prove their loyalty by carrying out the repressive policies designed by the executive branch. Policing the web to the point of transforming the Senegalese society to a police state because of the efficient use of social networks by the youth to vent their frustration about petty corruption, denounce the government, an onerous bureaucracy that frustrate their aspirations, to discuss the everyday corruption that complicates life in Senegal.
These flagrant violations of the Senegalese constitution, coupled with the use of the security forces to prevent a portion of the Senegalese citizens to exercise their right to express their
displeasure – a right guaranteed by our constitution -, the erosion of the rule of law, the normalization of violence, the desire to undermine the stability of the country and create chaos while ignoring the growing inequality constitute the precursors of the making of an autocrat willing to violate the constitution through forcing a third term in the throat of the Senegalese people. These are some of the symptoms that Larry Diamond (3) called “democratic recession” and unfortunately, we are seeing them in Senegal.
Furthermore, these examples of repression and control are altering the democratic fabric of Senegal and are akin to the directives of an autocrat in the making for the final climatic battle –third term with a will power to blur the lines between economic policies and state benefactors that will perpetuate this systemic corruption. Senegal’s enduring corruption under Macky Sall has put it in 140 th on a list by Transparency International of 175 countries ranked by how corrupt their public sectors appear to be. Studies(4) have showed that corruption kills because with the money lost, we could invest five times as much into public health and lift million Senegalese out of poverty. This problem is systemic in Senegal– kickbacks have become standard operating procedure in government – controlled
enterprises (Post Office and Telecommunication, Dakar Dem Dik, CMS, LONASE, IPRESS,
APCO, SAR, Sen Eaux, Sonatel), and the administration.
Therefore, the only conclusion one can arrive to is the current president is preparing to run for a third term which is contrary to the constitution.
This will set the country in a self-destruction path, hence planting a seed for a destruction of what is Senegal. Example of this abounds everywhere (Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Soudan,
But this is not what was generally expected in 2012 when the Senegalese people elected a president of the Republic of Senegal. Back then, an ambitious plan for good governance, respect of the rule of law, food self- sufficiency, job creation for the youth and expanding the economy was laid out through the Senegal Emergent Plan as well as a pledge to build a more secure and egalitarian nation based on the rule of law Hopefully, the actual president and the government will envision a peaceful transition of power for the good of Senegal, and work toward a robust and independent security and judicial system.
But, by Risking making the political system less resilient overtime and prioritization of politics over economic goals the president and his collaborators are clouding Senegal’s long term growth prospects – the only way to reduce poverty is through sound macroeconomic policies and good governance. These economic objectives will be difficult to achieve because political instability, misallocation of scarce resources, and of the favoritism, nepotism, clientelism in awarding of “public contract” at the expense of Senegal’s private sector.
By practicing blatant favoritism for less efficient enterprises owned by those closed to the government or their political supporters, and putting domestic private businesses at a
disadvantage, the government is exacerbating long term problems for Senegal, including slowing down productivity, job creation, and wage growth
Needless to remind the actual government that despite the perceived stability of Senegal’s government and political institutions, this democracy can die due to the extreme partisan polarization fostered by the government along almost ethnic lines and regional divide. This is very scary and dangerous as direct effects of political instability, democracy, and
accountability influence the amount of capital that the country can attract.
Consequently, unaccountable executives can produce unpredictable investment related policies which definitively influence the inflow of capital, industrialization, growth, and poverty reduction. This is the reason why we should not allow the current government to create an environment of political instability and violence by subverting the will of the people of Senegal.
Let work for peace, stability, and growth in Senegal so that all the children of Senegal will be
able to contribute to the development of the country for the welfare of our people.
Professor of International Economics
A concerned citizen of Senegal
1. Human Right Report (2022)
2. Prestige, Manipulation, And Coercion: Elite Power struggle in the Soviet Union And
China by Joseph Torigian
3. Facing up to the Democratic Recession by Larry Diamond
4. Economic Effects of Corruption in Senegal by SJG Working pape