Senegal: Critical journalist, opponents arrested, opposition party dissolved, internet shut down

Once touted as a model of democracy and respect for human rights, such as freedom of expression and the press, Senegal is sinking deeper and deeper into autocratic rule.

Within a period of three days, at least two protesters have been killed, a critical journalist, Pape Ale Niang, has been re-arrested, mobile internet has been shut down, while the opposition leader and another senior member of his party have been arrested and their political party, Pastef, dissolved.

Ousmane Sonko’s arrest

On Monday, July 31, investigating magistrate, Maham Diallo, charged and issued a warrant for the committal of Pastef-Les Patriotes leader Ousmane Sonko, an outspoken opponent of President Macky Sall’s administration. According to Ousmane Sonko’s attorneys, he is being tried on a number of counts. “Calling for insurrection, criminal conspiracy, undermining State security, conspiracy against the State, acts and manoeuvres to compromise public security and create serious political unrest, criminal conspiracy in connection with a terrorist undertaking, as well as theft of a mobile phone and dissemination of false news.”

Abdou Karim Diop, the public prosecutor at the Dakar High Court, informed Ousmane Sonko of the seven allegations, including “theft of a mobile phone,” as soon as he was detained on Friday, July 28. When the 2024 presidential candidate came before Judge Maham Diallo on Monday, July 31, the eighth charge—”publication of false news”—was added to the vast list of accusations made against him.

Already some have died…

Protests broke out since the announcement of Ousmane Sonko’s arrest. With his imprisonment announced on Monday 31 July, angry young protesters have started destroying everything in their path, both in Dakar and in the interior of the country. A shooting fatality has been reported in Ziguinchor, the town where Ousmane Sonko is mayor. Pikine (a suburb of Dakar) is also reported to have had a fatality.

Toussaint Manga of Pastef in police custody

Former MP Toussaint Manga was taken into custody by the Criminal Investigation Division (DIC) after being questioned on Monday 31 July 2023. He is accused of having made “calls for insurrection, schemes and actions to compromise public security.” He explained in a publication that he was accused of two things;

“What has bothered them most in recent days is that I have republished certain images of the protests on my Facebook page”. He added: “On several APR and BENNO [movements aligned to the ruling party] social media forums, I was regularly informed that activists were taking screenshots of my Facebook posts and calling for my arrest, claiming that I was an essential part of the PASTEF organisation and that I had to be stopped”.

Pape Alé Niang arrested again

Journalist Pape Alé Niang, director of the news website Dakar Matin, was arrested on July 29, 2023, and placed in police custody on charges of calling for insurrection. His lawyer, Moussa Sarr, says his client was arrested following a Facebook live he posted after the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.

This is not the first time Pape Alé Niang has been imprisoned. He spent months in detention between November 2022 and January 2023. He was granted provisional release but placed on probation, prohibited from commenting on his case and from leaving the country.

Sonko’s party disbanded

As it never rains but pours, almost two hours after the investigating magistrate issued a warrant of committal against Ousmane Sonko, the Minister for the Interior, Antoine Diome, announced the dissolution of the Pastef-Le Patriotes party in a press release dated 31 July 2023. It was stated that “Pastef is dissolved in accordance with the decree no. 2023-1407 of 31 July 2023.” According to Antoine Diome, it happened because “PASTEF, through its leaders and governing bodies, has frequently called upon its supporters to participate in uprisings.”

The Minister for the Interior referred to “serious disruptions of public peace recorded during the first week of June 2023, following those of March 2021”. He argued that the dissolution followed “these events, which constitute a serious and permanent breach of the requirements of political parties”. In justifying the government’s decision, Antoine Diome referred to “the provisions of article 4 of the Constitution and article 4 of law no. 81-17 of 6 May 1981 on political parties, as amended by law no. 89-36 of 12 October 1989”. As a result, “the assets of the dissolved party will be liquidated in accordance with the legal and regulatory provisions in force”.

The MFWA is deeply concerned by these events in Senegal, a country otherwise celebrated as an example of democratic success in Africa. We deplore the violent nature of the recent protests, the latest of which resulted in the deaths of at least two people. We also condemn the use of lethal force by security officers. The indiscriminate use of lethal force against protesters is a flagrant violation of the Human Rights Act and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Article 4 of these principles encourages law enforcement officials as far as possible, to apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.

We are dismayed by the government’s decision to dissolve the PASTEF political party without going to court. This decision by the executive could set a dangerous precedent for other governments to eliminate, by decree, competing political parties considered to represent the greatest threat to the electoral prospects of the ruling party.

Against this background, the MFWA calls on the Government of Senegal to take steps to defuse tensions in the country by releasing all those detained for their critical views, including journalist Pape Ale Niang, and by opening discussions with all stakeholders, including PASTEF.

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