Senegal’s Democratic Future May Hinge on the Aftermath of a Rape Case

Casting doubt on the accuser, protesters riot on behalf of the defendant, a leading opposition figure sentenced to jail after his conviction upended his chances to unseat the country’s aspiring autocrat

Senegal’s Democratic Future May Hinge on the Aftermath of a Rape Case
Adji Raby Sarr, who accused political leader Ousmane Sonko of rape, leaves the judge’s office at the Dakar courthouse in December 2022. (Seyllou/AFP via Getty Images)

Senegal has been marred by violent protests and riots over the past week, as thousands of people have taken to the street to vent their anger over a recent court ruling that is expected to bar the country’s top opposition figure from running in next year’s elections even as the incumbent president makes a move for a possibly illegal third term.

Protesters see the sentencing of Ousmane Sonko in connection with sexual assault charges as a blow to the country’s democracy, the strongest and most durable in West Africa. In the past week, some of them have reacted violently – thick smoke has engulfed the streets of Dakar as protesters set cars ablaze and hurled rocks; others looted banks and supermarkets. The riots have been met by live fire from security forces, with 23 deaths reported. Social media and the internet have been throttled in what the government says was an attempt to combat disinformation and calm the situation, but rights groups warn of authoritarian overreach. The government has deployed the military and arrested over 500 individuals, stifling tensions for the time being. But a fresh wave of protests is expected to begin again on June 9.

As thousands throng the streets of Dakar, one woman, Adji Raby Sarr, rests at the center of the upheaval. The former beauty salon employee accused Sonko — the country’s foremost political opposition leader — of rape in 2021. Sarr, who was 20 at the time, accused the then-46-year-old Sonko of five alleged sexual assaults from December 2020 to February 2021 and of subsequent death threats if she were to expose him. Sarr claims that Sonko often visited the salon, which many consider to be a brothel and is where the alleged crimes took place.

The accusations, Sonko said, were empty and politically motivated — a ploy by incumbent President Macky Sall to prevent his strongest rival from challenging him in next year’s presidential elections in a bid to hang on to power. When the claims first surfaced two years ago, violent protests resulted in the loss of 14 lives and put the country on shaky ground.

Sonko was cleared of the rape and death threat charges by the court last week, but he was condemned to a two-year prison term for “corrupting the youth” and “inciting debauchery,” lesser charges in connection with Sarr’s accusations but a sentence that effectively bans him from running in next year’s February elections.

Sarr’s accusations have, however, revived a longstanding debate about sexual violence and consent in Senegal, which criminalized rape only in 2020 under pressure from civil society and despite reluctance from the judicial branch, which claimed it would be difficult to prove such crimes in the absence of medical evidence.

After two years of delayed hearings, Sarr took the stand on May 22 to give testimony in which she described in detail the alleged sexual assault she faced. Following her appearance, Sonko’s supporters accused her of colluding with the government, and local newspapers sensationalized her story, calling her a “porn star” and eroticizing her testimony. Sonko said that if he wanted to rape a woman he wouldn’t “choose a brain-damaged monkey,” drawing criticism from feminist organizations who believe Sarr’s accusations should be taken seriously.

“In line with the culture of racist and sexist stereotypes, these comments reinforce and normalize the culture of rape and are unworthy of a man who aspires to the highest office in our country,” said a collective of Senegalese feminist activists in an open letter, drawing attention to how the case has affected the country’s debate over consent and sexual violence.

Tensions reached their crescendo after Sonko’s sentencing prompted him to embark on a 300-mile journey from his hometown of Zinguichor in southern Senegal to Dakar, rallying people along the way to join him in anti-government protests in the capital in what he called the “Caravan of Freedom.” But on May 27 he was arrested and confined to his house in Dakar, denied movement and access to his lawyers.

In response, Sonko’s supporters have resorted to acts of violence, including targeting French supermarkets and gas stations, which are seen as symbols of colonialism that Sonko is actively opposing. The government has cracked down on civil liberties, calling the protests illegal and fueled by disinformation. The repressive security measures, compounded by the prison sentence, have transformed Sonko into a political martyr for whom the disenchanted Senegalese youth are fighting what they believe to be politically motivated charges.

Current President Macky Sall is suspected of harboring secret ambitions for an unconstitutional third term. During his first term in office, which began in 2012, the constitution was amended to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years. He was re-elected in 2019 but this time for a five-year term. Now, he argues that he is entitled to a second five-year term, which would extend his tenure to a full 17 years if elected.

Before the 2019 elections, two of Sall’s main political opponents, Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall, were disqualified from running after a court convicted them of corruption charges. Sonko emerged in their wake as the main opposition figure and the youngest candidate in the 2019 presidential elections.

A former tax inspector, Sonko rose to prominence as a whistleblower calling out tax evasion by politicians. His charisma and straight talk, as well as his youth and sharp communication skills, have propelled him as the main figurehead of the Senegalese political opposition. For some, he has even taken on the air of a messianic figure in contrast to Sall, whom many see as an autocrat.

Unlike its neighbors, which have suffered jihadist incursions, coup d’etats and political upheaval, Senegal has benefited from relative stability since gaining independence from France in 1960, despite seeing unrest and protests around elections. But protesters feel now that their country’s future is at stake, with the government using increasingly authoritarian tactics to suppress their freedom to protest.

Multiple reports of plainclothes armed agents collaborating with the police in Dakar to suppress protesters have emerged, seeding fear among citizens in the capital. A video of security forces using an 8-year-old child as a human shield to protect themselves from protesters has made the rounds on social media, drawing further criticism toward an increasingly violent security apparatus muzzling opposition and free protest.

Three of Senegal’s leading contemporary authors wrote in an op-ed that “the current situation is the result of the authoritarian drift of the president,” adding that it stems from “the hubris of a power that imprisons or exiles its most threatening opponents, represses freedoms and shoots its own people with revolting impunity.” This year, Amnesty International’s Senegal bureau raised the alarm about the increasing violence with which police have been cracking down on protesters in the lead up to next year’s election.

In a febrile political atmosphere, the case against Sonko has become a lightning rod for the wider political issue. Sarr’s case and whether her accusations were truthful or she was paid to make them are the talk of the country, framing what ought to be a question of politics into one of a woman’s testimony.

Protests have dwindled since June 2 and internet connection has been restored, but the opposition coalition called for renewed protests in Dakar this weekend, while they wait to see whether, or when, Sonko will be arrested and jailed.

Compounded by an all-too-familiar uphill battle facing women who accuse prominent men of sexual assault, the crackdown on protesters and political opponents marks the slide into authoritarianism of what is seen as one of Africa’s strongest democracies. While the country is no stranger to protests happening around elections, it is unclear whether this one will maintain its momentum and whether subsequent events in Sonko’s legal saga will lead to a dramatic overhaul of Senegalese politics.

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