"Domino Effect." Is Senegal next?



In recent years, former French colonies in Africa have been noted for their frequent coups, especially in 2023. The military has already managed to seize power in Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Gabon. African countries have been subject to a «domino effect». That is, after a coup in one country, there is a chain reaction that leads to one or more others. If this trend continues, eight successful coups in West and Central Africa in just three years inevitably begs the question: which country will be next?

And the answer is ready: Senegal, where President Macky Sall has been in power since 2012. Although until recently Senegal was not part of Africa’s «coup belt» and was a «safe haven», the situation there is becoming increasingly tense.

Speaking about the reasons for what is happening, we note that the former metropolis has long been aware of the formation of an anti-French wave in the former African colonies. Thus, Macron, when he assumed the presidency for the second time in 2017, called for «opening a new chapter» in relations with Africa, saying that his country no longer considers the continent its “backyard” and that France “in the context of a new political approach” needs to withdraw its military units from there. However, the realization of this “new approach” was somewhat delayed. Let’s skip the failed Operation Barkhan, which was completed in the Sahel in 2022, when the French army, in fact, shamefully lost to terrorists, and pretend that this was the plan.

Nevertheless, France miscalculated: its political analysts underestimated the negative public sentiment against France, because Paris ignored every chance to rethink its policies and improve its outreach campaign.

Senegal faces a general presidential election next February. So far, the country has seen some rallies in support of the opposition, but they are being urgently suppressed. In Dakar, for example, there have already been clashes between demonstrators opposed to the current government and the police. It is likely that further opposition demonstrations will take place throughout the country, and in an unpredictable form.

Senegal has been in turmoil since Sall’s allies floated the idea of five more years of his presidency, in violation of the constitutional limit of two terms. That has raised suspicions from «critics» of the 61-year-old leader as it all resembles a smooth transition to authoritarianism.

The protest movement was led by opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, a former tax inspector who earned a reputation for fighting bribery after uncovering widespread tax evasion by the Senegalese elite. And among those accused was Aliou Sall, the president’s brother.

However, the reason for Sonko’s active support is not only the «successfully solved corruption case». The youth of Senegal is fully on the side of the opposition leader, as he promises to break relations with France. And given the wave of coups in neighboring countries that have created an explosive atmosphere in Senegal, traditionally considered one of West Africa’s most stable democracies, it is obvious that this support will grow. Political turmoil has literally put Senegal’s state institutions to the test.

So why do young people support Sonko so ardently? The young Senegalese who make up Sonko’s political base complain about youth unemployment (at around 20%). On top of this is the impact of climate change on fishing and agriculture (traditional sources of income for young Senegalese), which exacerbates the problem. Paris itself is adding fuel to the fire of anti-French sentiment.

Previously, studying in France was a dream for French-speaking Africans. However, now many Senegalese on various forums write about their preferences to study in China, Russia, but not in France. In addition, France through its visa center literally does not give study visas to Senegalese students, even if they entered the «university of their dreams,» for example, in Sorbonne. But there are also desperate young people who want to leave Senegal and run away in search of a better life in France. But only trouble awaits them here as well: after all, illegal immigration methods often lead to dire consequences — recently more than 60 people died during an illegal boat crossing that capsized off Cape Verde.

However, Sonko’s political standing is hampered by one fact little known outside Senegal — a rape conviction that some sources say was politically motivated. Sonko was acquitted, but a conviction for «corrupting youth» gave him a two-year prison sentence that could jeopardize his electoral chances. He was charged with inciting rebellion, undermining state security and creating political unrest. A classic of the political pre-election genre.

But the intrigue doesn’t end there: Sonko was a supporter of Mali’s coup leader Asimi Goyta, who has made no secret of his negative stance toward France since seizing power in 2021. In fact, this should have already been a wake-up call for the incumbent president and his cronies.

Senegalese authorities doubted Sonko’s ability to run in the elections, given the allegations.

In early October 2023, a trial was held in the town of Ziguinchor, where Sonko was once mayor. The court’s decision was to remove Sonko from the list of candidates. But the intrigue doesn’t end there either. The next day, the court called its decision null and void and ordered that Ousmane Sonko be added to the list. However, the state is expected to appeal, which increases the likelihood that the opposition figure will not be allowed to run.

Nevertheless, the authorities need to understand that banning him will only increase polarization in Senegalese society and deepen public distrust of state institutions, especially the judiciary. This, in turn, will raise new questions about the credibility of the elections and inflame passions even more. And then the «African domino effect» may start again…