In response, the courts have provisionally released Sonko until his trial, and Sall finally gave a televised news conference calling for “calm and serenity.” But young protesters may not be satisfied. Many think that their deeper grievances — corruption, trade relationships that benefit French corporations rather than the Senegalese, stark economic challenges exacerbated by the pandemic — have not been addressed by the Sall administration.
This is not the first time that Senegalese youth are resisting authoritarian behavior and foreign control. In 1968, young demonstrators also rose up to protest a system that was failing them, and through their collective action made Senegal a more democratic country. Today’s protesters may do the same.
The headquarters of France’s West African Empire until 1959, Senegal has a complex history with its former colonial oppressor. A series of negotiations dating to the 1940s — coupled with France’s realization that maintaining its colonies posed a financial burden — paved the way for Senegal’s relatively peaceful path to self-determination. These included cooperation agreements in the realms of military affairs, education and trade that placed France in an advantageous position.
Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor (1960-1980), who was educated in France, married a French woman and appointed multiple French officials to his administration, faced questions about his national patriotism.
Like other world leaders in 1968 (in the United States, Mexico, Germany, France, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere), Senghor clashed with inspired youth. The issues: economic hardship, continued French influence and demands for increased democracy. Poor groundnut harvests laid bare Senegal’s overdependence on agricultural production, decimating gross domestic product and prompting budget cuts. Student funding earmarked for the newly constructed University of Dakar (now Cheikh Anta Diop University) was on the chopping block, and the Senghor regime slashed scholarship payments by as much as 50 percent.
Students occupied the campus at the end of May 1968 just weeks after their French counterparts in Paris barricaded the streets of the Latin Quarter and clashed violently with riot police. The protests in Dakar had a similar result. President Senghor cleared the campus with heavily armed military troops, resulting in 800 arrests, 70 injured students and the death of one protester, Salmon Khoury.
Campuses were shuttered for the rest of the year amid the crackdowns. National labor organizations backed students, calling their own strikes to negotiate pay increases and union autonomy. Hundreds of detained demonstrators were sent to military camps far from the action in Dakar, while labor leaders faced prison sentences for threatening national security.
The protesters expanded their list of grievances to call out corruption and government pandering to French interests. Senegalese student leaders demanded the decolonization of African education and industry, lamenting that university faculty were majority French and that nearly 95 percent of business operations in Senegal were controlled by foreign entities.
Youth protesters used their voices to call attention to what they perceived as a continuation of colonialism, undermining the true independence of Senegal and their own economic opportunities.
These student protests produced tangible gains.
At the University of Dakar, student efforts led to the appointment of Senegalese nationals to replace key French faculty and administrators. Student organizations that were once banned obtained official recognition. Demands by both students and labor leaders for autonomy from Senghor’s one-party state launched a period of loosening restrictions that helped reshape national politics.
Political organizations previously forced underground were finally recognized in the mid-1970s, when Senghor’s Socialist Party of Senegal was no longer the only ticket on the ballot. This paved the way for new parties to participate, such as the Senegalese Democratic Party. Officially recognized by Senghor in 1974, this party later won the presidency when Abdoulaye Wade was elected in 2000.
Attacks on French symbols of power, however, also intensified. By the early 1970s, denunciations of Senghor’s French affinities turned to direct action. Authorities thwarted an attempt by radicals to toss molotov cocktails into the car of Senghor and French President Georges Pompidou during his visit to Dakar, and arsonists set the French Cultural Center ablaze demanding an end to French meddling in Senegalese business and politics.
Yet, France remains today both the No. 1 trading partner and foreign investor in Senegal. According to the French Foreign Ministry, the former colonial power still holds an 830 million euro trade surplus with Senegal and boasted 2.2 billion euros, or 78 percent, of foreign direct investment.
As in 1968, today’s president, Macky Sall, and his brother, Aliou Sall, have faced accusations of personally profiting while foreign energy interests exploit Senegal’s resources and consumers.
Political frustrations have combined with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Many in Senegal are simply tired and hungry. Some of those declaring, “We are not looters!” while taking food and goods from French-owned stores have done so out of necessity. For others, choosing to target ubiquitous symbols of French neocolonialism, such as the grocery chain Auchan or the petroleum giant Total, may be trying to send an anti-colonial message.
Sall’s recent efforts to eliminate political rivals such as Sonko and crack down on dissent have renewed political anxieties of a power grab at work. Although the situation remains tenuous, youth demonstrations may yet again push much-needed reforms and ensure a democratic political process otherwise imperiled. For now, their actions led to Sonko’s temporary release. They have sent a stern warning to the president to refocus attention away from foreign investors and toward his own people, and to tread lightly when attempting to suppress opponents.