MILES PARKS, HOST:
Senegal is widely touted as a model of democracy in West Africa, but recent crackdowns on journalists and opposition leaders there have some questioning whether the country is headed into a backslide. Ousmane Diallo is a researcher at Amnesty International in Dakar. He joins us now to tell us about what they're seeing there. Hi, Ousmane.
OUSMANE DIALLO: Hello, Miles.
PARKS: So can you give us a real quick overview of Senegal's system of government? I know it has this reputation of stability, but can you tell us why it has this reputation?
DIALLO: Senegal, as you know, is one of the longest democracies in West Africa. There has never been a military takeover in Senegal. There has never been a military rule to the difference of many neighboring countries. Senegal stands out as a democratic beacon in the region. But now, I think, over the last two years, authorities have intensified repression.
PARKS: It seems like a big concern is retaliation against opposition leaders to the current president, Macky Sall. Can you tell us about what's happened just in that individual aspect of this?
DIALLO: Yes. So it's in the context of the 2024 presidential elections. Since there are judicial cases against one opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, there is an intense militarization of law and order in Senegal, and the neighborhood of Ousmane Sonko has been barricaded by the police, actually.
PARKS: And what about the charges against this opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko?
DIALLO: There are two cases against him. The first is a rape complaint. But also there is another case of defamation. What is really at stake right now is that a conviction of Ousmane Sonko in one of the two charges against him could render him ineligible to the 2024 presidential elections.
PARKS: So turning to the media now - some journalists have also been arrested recently in Senegal. Can you talk a little bit about the charges that are being brought against them?
DIALLO: Just two weeks ago, a journalist was arrested and charged with contempt of court and dissemination of fake news. And this charge of dissemination of fake news has been used a lot to jail journalists and opposition figures or even members of the civil society that talk and comment about the political situation. Even in the case of Pape Ale Niang, who is a journalist of Wolof TV, the arrest and charges are linked to the case against Ousmane Sonko.
PARKS: See, all of this is surprising to me, Ousmane, because my understanding was that Senegal had a fairly robust media landscape over the last few years. When did this start shifting?
DIALLO: Since the March 2021 protests, we have seen more pressure against press actors.
PARKS: These protests - what happened, and what did they lead to?
DIALLO: So this protest in March 2021 were, I think, rather unique in the recent political history of Senegal, and they were triggered actually by the arrest of Ousmane Sonko while he was responding to a summons on the rape case filed against him. The security forces used lethal force against those protesters, and we had accounted around 14 people that died during the protest. Three were children. It marked a milestone in Senegal about the relations between the citizenry and the security forces and the lack of accountability related to the death of those 14 people is still a sore issue in the public debate in Senegal.
PARKS: There are reports that President Sall, the current president, might try to run for a third term. There is a two-term limit for the office, but I read today that he does not feel like it applies to him. Can you tell us about that?
DIALLO: Yes, Senegalese were surprised following a media interview made by President Macky Sall to a French newspaper L'Express in which he said that he was eligible to a third term, but he hasn't made his decision.
PARKS: What would be the response among the population there if President Macky Sall does run for this third term?
DIALLO: I think this situation is contributing to the instability of Senegal, because regarding the eligibility of the president, Macky Sall, the question will be decided by the Constitutional Council. It is going to be challenged, and there is going to be a violent protest irrespective of the decision.
PARKS: Can you talk broadly what all this means for all of West Africa? Considering how important Senegal has been as this sort of model of democracy, what does this backsliding mean for the region?
DIALLO: We have seen the coup d'etat in Mali and also in Burkina Faso, and also we have seen third-term bids by President Alassane Dramane Ouattara in Cote d'Ivoire. Many West Africans see the situation in Senegal as epitomizing the travails of the region. Unfortunately, I think if the situation in Senegal takes a turn for the worse, we are likely to see more backsliding in the region and more disaffection actually against political elites by the citizenry of Senegal, but also Mali, Cote d'Ivoire and the rest of the West African countries.
PARKS: That's Ousmane Diallo, a researcher at Amnesty International in Senegal. Thank you so much for joining us.
DIALLO: Thank you so much.
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