Today: April 24, 2024

Supporters of the Aar Sunu Senegal opposition collective demonstrate against the postponement of Senegal’s presidential election, in Dakar, Senegal, Feb. 17, 2024 (AP photo by Sylvain Cherkaoui). Click to share on Email (Opens in new window)

Is democracy dying in Africa?


Dbril Camara remembers thinking it was the wildest demonstration yet, the thunderclap of teargas almost constant. Then a shocking new sound: the crack of a live bullet. Djbril scrambled to the roof of his apartment block.

Below, the protest had descended into pandemonium. People shrieking as they ran. Plumes of teargas billowed across the Niary Tally district of Dakar, Senegal’s capital.

Four hundred metres east, out of Djbril’s sightline, a body lay in the street. Protesters kept attempting to retrieve it. But every time they got close, the police aimed another volley of gas. “The police wouldn’t let them get near,” says Djbril.

Downstairs, his older brother, Omar, was heading out to sunset prayers at the local mosque. “The protest sounded crazier than previous ones, and that was saying something,” says Omar. At least, for once, their other brother, Abdoulaye, known to most as Baba Khan, was not involved, they thought.

But as Omar left their home on Saturday 3 June last year, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Baba Khan’s boss from the henna parlour. “I turned to face him. He had a strange look,” remembers Omar.

For decades, Senegal has been lauded for its exceptionalism, a beacon of freedom in a turbulent region. Yet Baba Khan’s fate exposed its slide from bulwark of democracy to authoritarian regime. This weekend, the world should have been watching Senegal stage a fair, competitive election. Instead, President Macky Sall’s decision to cling to power by postponing voting without offering a new date has thrust the country into chaos.

Amid the uncertainty, critics accuse Sall of stealthily rolling out a police state. Others warn he may yet take his cue from neighbouring states by summoning the military to back him up. Nine coups in the Sahel, west and central Africa since 2020 have reshaped the region, creating a strip of military-run states across the continent’s width – the equivalent of the distance from London to Kabul.

More will come, most analysts warn. Ebenezer Obadare, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that for the first time in 25 years the continent’s experiment with liberal democracy has hit a “reality check”.

A generation of Africans who have grown up experiencing only democracy have been saddled with stagnant economies and scant opportunities. “The idea of democracy delivering the goods has not happened,” he says.

Olayinka Ajala, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Leeds Beckett University, who also advises governments on development issues, agrees that much of Africa’s vast younger generation is disillusioned with democracy.

“The median age [in Africa] is around 19.6 years, it’s crazy. Many of them are educated, well travelled, exposed to social media. They are all asking: ‘How come we are still in this situation?’,” he says.

The question lands at a critical period for the world’s second-largest continent. Nineteen scheduled presidential or general elections are set for 2024, reshaping many of Africa’s remaining democracies in the months ahead.

Topping the bill is the regional hegemon South Africa. But the continent’s most developed economy is ruptured along racial and economic lines as it gears up for its tightest election since apartheid 30 years ago. Once venerated throughout the world and led by Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress will lose its majority in the vote on 29 May, according to polls.

Elsewhere, Mozambique, Ghana and Tunisia stage important elections. Others, like Rwanda, will be merely processional, guaranteed to give power to those who already have it.

But it is Senegal’s slide into chaos that has spooked democracy’s proponents – a “head scratcher” in the words of Obadare. Its predicament raises an obvious, profound question. Is democracy dying in Africa? Is it, in many places, already dead?

By the time Djbril and Omar arrived at the protest against Sall’s unpopular rule in June last year, it was dark and eerily quiet. The crowd had fled. Only a group of masked police from the local station in the HLM neighbourhood stood milling about.

“They claimed to have just arrived and knew nothing about a shooting,” says Omar.

Over the next 24 hours, Djbril and Omar searched Dakar’s police stations and hospitals for their brother. Four times the police denied any knowledge of a shooting. No body could be found. Yet Baba Khan’s phone was still switched on, ringing out.

Omar began believing that Baba Khan’s boss may have have been mistaken. On the day he died, Baba Khan, 38, father of a seven-year-old girl and a rapper with a rapidly growing politicised anti-Sall fanbase, had felt unwell and went briefly to meet a friend at HLM’s outdoor market.

“He had diarrhoea and was feeling really weak. The last thing he wanted was a demonstration,” says Djbril, sitting on Baba Khan’s old bed in a tiny apartment in Niary Tally.

Around midnight a neighbour shared a video showing police dragging a body, later geolocated to a street 400 metres from their home.

Omar and Djbril recognised the figure’s dreadlocks. Clearly in a terrible way, at least their brother seemed alive, flinching whenever officers jabbed him.

Several hours later, staff at a nearby fire station said police had dumped a body resembling that of Baba Khan, which officers claimed they had found on the road. The body was taken to the morgue at Dalal Jamm hospital. “A senior doctor told us that the police said they had found a body, beaten, in the street. They thought it must have been assaulted by someone,” says Djbril, 32.

“It had clearly been roughly shaken and beaten, there was residue of sand everywhere. You could still see traces of sweat.

“When he died his right hand was covering a deep wound to his left side as if trying to stop the bleeding himself,” recalls Djbril.

Numbered 5519 and dated 7 June 2023, Baba Khan’s death certificate confirms he was shot in the left side of the stomach, a bullet slicing through his internal organs. “Contusions” were detected all over the body, indicating he was dragged or suffered a possible beating.

No account of the protest suggests a warning round was fired. Similarly, no other live round appears to have been used during the protest. Why then just a single bullet? This was no random “wrong time, wrong place” tragedy, say Baba Khan’s family. He was deliberately silenced, they allege, in a targeted extrajudicial killing.

When democracy dies, regimes become relaxed about beating or locking up citizens. Police silence critics. During the wave of protests in which Baba Khan died, another 22 people died. In the latest unrest, triggered last month, at least three people have been shot dead, according to reports.

Such a bloody reaction can, analysts say, be partly explained by the arrival of agitating factors such as Russia. Obadare sees Moscow’s hand in redrawing west Africa’s governance structures. Vladimir Putin proudly advertises Senegal as its “important and reliable partner” in Africa.

Last week, it was reported that Russia is touting a “regime survival package” to African governments of military aid in exchange for mining rights.

Alex Vines, who has led the Africa programme at Britain’s Chatham House thinktank since 2002, says: “What is different than say, 10 years ago, is that there’s heightened geopolitical competition with countries like the Russian Federation really stirring things up using false information.”

Disseminating disinformation during election campaigns is likely to be a theme of 2024 as autocratic regimes discredit democracy as a global model of governance. Already it may partly explain recent surveys showing that the notion of supplanting democracy is becoming more popular in Africa.

The pollster Afrobarometer found that in 24 of 30 countries, approval of the idea of military rule has risen during the last decade and that just 38% of those asked expressed satisfaction with “democracy”.

Obadare says footage of large crowds – sometimes waving Russian flags – celebrating the downfall of elected leaders after generals seize power must not be ignored.

“It’s back to the current theme of young people. Instead of taking to the streets to condemn the attack on regimes they put in place, they’ve actually welcomed the coups,” he says.

Unnerved by such sentiments, the UN Development Programme commissioned a study to “make sense of rising constitutional manipulation and the alarming uptick in military coups in Africa”.

Published on 18 July in Nairobi last year – nine days before Niger experienced a coup – the report offers some rare positivity for democracy’s proponents. Collating the views of 8,000 citizens – from those who lived through recent coups, such as in Burkina Faso, to countries such as Tanzania where democracy remains robust – it found that only 11% “preferred a non-democratic form” of government.

Throughout Senegal, growing numbers are in hiding, fearing for their lives. When Baba Khan was shot last summer things were considered grim. Consensus suggests the situation may now be even worse: opposition members are being rounded up and elements of the media attacked. During protests earlier this month, there were reports of journalists being deliberately targeted.

Ousmane Diallo, from Amnesty International, says: “A female journalist was slapped and beaten by police until she passed out. A colleague trying to help was beaten around the head and neck.”

Such aggression surprised few in Dakar’s media. Speaking an hour before violence erupted following Friday prayers on 9 February, Mamadou Thior, president of Senegal’s media ethics organisation, predicted colleagues would be among the victims.

On his desk overlooking the Rue de la Corniche lies a glossy magazine celebrating 40 years of Walf TV. The revered station is now permanently closed after it attempted to cover recent protests.

“It is a very worrying time: journalists are being jailed, reporters harassed and targeted,” says Thior.

Across Dakar, within a deserted cafe in the Médina neighbourhood, Moma Diouf is wanted by the authorities for supporting an opposition party.

“Every day the police try and intimidate you; sometimes they follow you. At first I was very nervous but now I’ve learned to handle it,” he says.

Six of his friends – all members of Pastef, an opposition party recently dissolved by Sall – have been jailed without charge. Most days Diouf visits people who have been recently incarcerated, bringing food and making sure their family and friends know where they are. During the past eight months, Diouf has identified 230 people. Few have been released.

“All show signs of torture, often they are beaten in police vans,” says the 30-year-old. Baba Khan’s family believes that, after being shot, their brother was beaten in the back of a police van and then left to die.

Five kilometres to the north, on the top floor of a shabby tower block in Guédiawaye, Chiekh Fall is another activist waiting for the police to knock on his door. In 2013, Fall set up the African League of Blogger and Cyber Activists, or AfricTivistes, to champion democracy. With a reach of millions in Senegal alone, his anti-authoritarian message places the 42-year-old squarely in Sall’s sights.

“I am worried they will come for us, but we are doing nothing against the law,” he says. Is he concerned for his family? “Actually, my three children and my wife have become activists like me. They know we can win.”

While Fall fears becoming a target in the future, Baba Khan’s family are certain this is what happened to their brother.

Baba Khan had arrived in Dakar in 2009 to make his name as a rapper after leaving home in the arid Fouta region of Senegal. Initially a supporter of Sall, his growing criticism of the president found an audience; by last summer his videos were routinely getting 80,000 views on TikTok. Three months before he was shot, Khan uploaded a video mocking Sall that went viral.

Omar alleges that Sall’s political party were becoming angry with his brothers’s outspokenness. “An uncle told us [after the shooting] that he was flagged by a closed social media group of Sall party members, signalling he was an issue, a nuisance,” says Omar. The family know that they themselves may be targeted for speaking out but “we’ve got nothing to lose”, says Djbril.

They say it is certain the HLM police knew their brother. “He was a local celebrity. Everyone knew Baba Khan,” says Djbril. They say that on the night of the shooting – Khan’s walk home involved crossing the junction where the protest was held – social media channels, often monitored by the police, had flagged Khan’s whereabouts.

Looking ahead, Ajala predicts that the fortunes of democracy in Africa will nosedive before they improve, anticipating that an “anti-colonial sentiment” in west and central Africa will increase. “But eventually they’ll realise that military dictatorships are actually not better than what they had,” he adds.

Vines also predicts “buyer’s remorse”, adding: “Men in uniforms being presidents doesn’t work. They don’t have the tools or accountability.”

Obadare looks to history for signs of encouragement, noting how a string of African coups in the 1980s eventually gave away to a broad demand for democracy. “I’m a bit anxious but at the same time there are so many positive things going on in specific countries that make you hopeful. In the long run, I’m an optimist.”

By contrast, Baba Khan’s family have dwindling hopes of any justice. More than 260 days since the shooting, there has been no investigation, inquest or disciplinary proceedings against any officer. The police offered no comment for this article.

A complaint sent to police by Baba Khan’s family on 10 June last year has also received no response. In the meantime, Sall grips on to power and the protests in Senegal continue.

“If he still could, Baba Khan would have talked non-stop about Sall’s behaviour,” says Omar. “He wanted a society where everybody had a voice. Most of all he wanted peace.” – The Guardian

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