Is Senegal’s Exceptionalism Over?

The defenses that made the country unique are falling one by one—leaving political discontent and spiritual voids exposed to al Qaeda.

By , a journalist based in Africa covering social, geostrategic, and environmental issues.
Senegalese gendarmes block a road after protesters burned tires and blocked roads in Dakar, Senegal's capital.
Senegalese gendarmes block a road after protesters burned tires and blocked roads in Dakar, Senegal's capital.
Senegalese gendarmes block a road after protesters burned tires and blocked roads in Dakar, Senegal's capital, on June 3. John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images

The atmosphere of Senegal’s capital is changing. Dakar, the epicenter of teranga—the Wolof term for hospitality—is spiraling into violence. Columns of black smoke emerge from strategic points around the city. In sandy seaside streets renowned for their relaxed lifestyle, people are clashing with police following the June 1 sentencing of Ousmane Sonko, Senegalese President Macky Sall’s number one opponent, on defamation and rape charges. If Sonko’s sentence is upheld on appeal, it would render him ineligible as a candidate for the Senegalese presidency in 2024. The response has been an uproar that has left 15 people dead.

The atmosphere of Senegal’s capital is changing. Dakar, the epicenter of teranga—the Wolof term for hospitality—is spiraling into violence. Columns of black smoke emerge from strategic points around the city. In sandy seaside streets renowned for their relaxed lifestyle, people are clashing with police following the June 1 sentencing of Ousmane Sonko, Senegalese President Macky Sall’s number one opponent, on defamation and rape charges. If Sonko’s sentence is upheld on appeal, it would render him ineligible as a candidate for the Senegalese presidency in 2024. The response has been an uproar that has left 15 people dead.

For several months, Senegalese President Macky Sall has been hinting at a bid for a third term in the February 2024 elections, despite running on a campaign promise that he would only serve for two. With the presidential election looming, Sonko’s trial has taken a politically charged turn. His supporters are accusing the government of preventing him from running, an accurate charge levied against a man who, apart from Sonko, faces no serious contenders.

Even before Sonko’s conviction, the population felt betrayed by Sall’s behavior in office. In 2019, Sall’s younger brother was accused of taking bribes to license offshore exploration rights; in 2022, a report by the Senegalese Court of Auditors called attention to government mismanagement of COVID-19 pandemic relief funds. As his second term draws to a close, Sall shows no intention of leaving—infuriating those who were already eager to see him gone.

On the sidelines of a demonstration outside the courthouse where Sonko awaited the verdict of his trial, Abdou, 42, who only gave his first name, expressed frustration at Sall’s potential presidential bid. “We don’t want a third term. He has already served two terms—he must leave. He is corrupt, and he does nothing for us,” he said before the street was filled with tear gas.

Regardless of whether the 2024 election will be fair, Sonko’s trial and the unrest it is creating ahead of the vote raise a deeper concern. Sonko is popular with Senegal’s younger population, which is particularly disenchanted with Sall, disproportionately dying in the protests, and uniquely vulnerable to regional terrorist groups exploiting political instability for recruitment. Al Qaeda might recognize the fallout resulting from Sonko’s trial as the Achilles’ heel of a country regarded by the West as a pillar of stability in a tumultuous region and set up shop in the country.


Coup-free since its independence in 1960 and spared, for now, by the assaults and suicide bombings that have bloodied the region, Senegal has long been an oasis—but discontent over Sall’s third bid for the presidency raises the risk that it could follow regional trends.

Over the past two years, political instability has gripped the Sahel. Coups have multiplied: in Mali (in August 2020 and May 2021), Chad (in April 2021), Guinea (in September 2021) and Burkina Faso (in January and September 2022). Added to the mix is the withdrawal of Western forces from Mali and the spreading influence of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. This environment has allowed terrorism to flourish in these countries. Researchers estimate that the Sahel has suffered a 130 percent increase in violent events linked to Islamist groups since 2020. More and more towns are falling into the hands of rebels or terrorists, becoming inaccessible to civilians and armed forces alike.

Why has Senegal been spared so far? Bakary Sambe, coordinator of the Observatory of Radicalism and Religious Conflict in Africa at the Timbuktu Institute, sees two reasons for this. Under Sall’s rule, the country has shown a willingness to manage security emergencies by establishing military camps in the southeast (near the border with Mali and Guinea) as a deterrent force. Sall’s government also implemented a set of public policies “to avoid territorial marginalization,” Sambe explained. In the most remote Senegalese countryside, Sall tried to improve access to water or certain basic social services in hopes that that population would not feel overlooked by Dakar.

Yet massive youth unemployment and exhaustion over Sall’s corruption scandals have tilted the scales towards hostility against the country’s political leadership. In Dakar’s taxis, radios blare political diatribes against Sall’s potential third mandate, and anger can be read on people’s faces. Many Senegalese no longer feel represented and tell me that the country will sink into chaos if Sall announces his candidacy.

Judging by what I have witnessed for several months, I believe them.

In Senegal’s capital, demonstrations are becoming more frequent and violent. Sall’s third mandate is on everyone’s lips, alongside with the will to fight it. Tension is palpable, and the smallest disagreement with the authorities threatens to ignite a firestorm. Fearing that young people will organize after Sonko’s conviction, the state has significantly reduced internet and social media access. But despite this, young people’s motivation remains intact.

Some experts fear that Sall’s refusal to release his grip on power, and his crackdown on young protesters, are putting the country’s stability at risk.

Some experts fear that Sall’s refusal to release his grip on power, and his crackdown on young protesters, are putting the country’s stability at risk. “People will no longer trust him, and with what is happening currently in Sahel, Senegal could fall at any moment,” said Fatim Toure Diedhiou, the head of the women, peace, and security program at the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding.

Political instability opens the door to another worry. “The lack of legitimacy of Macky Sall can shake the all-democratic system in Senegal and be a fertile ground for al Qaeda to establish itself in the country,” said Guillaume Soto-Mayor, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. Terrorists and violent extremists, such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and their affiliates, are known for exploiting instability and conflict to increase their activities and intensify attacks across the continent.

So far, Senegal has avoided the fate of its neighbors in that area, as well. In 2003, before Sall became president, Senegal set up a counterterrorism cell. In 2016, Senegal strengthened its counterterrorism mechanism by creating the Inter-Ministerial Intervention and Coordination Framework for Counterterrorism Operations. It even sent troops to fight in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.

In addition to this active counterterrorism component, the government developed a preventive domestic one. Local administrative authorities raise terrorism awareness in villages. Inhabitants are invited to report “abnormal acts” or the suspicious presence of foreigners. In November 2017, a program called the Delegation for Rapid Entrepreneurship was initiated to facilitate self-employment among youth, aiming to minimize a risk factor for terrorism recruitment: unemployment and the dissatisfaction that comes with it, which is particularly painful among the young.

In a country that prides itself on its tradition of hospitality, Dakar successfully implemented the Emergency Program for the Modernization of Border Axes and Territories. This program, created in 2016, has three components: opening road access, sustainable development, and border security.

The unique makeup of religious life in Senegal also provides a buffer against terrorism, Sambe said. “The other reason is that globalized Islamism has difficulty penetrating the Senegalese religious fabric because of the resilience of the religious brotherhoods.”

In Senegal, the majority of the population is Muslim and identifies with the four main Sufi brotherhoods: Quadrya, Tidjanya, Mouridya, and Layeniyya. These religious orders influence the lives of Senegal’s inhabitants through a form of Islam that recommends resistance to any form of violence, thus blocking radical movements that often require a spiritual void in order to proliferate. The Cadre unitaire de l’Islam au Sénégal (Cudis) brings together the main Muslim brotherhoods and associations in the country.

Over the years, many politicians have called on the brotherhoods’ influence during election periods to win votes—and the brotherhoods’ links with the government have traditionally enabled church and state to work together to face the terrorist threat. “We are raising awareness of the different religious movements so people accept each other. We do a lot of mediation and events. This avoids frustration and discrimination that pushes some people towards radicalization,” said Cheikh Gueye, secretary-general of Cudis.

But this buffer is eroding. Brotherhoods and their way of expressing Islam are increasingly seen as outdated, particularly with marabouts demanding a cult of personality—whereas traditional Islam rejects idols. “The respect of authority, the respect of brotherhoods is increasingly flouted, especially on social media,” said Toure Diedhiou.

And, whereas teaming up with Sall may have once been a source of power, today it is seen as a further reason to reject the brotherhoods. Their connivance with the increasingly contested power of the Sall government is pushing some young people in strong need of spiritual guidance to turn away from it. Then they turn towards Salafism and Wahhabism, seen as purer forms of Islam. They are also more intolerant, as they advocate for rejecting non-Muslims (and very often anything that is not Salafist) and secular democracy. Jihadist Salafism sees violence as a necessary instrument for changing the world order.

Young people’s sense of spiritual homelessness opens the door for terrorism to proliferate, and Salafist imams are present on Senegal’s internet.

Young people’s sense of spiritual homelessness opens the door for terrorism to proliferate, and Salafist imams are present on Senegal’s internet. The Senegalese population is characterized by its youth: About half of the population is under the age of 18. The rural exodus is ongoing. Young people are under great pressure on the labor market: The demand for jobs is increasing at twice the rate of the supply, which leads to unemployment, especially those living in the suburbs but also in the river valley. The war in Ukraine, which has led to massive inflation, has not helped. Some decide to immigrate illegally to Europe; the others face frustration. These idle youth, lacking prospects and compounded by crises, are a vulnerable group that can seek refuge in extremist violence.

In 2021, the Center for Advanced Studies in Defense and Security, a government agency, wrote that “Senegal is cited as a source of fighters for violent extremist groups in Africa and the Middle East. Senegalese jihadists have, according to security sources, fought with Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQIM in Mali, and the Islamic State in Libya and Syria.”

Currently, various groups affiliated with al Qaeda are very active at the Senegalese frontier, and some threaten it. On March 22, African Perceptions interviewed Saydin Ag Hita, aka Uthman al-Qayrawani, the leader of the al Qaeda-allied jihadist group Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen  and self-proclaimed governor of the Kidal region of Mali. In this interview, he asserted that “the countries that attacked and fought us [in Mali] under the banner of France and its allies, we will do everything in our power to fight them and transfer the war to these countries.” This is not the first time that Senegal has been threatened, but with the deterioration of the situation in Mali and the porousness of the borders, the threat is getting more and more serious.

Some members of these groups might not hesitate to cross borders to Senegal, according to Soto-Mayor, who has long worked on these issues. “It’s in al Qaeda’s DNA. They are not in an aggressive approach—they insert themselves in the communities, in their daily life, they listen to their complaints. They have a real relationship with the people.”

While he does not believe there will be an imminent wave of attacks in Senegal, al Qaeda may come to see the country as a gathering point where members can get medical care and recover resources such as food, finances, telephones, and explosives. “They are in the process of expanding into Mali, Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso,” Soto-Mayor said. “It is necessary for them to have areas of withdrawal.”

Demonstrations in support of Sonko are taking place across the country and will likely last until we know whether Sonko is ineligible for the election, or until Sall renounces his intention to run for a third term. In the meantime, the country’s political structure is becoming less stable. The anger is palpable. All it would take is a spark for this powder keg to ignite and provide an opportunity for terrorists.

Elodie Toto is a journalist based in Africa. She covers social, geostrategic, and environmental issues.
She previously worked for Reuters and the BBC.

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