Senegal is one of Africa’s most stable electoral democracies and has undergone two peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since 2000. However, politically motivated prosecutions of opposition leaders and changes to the electoral laws have reduced the competitiveness of the opposition in recent years. The country is known for its relatively independent media and free expression, though defamation laws continue to constrain press freedom. Other ongoing challenges include corruption in government, weak rule of law, and inadequate protections for the rights of women and LGBT+ people.
- In February, President Macky Sall won a second consecutive term with 58 percent of the vote in the first round, making a runoff unnecessary. Two leading opposition leaders—Khalifa Sall, former mayor of Dakar, and Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade—were barred from running because of previous, politically fraught convictions for embezzlement of public funds.
- In May, lawmakers approved a measure to abolish the post of prime minister, and Sall signed it later in the month. Critics denounced the reform as a power grab.
- In September, President Sall pardoned Khalifa Sall, who had been jailed in 2018 for five years on corruption charges and barred from participating in the February presidential election. (Wade, who was also barred from running, had been pardoned in 2016.)
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The president is chief of state and head of government, and is directly elected to a maximum of two consecutive terms. In 2016, the presidential term was reduced via referendum from seven years to five, effective after the end of President Macky Sall’s term in 2019.
In February 2019, President Sall, of the Alliance for the Republic (APR), defeated four challengers including former prime minister Idrissa Seck of the Rewmi Party, and Ousmane Sonko of the Patriots of Senegal for Ethics, Work, and Fraternity party (PASTEF); Sonko is a former tax inspector backed by many young Senegalese who were frustrated by President Sall and his administration’s policies.
While international observers declared the election credible, it was marred by the exclusion of two prominent opposition politicians, Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, who might have seriously challenged President Sall; in January 2019, just weeks before the polls, the Constitutional Council had ruled that both were both ineligible to run in the presidential election because both had been previously convicted in separate, politically fraught corruption cases.
In May, lawmakers approved a controversial constitutional reform that abolished the post of prime minister, and Sall promptly signed it. The move, which had not been a component of Sall’s reelection platform, prompted an outcry from critics who accused him of seeking to consolidate power. Separately, In December 2019, President Sall suggested that he could attempt to run for a third term in 2024.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because two major opposition candidates were excluded from the presidential election due to their convictions in politically fraught corruption cases.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
Members of Senegal’s 165-seat National Assembly are elected to five-year terms—105 are elected in single-member districts, and 60 by proportional representation. In the July 2017 parliamentary elections, the president’s ruling United in Hope (BBY) coalition won 125 seats, followed by Abdoulaye Wade’s Winning Coalition–Wattu Senegaal with 19 seats. Khalifa Sall’s Mankoo Taxawu Senegaal coalition took 7 seats, and 11 groups divided the remainder. International observers deemed the elections credible despite some significant procedural errors and logistical challenges.
New biometric voting cards were distributed to only 70 percent of eligible voters before the 2017 elections. To address the problem, the president proposed and the Constitutional Council approved a plan to allow voters to use alternative forms of identification. Some voters were allegedly disenfranchised because of difficulties related to the identification measures, which were approved just four days before the elections.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
The National Autonomous Electoral Commission (CENA) administers elections. Although the CENA is nominally independent, its members are appointed by the president. The opposition criticized the government for making important changes ahead of the 2017 legislative balloting, including the introduction of the new biometric voting system, without engaging in dialogue or building political consensus. The changes were approved in January 2017, only six months before the elections, which observers argued did not provide sufficient time for logistical information about the new electoral framework to be disseminated in a coordinated fashion.
A new electoral law passed in April 2018 requires all aspiring presidential candidates to collect signatures from at least 0.8 percent of the overall electorate before their names could appear on the ballot, and all groups presenting National Assembly lists to obtain signatures from 0.5 percent of voters in at least seven regions. The government asserted that the legislation was necessary to reduce the proliferation of parties that field candidates in elections. Of the 27 candidates who submitted the required signatures prior to the 2019 presidential election, only 5 were approved in January to run after the validation process by the Constitutional Council. In June, an European Union (EU) election observation mission said the controversial requirement could pose “serious political and organizational problems” in upcoming local elections.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||3.003 4.004|
Registration requirements for new political parties are not onerous, and registered parties can organize and operate without government interference. However, opposition candidates still face major financial inequities when competing with incumbents. There is no public financing for political parties, but the ruling party deploys a vast set of state resources to garner support, whereas opposition leaders are often forced to rely on personal wealth to finance party operations.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 4.004|
The opposition can increase its support or gain power through elections. However, the 2018 electoral law was criticized by opposition leaders for making it more difficult for candidates to appear on the ballot, and was widely seen as a move to clear the field and ensure President Sall’s reelection in 2019.
The prosecutions of some of President Sall’s most prominent political opponents in recent years has also reduced the competitiveness of the opposition. Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall, considered one of President Sall’s foremost rivals and a prospective 2019 presidential candidate, was arrested in 2017 after the government alleged that $2.9 million in funding for his office was accounted for with false receipts. The mayor and his defense attorneys argued that such funds are commonly used as political financing and that Sall’s prosecution was politically motivated. The National Assembly lifted Sall’s parliamentary immunity, which he had acquired after being elected to the legislature earlier that year, in late 2017. In March 2018, Sall was found guilty, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined 5 million CFA francs ($8,900). Barthélémy Dias, the mayor of Mermoz-Sacré-Coeur in Dakar and a close political ally of Khalifa Sall, was sentenced to six months in prison in April 2018 for “contempt of court, incitement to disturb public order, and discrediting a judicial decision” after sharply criticizing the verdict.
Sall was removed from office as mayor of Dakar in August 2018, and in January 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that he could not appeal his embezzlement sentence. Later in January, the Constitutional Council ruled that Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade were both ineligible to run in the next month’s presidential election because both had been sentenced to prison terms for corruption. Wade, sentenced in 2015, received a pardon in 2016, and subsequently went into exile in Qatar. Although Khalifa Sall was supposed to serve a five-year prison sentence for embezzlement, he was eventually pardoned by President Macky Sall in September 2019.
In June 2018, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice determined that Khalifa Sall’s preventive detention had been arbitrary. It also found that his rights to an attorney and the presumption of innocence had been infringed.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
People’s political choices are largely free from domination by groups that are not democratically accountable. Sufi Muslim marabouts exercise some influence on voters and politicians, particularly in regard to social issues such as homosexuality, marriage, and abortion rights.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Women were elected to 70 of 165 seats in 2017, in part the result of a 2010 law requiring gender parity on candidate lists. However, women’s overall rate of participation in politics, such as voting and engaging in local political activities, is lower than men’s. Due to high levels of discrimination and social stigma, LGBT+ people have no meaningful political representation.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||3.003 4.004|
President Sall, his cabinet, and national legislative representatives determine government policies. However, power is concentrated in the executive branch, and the National Assembly is limited in its ability to act as a check on the president. The executive branch has blocked certain parliamentary inquiries into its activities. In May 2019, lawmakers approved a controversial measure to abolish the post of prime minister, and Sall promptly signed it. The development prompted an outcry from critics who accused him of seeking to consolidate power and undercut checks and balances.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Corruption remains a serious problem, and high-level officials often act with impunity. Anticorruption bodies enforce the law unevenly and are sometimes viewed as politically motivated. The corruption case against Khalifa Sall, for example, was seen by many observers as an effort to neutralize one of the president’s most powerful opponents.
In June, Aliou Sall, the brother of President Macky Sall, resigned his post as mayor of a Dakar suburb in the wake of allegations of fraud worth $250,000, related to natural gas contracts. Senegalese authorities strongly rejected allegations, which were publicized by investigative journalists with the Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
The government generally operates with openness. However, authorities frequently award contracts without any formal tender process, and do not always publicly release contracts or bilateral agreements before they are signed.
A 2014 law requires confidential asset disclosures by the prime minister, cabinet members, top National Assembly officials, and the managers of large public funds; the president’s asset disclosures are made public.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and Senegal is home to many independent television and radio stations and print outlets. However, defamation laws are occasionally enforced against journalists. The controversial 2017 press code increased punishments for defamation offenses, allows authorities to shut down press outlets without judicial approval, and enabled the government to block internet content deemed “contrary to morality.” In November 2018, the National Assembly passed a Code on Electronic Communications, ostensibly to guard against disinformation on the internet; press freedom advocates said the new code could be misused to attack free speech.
Journalists who provide critical coverage of the government have been attacked or detained in recent years. In July 2019, journalist and political analyst Adama Gaye, known for strongly criticizing the ruling regime, was taken into custody for alleged offenses against the head of state and compromising state security. He was released on bail in September.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
There is no state religion, and freedom of worship is constitutionally protected and respected in practice. Muslims constitute 96 percent of the population.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected in practice.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
Private discussion is generally open and free. However, individuals have occasionally been arrested for social media posts deemed offensive by the government.
In November 2018, the National Assembly passed a bill on electronic communications, which included a vaguely worded provision that expanded the regulatory power of the government over social media companies. Rights activists expressed concern that the law could be used to shut down, tax, or surveil communications on popular social media platforms.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but the Ministry of Interior must approve protests in advance. The government has very often cracked down on assembly rights by banning protests around tense political moments and violently dispersing some demonstrations. In November 2019, nine activists taking part in a protest against the rising price of electricity were arrested and imprisoned. Six were released on bail in December. The three others, including civil society activist Guy Marius Sagna, were still in prison at year’s end.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate without interference from state or nonstate actors.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
Workers, with the exception of security employees, have rights to organize, bargain collectively, and strike, though the right to strike is impinged by legal provisions that ban pickets and sit-down strikes, among other activities. Trade unions must be authorized by the Ministry of the Interior, and unions lack legal recourse if registration is denied.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
The judiciary is formally independent, but the president controls appointments to the Constitutional Council, the Court of Appeal, and the Council of State. Judges are prone to pressure from the government on matters involving high-level officials. The Higher Council of the Judiciary, which recommends judicial appointments to the executive branch, is headed by the president and minister of justice, which critics argue compromises its independence.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
The law guarantees fair public trials and defendants’ rights, but arbitrary arrest and detention remains a concern. Though the government is obligated to supply attorneys to felony defendants who cannot afford them, this representation is inconsistent in practice. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a problem.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals are generally protected from the illegitimate use of physical force. However, Senegalese prisons are overcrowded, and human rights groups have documented incidents of excessive force and cruel treatment by prison authorities. In August 2019, two detainees died in Dakar’s main prison, Rebeuss, after a ventilator in an overcrowded cell shot sparks onto the cell’s occupants and caused panic. Human rights defenders called for an end to the dilapidated state of prisons and the overcrowded conditions, as well as the building of a new prison to replace Rebeuss, which dates back to the French colonial period.1
A low-level separatist conflict in the Casamance Region is ongoing. In October 2019, gunmen killed three people, including a leading figure and spokesman of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), who were attending a traditional ceremony.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
The caste system is still prevalent among many of Senegal’s ethnic groups. Individuals of lower castes are subject to discrimination in employment. Women face persistent inequities in employment, health care, and education.
Same-sex sexual activity remains criminalized. While these laws are rarely enforced, LGBT+ people risk violence, threats, and mob attacks, as well as discrimination in housing, employment, and health care.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
Citizens generally enjoy freedom of movement and can change their residence, employment, and educational institution without serious restrictions, though the threat of land mines and rebel activity has hindered travel through parts of the Casamance region.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
The civil code facilitates ownership of private property, and property rights are generally respected. Commercial dispute-resolution processes can be drawn out, and property title and land registration protocols are inconsistently applied, though the government has worked to ease property acquisition and registration. Husbands are legally regarded as heads of households. Traditional customs limit women’s ability to purchase property, and local rules on inheritance make it difficult for women to become beneficiaries.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
Rates of female genital mutilation have declined due in part to campaigns to discourage the practice, but it remains a problem. The government launched a plan to reduce early marriage in 2016, given that almost one in three Senegalese girls married before age 18. Rape and domestic abuse are common and rarely punished. The law allows abortion only to save a woman’s life, and abortions for medical reasons are difficult to obtain in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Child labor remains a problem, particularly in the informal economy, and laws restricting the practice are inadequately enforced. Forced begging by students at religious schools is common, and teachers suspected of abuse are rarely prosecuted.
Sex trafficking remains a concern, although according to the US State Department, the government has increased its efforts to eliminate trafficking and prosecute perpetrators. However, it is difficult to discern the robustness of the law enforcement response, since the government does not publicize records on sex trafficking arrests and prosecutions.
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Global Freedom Score71 100 partly free