Senegal | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Senegal's political rights rating improved from 3 to 2, its civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3, and its status changed from Partly Free to Free, due to ongoing efforts at political reform, governmental efforts to end impunity for members of the security forces, and fewer human rights violations in the Casamance region.


There was a shake-up in the government of President Abdoulaye Wade in 2002 following a maritime disaster that claimed the lives of nearly 1,200 Senegalese in September. Although no official reason was announced, the sacking of Prime Minister Mame Madior Boye was considered a governmental response to the tragedy. Wade also dismissed the country's naval chief, and a number of other ministers resigned. A commission of inquiry determined that the delay of the armed forces in rescuing the passengers of the MV Le Joola was to blame for the high death toll. The ferry was also carrying double its capacity of passengers when it capsized off the coast of The Gambia. Many of the passengers were from the troubled southern province of Casamance. Although peace accords between the government and the rebel Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) were signed in 2001, little progress was made in 2002 towards ending the conflict. Human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killing, however, appeared to have abated.

Since independence from France in 1960, Senegal has escaped both military and harshly authoritarian rule. President Leopold Senghor exercised de facto one-party rule under the Socialist Party for more than a decade after independence. Most political restrictions were lifted after 1981. Abdou Diouf, of the Socialist Party, succeeded Senghor in 1981 and won large victories in unfair elections in 1988 and 1993. Wade's victory in the presidential poll in 2000 was judged free and fair by international observers. It was the fifth attempt by Wade to win the presidency.

Senegal's population is mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture. Drought hurt agricultural production in 2002, bringing increased pressure on the government to focus on rural needs.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The Senegalese have the right to choose their leaders freely. Changes to the 1992 Electoral Code lowered the voting age to 18, introduced secret balloting, and created a nominally fairer electoral framework. The National Observatory of Elections, which was created in 1997, performed credibly in overseeing the 1998 legislative polls and the presidential elections in 2000. The 2000 presidential polls overturned four decades of rule by the Socialist Party as Abdoulaye Wade secured 59.5 percent of the runoff vote, against 41.5 percent for Abdou Diouf.

The people of Senegal adopted a new constitution by an overwhelming majority in January 2001, reducing presidential terms from seven to five years, setting the number of terms to two, and giving women the right to own land for the first time. President Wade dissolved the National Assembly, which had been dominated by the former ruling Socialist Party, and elections were held in April 2001. A coalition led by Wade won 89 of the 120 seats available, followed by the Socialist Party with 10. Smaller parties won the remainder.

Poor pay and lack of tenure protections create conditions for external influence on a judiciary that is, by statute, independent. In high-profile cases, there is often considerable interference from political and economic elites. Uncharged detainees are incarcerated without legal counsel far beyond the lengthy periods already permitted by law. Muslims have the right to choose customary law or civil law for certain civil cases, such as those concerning inheritance and divorce.

Freedom of association and assembly is guaranteed, but authorities have sometimes limited this right in practice. There are credible reports that authorities beat suspects during questioning and pretrial detention, despite constitutional protection against such treatment. Reports of disappearances in connection with the conflict in Casamance occur less often. There have been reports of extrajudicial killings by both government forces and MFDC rebels. Prison conditions are poor. Human rights groups working on local and regional issues are among many nongovernmental organizations that operate freely.

London-based Amnesty International in April 2002 urged Senegal to continue efforts it said the government had recently undertaken to end impunity for the country's security forces. Amnesty said the government has shown signs that it was willing to fight human rights violations and to bring those responsible to justice. As examples, Amnesty said that authorities sacked a police auxiliary who had killed a university student in 2001, ordered the military not to attack civilians in Casamance, and that the government expressed a willingness to extradite former Chadian leader Hissene Habre if a third country could guarantee a fair trial.

Freedom of expression is generally respected, and members of the independent media are often highly critical of the government and political parties. There are 17 independent radio stations, some of which broadcast in rural areas. The government does not carry out formal censorship, but some self-censorship is practiced because of laws against "discrediting the state" and disseminating "false news" that Wade had promised to repeal. International press freedom organizations have said that media rights have become more restricted under Wade. Mamadou Oumar Ndiaye, the publications director of the weekly Le Temoin, was sentenced to four months in jail in 2002 for defamation after publishing an article suggesting that the administration of a local Catholic school had misappropriated funds. It is not unusual for journalists to be detained for questioning by authorities and pressured to reveal confidential sources.

Religious freedom in Senegal, which is 94 percent Muslim, is respected. Rivalries between Islamic groups have sometimes erupted into violence. Constitutional rights afforded women are often not honored, especially in the countryside, and women have fewer chances than men for education and formal sector employment. Despite governmental campaigns, spousal abuse and other domestic violence against women are reportedly common. Many elements of Sharia and local customary law, particularly those regarding inheritance and marital relations, discriminate against women. Senegal's first female prime minister was appointed in 2001. Although Senegal banned female genital mutilation in 1999, it is still practiced among some ethnic groups.

Union rights to organize, bargain collectively, and strike are legally protected. Most workers are employed in the informal business and agricultural sectors. Nearly all of the country's small industrialized workforce is unionized, and workers are a potent political force.