Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
President Adoulaye Wade in early 2006 succeeded in postponing that year’s legislative elections to coincide with the 2007 presidential election. The move was seen as a bid to increase his chances of retaining power in the face of a growing challenge from former prime minister Idrissa Seck and a new coalition of opposition parties. In August, fighting erupted between separatist groups and government forces in the southern Casamance region, reversing progress achieved after a 2004 peace treaty. Meanwhile, the Senegalese high court finally agreed to try former Chadian president Hissene Habre for alleged crimes against humanity after the African Union (AU) decided that he could not be tried anywhere else.
Since independence from France in 1960, Senegal has avoided military or harsh authoritarian rule and has never suffered a successful coup d’etat. President Leopold Senghor, an acclaimed poet and noted academic in France, exercised de facto one-party rule through the Socialist Party (PS) for nearly two decades after independence. Most political restrictions were lifted after 1981. Abdou Diouf of the PS succeeded Senghor that year and won large victories in unfair elections in 1988 and 1993.
Abdoulaye Wade’s victory in the 2000 presidential poll—his fifth attempt to win the presidency—ended four decades of rule by the PS. Wade, of the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), captured 59.5 percent of the runoff vote, against 41.5 percent for Diouf. The election was judged free and fair by international observers.
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 maximum number of terms at two, and giving women the right to own land for the first time. Wade dissolved the National Assembly, which had been dominated by the PS, and elections were held in April. A coalition led by Wade won 89 of the 120 seats, followed by the PS with 10; smaller parties captured the remainder of the seats.
In 2004, Wade dismissed Idrissa Seck as prime minister on suspicion that he was trying to challenge the president’s leadership of the PDS. The National Assembly voted in August 2005 to force Seck to face embezzlement charges before the High Court of Justice, reserved for criminal allegations against government officials; it would be the first time in more than four decades that a case was filed in the court. Opposition leaders criticized the National Assembly’s ruling and tried—unsuccessfully—to have the vote rescinded. The government charged that Seck misappropriated funds designated for public works projects and threatened national security; he was sent to prison to await trial. However, in January 2006 an investigative panel for the High Court ordered Seck to be released from prison after the charges of threatening national security were dropped. He still faced charges of embezzlement and misuse of government funds.
The prosecution of Seck was widely considered to be politically motivated, since many viewed him as Wade’s most formidable rival. In April 2006, Seck formally announced his candidacy for the presidency in the 2007 election. Later that month, he orchestrated the formation of a new opposition coalition, the Coalition for Popular Change (CPA), which included the PS as well as the Alliance of Forces for Progress (AFP). Wade claimed that Seck’s pending embezzlement charges made him ineligible to run for president.
Wade has recently been criticized for an overbearing leadership style, a penchant for making ad hoc decisions, and for pushing controversial—and sometimes unpopular—policies through the National Assembly to solidify his rule. These practices intensified in 2006 as opposition grew and his chances in the 2007 election seemed to dwindle. Early in the year, the National Assembly approved Wade’s proposal to postpone legislative elections from April 2006 to 2007, ostensibly to cut costs by holding the presidential and legislative polls at the same time. The opposition claimed that the delay was unconstitutional and served only to give the ruling PDS more time to rectify disagreements within its ranks. The Constitutional Court, however, sided with the government and allowed the postponement. In March, the government also adopted a bill proposed by Wade to amend the constitution and add an upper house to the unicameral legislature. The measure appeared likely to pass with the support of Wade’s party. Finally, soon after the decision came to postpone the legislative elections, PDS officials offered a draft law to eliminate the second round of the presidential election, supposedly to reduce costs and curb a prolonged election process. This had yet to be addressed in the National Assembly at year’s end.
Preliminary peace accords between the government and the separatist Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) were signed in 2001. The geographic isolation of Casamance, which is largely separated from the rest of Senegal by The Gambia, had contributed to a feeling of marginalization that sparked the conflict in 1982. Ethnically, the people of Casamance identify more with their southern neighbors in Guinea-Bissau than with the northern Senegalese. A subsequent peace accord was signed in December 2004. A breakaway faction of the MFDC, led by Salif Sadio, rejected the peace agreement, and fighting erupted again in March 2006. The violence initially took the form of clashes between the splinter faction and the military of Guinea-Bissau in the extreme south of the Casamance region. In August, conflict between the two rebel factions gave way to hostilities between Sadio’s fighters and the Senegalese military. However, civilians were not targeted during the fighting, which mainly consisted of attacks on military bases. The violence nevertheless displaced thousands of people, some of whom fled to The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau.
Senegal’s economy has enjoyed modest growth since the mid-1990s. In June 2005, the Group of 8 (G8) annulled Senegal’s external debt. Senegal became a member of a contact group between African countries and members of the G8, partly to help increase African domestic and foreign trade. However, Senegal continues to suffer from uneven and problematic infrastructure systems. In 2006, residents experienced frequent blackouts due to inefficiencies at the state-owned electricity utility Senelec, and city dwellers faced a number of breakdowns in garbage collection due to a lack of resources. Separately, Senegal has become a major port for illegal migration to Europe, with small boats setting off for Spain’s Canary Islands. Between January and August 2006, more than 20,000 people arrived in the Canaries on these boats. The journey is not an easy one, and the Spanish Red Cross estimated that for the 20,000 who arrived safely, more than 1,000 drowned at sea. By the end of the year, Senegal had signed an agreement with Spain allowing both countries to patrol the coast of Senegal to curb illegal migration.
Senegal is an electoral democracy. Changes to the 1992 Electoral Code lowered the voting age to 18, introduced secret ballots, and created a nominally fairer electoral framework. The National Observatory of Elections, which was created in 1997, performed credibly in overseeing all subsequent legislative and presidential polls. The president is elected by popular vote every five years, and incumbent Wade is up for reelection in 2007. The president appoints the prime minister. Elections for the 120-seat, unicameral National Assembly are held every five years; originally scheduled for April 2006, they have been postponed to coincide with the presidential election in 2007.
There are more than 75 legally registered political parties in Senegal. Major parties include the ruling PDS, the PS, the AFP, the Union for Democratic Renewal (URD), and the National Democratic Rally (RND). In 2006, the PS and the AFP, in cooperation with former prime minister Seck and a few other parties, formed the Coalition for Popular Change (CPA) to present a united front in the upcoming 2007 presidential and legislative elections.
Although the government has initiated reforms to strengthen the rule of law and improve transparency, corruption remains a problem. Wade orchestrated two separate cabinet reshuffles in February and March 2006, the latest in a number of such changes during his presidency. Frequent cabinet changes could lead to inefficiency in governance and have caused concern that officials may not be held accountable for their decisions. Nevertheless, Senegal has a reputation for a transparent government and limited economic corruption when compared to other countries in the region. It was ranked 70 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is generally respected, and members of the independent media are often highly critical of the government and political parties. There are about 20 independent radio stations, some of which broadcast in rural areas. More than a dozen independent newspapers and three government-affiliated newspapers are available. The state owns the only national television station. Access to the internet is not restricted.
The government does not carry out formal censorship, but journalists practice some self-censorship because of criminal laws against “discrediting the state” and disseminating “false news,” which Wade has promised to repeal. A national security provision, Article 80, criminalizes any “maneuver or act that might compromise public security or cause serious political disturbance.” Anyone charged under the law faces mandatory detention. In February 2006, the publication director of the Dakar-based private newspaper L’Office was convicted of defaming a local businessman. Since defamation continues to be a criminal offense, the journalist is currently serving a six-month prison sentence.
Religious freedom in Senegal is respected, and the government has even provided hundreds of free plane tickets to Senegalese Muslims and Christians undertaking pilgrimages to holy sites overseas. Rivalries between the country’s Sufi Muslim brotherhoods have been known to erupt into violence, though this has happened infrequently in recent years. Many of the Sufi leaders hold great sway over the 90 percent Muslim population, and close association with them can significantly increase a political candidate’s chances of victory.
Academic freedom is guaranteed and respected. Surprisingly, the Casamance region, known for its separatist violence, has the highest proportion of children in school in the country. A 2002 law permits two hours of religious education—both Islamic and Christian—per week in public schools, though students are not required to participate. The law was intended to attract students to public rather than private Koranic schools that do not offer alternative nonreligious teachings.
Freedom of association and assembly are guaranteed, but authorities have sometimes limited these rights in practice. In late December 2005, a student protest in Dakar criticizing police violence against high school students in the Casamance region turned violent when demonstrators clashed with security personnel. Similar student-led protests took place throughout the country, though no others resulted in violence. In 2005, the leader of a minor opposition party was arrested and charged with threatening the state after he encouraged people to lead street demonstrations criticizing Wade and calling for his resignation.
Human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely in Senegal. Although workers’ rights to organize, bargain collectively, and strike are legally protected for all except security employees, the Labor Code requires the president’s approval for the initial formation of a trade union. Civil-service employees intending to strike are required to notify the government at least a month in advance, and private sector strikes require at least three days’ notice. However, throughout 2006, union representatives in a number of different industries were able to bargain and strike with little to no obstruction from the authorities. Most workers are employed in the informal business and agricultural sectors. Nearly all of the country’s small industrial workforce is unionized, and workers are a potent political force.
Poor pay and lack of tenure protections create conditions for external influence on a judiciary that is, by statute, independent. High-profile cases often attract considerable interference from political and economic elites, as appeared to be the situation in the case against former prime minister Seck. Uncharged detainees are incarcerated without legal counsel far beyond the lengthy periods already permitted by law. Prison conditions are poor. In December 2004, the National Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty; Senegal had not carried out any executions for four decades.
In 2000, a Senegalese court charged former Chadian president Hissene Habre, who has been living in exile in Senegal since 1990, with torture and crimes against humanity. However, the country’s highest court ruled that he could not stand trial for crimes committed outside of Senegal. A number of Habre’s alleged victims, some of whom were living in Belgium at the time, indicted him in courts in Belgium. In September 2005, a Belgian judge issued an international arrest warrant for Habre for crimes against humanity and torture. In early 2006, a Senegalese court ruled again that it was incapable of trying the case and turned it over to the African Union (AU), but the AU mandated that the prosecution take place in Senegal. In November 2006, the high court of Senegal acquiesced, noting that the laws would be revised to allow the trial. The court also established a commission to prepare for the proceedings and appealed to the international community for financial support.
In a bid to combat discrimination against individuals with disabilities, Wade in 2005 issued a decree requiring that 15 percent of new civil-service positions be reserved for disabled workers. Blatant discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS is no longer widespread thanks to disease-awareness campaigns, and the government now provides free antiretroviral drugs to patients. Nonetheless, HIV-positive people still face a lingering social stigma. Homosexuals face widespread discrimination but are generally not the targets of violence.
Women’s constitutional rights are often not honored, especially in rural areas, and women enjoy fewer opportunities than men for education and formal employment. Despite government campaigns, domestic violence against women is reportedly common, and although the law prohibits rape, it does not include spousal rape. Only two sexual harassment cases have been brought in the courts since 1995, and men remain the legal heads of households. Many elements of Sharia (Islamic law) and local customary law, particularly those regarding inheritance and marital relations, discriminate against women. Although Senegal banned female genital mutilation in 1999, it is still practiced among some ethnic groups. The government and NGOs have been working to educate the population about the health risks of the practice. In 2005, Senegal adopted a law on human trafficking that provides penalties of up to 30 years in prison.