Senegal | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2009

2009 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Status Change Explanation: 

Senegal’s political rights rating declined from 2 to 3, and its status declined from Free to Partly Free, due to the growing authoritarian power of the president and ruling party as well as the increasing marginalization of the opposition, exemplified by the postponement of municipal elections and the arbitrary reduction of the National Assembly president’s term.


President Abdoulaye Wade took several steps to consolidate his power in 2008, postponing municipal elections for the second time, extending the presidential term from five to seven years, and reducing the term of the National Assembly president to eliminate one of his opponents. The Wade administration also banned certain protests, which had increased due to the rising cost of basic commodities, and in one instance sent riot police to arrest and disperse protesters who ignored the ban.

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 exercised de facto one-party rule through the Socialist Party (PS) for nearly two decades after independence. Most political restrictions were lifted after 1981, when Abdou Diouf of the PS succeeded Senghor. He went on to win large victories in unfair elections in 1988 and 1993.

Abdoulaye Wade’s victory in the 2000 presidential poll—his fifth attempt—ended four decades of rule by the PS. Wade, the leader of the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), defeated Diouf in a runoff with 59.5 percent of the vote, and the election was judged free and fair by international observers. Voters approved a new constitution 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. In that year’s National Assembly elections, a coalition led by Wade won 89 of the 120 seats, followed by the PS with 10; smaller parties captured the remainder.

In 2004, Wade dismissed Prime Minister Idrissa Seck on the suspicion that he was challenging the president’s leadership within the PDS; Seck was charged with embezzlement and threatening national security. In January 2006, the High Court ordered his release from pretrial detention after the national security charges were dropped.

Also in 2006, the National Assembly approved Wade’s proposals to postpone legislative elections until 2007, ostensibly for financial reasons, to increase the number of seats in the National Assembly from 120 to 150, and to amend the constitution to create an upper house, the Senate. Of the new body’s 100 members, 65 would be appointed by the president.

Despite these moves, Wade secured a second term as president in the February 2007 election, which drew an impressive 70.5 percent turnout. The opposition had been unable to unite behind a single candidate, and Wade was helped by support from a number of the country’s influential Muslim brotherhoods, including his own Mouride brotherhood, which was considered the most powerful. The opposition accused the government of vote rigging and Wade of refusing to engage in dialogue with opposition politicians. As a result, the PS and 11 other parties, including Seck’s newly formed Rewmi (Country) Party, boycotted the June 2007 National Assembly elections. The ruling PDS consequently secured 131 of the 150seats, with a record low turnout of 35 percent. In August 2007, national, regional, and municipal legislators cast ballots for 35 Senate seats, of which the PDS won 34.

Confrontation with the opposition intensified in 2008, with neither side appearing eager to engage in constructive dialogue. In June, the opposition began a series of “national conferences” that brought together over 80 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and political parties to discuss Senegal’s economic and social problems as well as the political stalemate with the PDS. The administration refused to participate.

Meanwhile, Wade in March postponed the May 2008 municipal elections until March 2009. The government had earlier postponed them for a year from their original date of May 2007 on the grounds that they would be held too close to the June 2007 legislative elections. In July, the PDS-dominated National Assembly approved the government’s proposal to amend the constitution to extend the presidential term to seven years. While the amendment did not apply to Wade’s current term, it opened the possibility that he could run for reelection in 2012, at the age of 85.

The issue of Wade’s successor began to create a split within the PDS during the year, with some supporting Wade’s son, Karim, and others backing National Assembly president Macky Sall, a former prime minister (2004–07) and the chief organizer of the president’s 2007 reelection campaign. Wade quickly moved to reduce the term of the National Assembly president from five years to one, and the National Assembly approved the change in October, effectively removing Sall from the position. Sall’s ensuing expulsion from the PDS cost him his parliamentary seat as well as his position as mayor of Fatick. Separately, former prime minister Seck finally appeared before the High Court in Aprilto face the remaining corruption charges against him; his relations with Wade had recently improved, though the charges were not dropped by year’s end.

The separatist conflict in the Casamance region remained unresolved in 2008. Augustine Diamacoune Senghor, the leader of the separatist Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance who signed a peace agreement with the government in 2004, had died in January 2007, and the head of a group of government-appointed mediators had been assassinated in December of that year, raising doubts about the future of the peace process. In one of the worst violent incidents in 2008, a landmine killed 20 people on a bus in May.

Senegal’s lucrative trade deal with France, under which it receives $163 million in aid each year, is due to expire in 2010. In 2008, the Senegalese government signed an agreement with China that removed Chinese tariffs on over 400 types of Senegalese exports.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Senegal is an electoral democracy. The National Observatory of Elections has performed credibly in overseeing legislative and presidential polls since its creation in 1997. The president is elected by popular vote for up to two terms, and the length of the term was extended from five to seven years by a constitutional amendment in 2008. While this does not apply to the current five-year term Abdoulaye Wade is now serving as president, he has expressed his intention to stand for reelection in 2012 when he will be 85.

The president appoints the prime minister. In June 2007, Wade named Cheikh Hadjibou Soumare, a bureaucrat, to the position. The apolitical nature of the appointment has reduced the importance of the premiership following the president’s high-profile confrontations with former prime ministers Idrissa Seck and Macky Sall.

Elections for the 150-seatNational Assembly, now the lower house of a bicameral legislature, are held every five years. After being postponed from their original April 2006 date, the latest polls were held in June 2007. The newly created upper house, the Senate, consists of 35 members elected by public officials and 65 members appointed by the president. Municipal elections have now been postponed twiceand are currently scheduled for March 2009.

There are more than 75 legally registered political parties in Senegal. Major parties include the ruling PDS, the PS, the Alliance of Progressive Forces (AFP), and Seck’s Rewmi Party. The PDS currently dominates most political offices; the opposition was significantly weakened by the events of 2007 and was unable to regain ground in 2008.

Although the government has initiated reforms to strengthen the rule of law and improve transparency, corruption remains a problem. Senegal has a reputation for good governance and limited economic corruption compared with other countries in the region. In 2008, when an internal government audit uncovered serious irregularities and off-budget spending believed to total 109 billion CFA francs ($263 million), the state budget director was quickly fired. Senegal was ranked 85 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is generally respected, and members of the independent media are often highly critical of the government. There are approximately 20 independent radio stations, but the government owns the only national television station, which provides favorable coverage. In August 2008, government forces ransacked the offices of two private newspapers, L’As and 24 Heures Chrono, following critical coverage of the crafts and aviation minister, Farba Senghor. However, by mid-September, 12 men associated with the crime had been convicted and sentenced to as many as six years in prison, and Senghor, who was believed to have orchestrated the attack, was dismissed from his post. Libel remains a criminal offense that is punishable with imprisonment. Access to the internet is not restricted.

Religious freedom is respected, and the government provides hundreds of free airline tickets to Senegalese Muslims and Christians undertaking pilgrimages to holy sites overseas. Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country, with 94 percent of the population practicing Islam. The country’s Sufi Muslim brotherhoods are very influential; Wade has close ties with the most powerful brotherhood, the Mouride. In 2008, Senegal became the first African country to host the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Academic freedom is legally guaranteed and respected in practice. The government allows four hours of religious education per week in public schools, and the Ministry of Education often distributes funds to high-quality private religious institutions.

While freedoms of association and assembly are guaranteed, they were limited in practice in 2008. A number of demonstrations took place during the year, some of which degenerated into riots or ended in clashes with police. In March, demonstrators protested the rising price of commodities despite a government ban, leading to the deployment of riot police and the most violent clashes of the year. The government allowed an opposition protest against rising food prices the following month, but the movement subsequently grew, and by May key labor unions had joined calls for reduced prices and public-sector pay increases. In July, the government banned another demonstration, this time in opposition to the government’s extension of the presidential term. Finally, in October a pair of unrelated riots erupted around Dakar—one stemmed from the disqualification of Senegal’s national football team for the 2010 World Cup, and the other involved public frustration with repeated power failures.

Human rights groups and 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.

The judiciary is independent by law, but poor pay and lack of tenure expose judges to external influences. Uncharged detainees are incarcerated without legal counsel far beyond the lengthy periods already permitted by law. Prison conditions are poor.

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, but existing Senegalese law did not allow the country’s authorities to try him. However, acting on African Union recommendations, the National Assembly in 2006 passed a law allowing crimes against humanity committed abroad to be tried in Senegal, and in 2008, it passed a constitutional amendment allowing such crimes to be tried retroactively, clearing the way for Habre’s trial.

Women’s constitutional rights are often not honored, especially in rural areas, and women enjoy fewer opportunities than men for education and formal employment. In March 2007, the legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill that would increase the number of female representatives in the National Assembly in future elections by requiring all parties to introduce gender parity to their national candidate lists. Due to an appeal filed by the PS, the law did not take effect in time for the 2007 legislative elections.Only twosexual 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.

Child trafficking is a problem in Senegal. A 2007 study conducted by UNICEF, the International Labor Organization, and the World Bank found that boys had been taken in by religious teachers’ promises to educate them, but had been physically abused and forced to beg instead; 6,480 such boys were found in Dakar alone. Separately, in 2008, the Ministry of Tourism established a police unit responsible for combating sex tourism.