Senegal: Delayed Elections Spark Violence, Repression

  • Photo: 3 Dead, 60 Injured, at Least 271 Arrested, Journalists AssaultedDetained demonstrators on a police pick up during a protest against the postponement of the February 25, 2024 presidential election, in Dakar, Senegal, on  February 9, 2024. © REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

(Nairobi) – Senegal’s authorities should immediately open independent investigations into violence during protests on February 9 and 10, 2024, over delayed elections, Human Rights Watch said today. At least two young men and a 16-year-old boy died, while scores have been injured and at least 271 arrested.

Demonstrations broke out in Dakar, the country’s capital, and several other cities after President Macky Sall announced that presidential elections, slated for February 25, would be delayed. On February 6, Senegal’s parliament voted to delay the elections to December 15 after a chaotic National Assembly session during which security forces removed opposition lawmakers. The authorities are yet to release the death toll and the number of people injured and arrested during protests.

The authorities should release all those held for expressing their political views, ensure the right to freedom of assembly, and end assaults on journalists.

“The recent deaths and injuries of protesters should not lead to further abuse,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should rein in security forces, investigate those implicated in abuses, and hold them to account.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 29 people, including 5 protesters, 7 civil society activists, 8 opposition members, 5 journalists, 2 lawyers, and the relatives of two people who were injured. Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical records of those injured or killed, photographs and videos showing the dead and injured, multiple images of the protests, and reports by national and international media outlets.

In Dakar, witnesses said that security forces dispersed hundreds of protesters and other citizens around Place de la Nation (Nation’s Square), firing live and rubber bullets as well as tear gas at close range. Modou Guèye, 23, was shot at close range by a gendarme and died of his injuries at the Principal Hospital on February 10. A relative of Guèye said he was selling clothing, not protesting. Human Rights Watch reviewed Guèye’s hospital records stating that he died of wounds “in the thoraco-abdominal area” caused by a “firearm.”

According to the opposition, about 60 people were injured in protests across the country. “Police fired a tear gas grenade that hit me,” said a protester who went out to demonstrate in Dakar’s Colobane neighborhood on February 9. “I have a fracture in my right foot and a wound in my right thigh.”

Witnesses said demonstrators in Dakar responded by building barricades, blocking roads, burning tires, and throwing rocks at the police.

Elsewhere in the country, including Mbour, Mbacké, Tivaoune, Touba, Saint-Louis, and Ziguinchor, security forces also apparently used excessive force to disperse protesters.  

Alpha Yero Tounkara, a 22-year-old geography student, died amid protests at a university in the northern city of Saint-Louis on February 9. On February 10, the interior minister said in a Facebook post that was subsequently deleted that “the public prosecutor was requested to conduct an investigation to determine the causes and circumstances of the death” but that security forces “did not intervene in the university campus where the death occurred.” However, media has cited witnesses as well as medical, legal, and university sources who said that a gendarme shot Tounkara in his ribs on university grounds. Any investigation into Tounkara’s death should not be influenced by government officials’ statements, Human Rights Watch said.

On February 10, violent protests broke out in the southern city of Ziguinchor. Witnesses said the police dispersed protesters by firing live ammunition and tear gas. “They shot at us indiscriminately,” said a 32-year-old protester. “Five of my friends were injured by live bullets; one of them, Landing Diédhiou, was hit in the head and died of his injuries about one hour after we took him to the regional hospital.” The media and the opposition also reported the death of  Diédhiou, 16. Human Rights Watch reviewed a video filmed by witnesses minutes after Diédhiou was shot showing him lying still on the ground with his head covered in blood, as well as photographs showing the four other men injured, all of whom are being treated at Ziguinchor Regional Hospital.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented Senegalese security forces’ use of excessive force, including live ammunition and improper use of tear gas, to disperse protesters in March 2021 and June 2023. At least 37 people have been killed during violent clashes since March 2021, with no accountability.

According to lawyers and the opposition, since February 9, across the country, security forces arrested 271 people, including women and children, mostly members and supporters of the dissolved opposition party African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity (Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l’éthique et la fraternité, PASTEF), but also civil society activists and others. At least 66 have been released. Some of those arrested were also severely beaten.

“When I saw him at the hospital, he couldn’t even speak,” said the brother of a 25-year-old man arrested in Tivaouane, west Senegal, on February 9. “He told me that police beat him with truncheons in the head, nose, face, and neck.” Human Rights Watch reviewed a photograph showing the man’s injuries as well as medical records issued by the hospital where the police took him before taking him to a police station, where he is still detained.

“I represent dozens among those arrested in the Dakar region,” said Amadou Sow, a human rights lawyer. “Many tell me they were beaten up and brutalized by the security forces.”

The latest demonstrations occurred amid increasing government repression on the opposition, media, and dissent ahead of general elections initially scheduled for February 25. The authorities’ crackdown on protests following court cases involving prominent opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and over concerns about whether President Sall would run for a third term began in 2021. However, there has been a spate of arrests of political opposition figures and dissidents in recent months.

According to civil society groups and opposition parties, security forces arbitrarily arrested up to 1,000 opposition members, including party leaders and presidential candidates, journalists, and activists across the country from March 2021 to January 2023. About 700 are in pretrial detention at Rebeuss detention center in Dakar. Detainees’ families and lawyers said that visits there have been halted since the elections were postponed. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules) protect prisoners’ right to receive visits “at regular intervals” from family and friends.

During the latest protests in Dakar, security forces assaulted and intimidated journalists, preventing them from covering unfolding events. “I was with other journalists, we were all wearing our press vests, when a policeman fired a tear gas grenade at us,” said Mor Amar, a journalist working for the EnQuête+ newspaper. “One of my colleagues asked the policeman why he did that. The officer insulted and pulled her. So, I went to help her, and the policeman beat me on my face.”

During the same incident Absa Hane, a journalist with the online media outlet Seneweb, was dragged into a police vehicle and beaten unconscious. “She told me that she was kicked in the head and in the neck,” her brother told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch verified a video shared on social media of the assault to the group of journalists showing police pushing and hitting members of the group before dragging Absa Anne away. Several other videos circulated on social media show police brutality against media professionals who covered the protests.

“Journalists experienced inexplicable violence,” said Ibrahima Lissa Faye, president of the association of online press publishers and professionals. “We are concerned that security forces have received the order to crack down on journalists.”

International human rights law and the Senegalese Constitution protect the right to freedom of assembly and expression and prohibit the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. The African Union’s Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa provide that law enforcement officials may use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and that the intentional use of lethal force is permitted only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

“Senegal has for long been seen as an example in the region of how a democracy can encourage free speech, free association, and political participation,” Allegrozzi said. “That legacy is now at risk. As the political crisis unfolds, authorities need to respect basic rights.”

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