Heightened political tensions and violent anti-government protests in Senegal

Sarah Balzani-Matulik, Security Manager – West Africa and  Indian Ocean


On the 3rd of March 2021, the arrest of Les Patriotes (PASTEF) opposition party leader, Ousmane Sonko, prompted an escalation in the simmering protest movement that had been ongoing since February. Spontaneous protests by youth and students and planned demonstrations descended into violence between March 3rd and 8th across the country. From 5th of March, the protests evolved into a broader anti-government movement. Opposition parties and civic groups such as Movement for the Defence of Democracy (M2D) and Y’en a Marre took part, voicing socio-economic and political grievances, recently exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary effects. Large-scale rallies occurred on the 5th and 8th of March on a scale not seen in the country since 2011-2012. 


The level of unrest in Senegal, a country perceived as one of the most stable in West Africa, caught many observers by surprise. At least 11 people have been killed during the unrest and the army was deployed around flashpoint areas in Dakar. Incidents of vandalism of police stations and government buildings were reported, and crowds used the unrests to loot fuel stations and supermarkets, temporarily affecting the supply and access of some essential goods. Most of the violence took place in the capital Dakar and Zinguichor’s region, Sonko’s home-region. Access to Dakar’s Blaise Diagne International Airport via the highway was limited during the uptick of unrest.  International SOS’ contacts on the ground also confirmed that some mobile internet services were periodically disrupted between the 3rd and 8th of March and several TV and radio channels were suspended during the unrest. 


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Key stakeholders are currently in talks hosted by the influential Mouride religious brotherhood, which will curb protest activity by opposition organisations in the short term. Spontaneous protests by youth and students, among whom Sonko is popular, are likely to occur, even during negotiations. Political tensions will remain high given the wide range of grievances and are likely to increase in the run-up to local elections, which are to be scheduled later this year but are likely to be postponed to 2022. A number of events could also trigger periodic anti-government protests ahead of the legislative election in 2022 and the presidential election in 2024. Access to timely, reliable information and advice will remain critical for security managers and individuals responsible for duty of care to their employees.


Throughout this crisis, our security team issued regular alerts providing tactical information on the flashpoints for upcoming protests as well as advice for managers to help them to remain resilient and protect their workforce while enabling them to continue to work. By speaking to our security team, clients were able to confirm our assessment about the current situation and our recommendations on upcoming international travel and requirements of evacuations of in-country staff, which could have also been challenged by the COVID-19-related travel restrictions. The confirmation of tactical information around the spontaneous unrest in Dakar also allowed our security team to answer sudden assistance requests for travellers stranded on highway to the Dakar airport. 


This sudden protest wave and its associated violence highlights the need to for security preparedness during business travel and contingency planning, even for a country like Senegal assessed as a LOW security risk destination. Along with short-notice travel and movement restrictions imposed by COVID-19, further protests could hamper your organisation’s capabilities to assist your workforce, highlighting the importance of visibility of proposed international and domestic travel and stringent approval and monitoring processes. Contingency planning remains key for all organisations, and should be up to date with recent developments, particularly aligned with the risk of renewed heightened times as we expect further tensions and protests to flare up in the coming months. You can engage with International SOS’ security teams to discuss tactical advice, planning and availability to support at short notice should the situation escalate.


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