Senegal unrest could spell trouble for oil and gas projects in the offing

OPINION: Deadly protests have rocked gas-rich Senegal over the last week, indicating all is not well in a country that has built up a solid reputation for political stability and which hosts BP’s Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA) liquefied natural gas project and Woodside’s Sangomar oilfield.

At least 16 people have died, with hundreds wounded and arrested since 1 June when supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko took to the streets of Dakar to protest a court jailing him for two years.

The protests, which shook the capital city just a day after President Macky Sall launched a national dialogue to dampen simmering political tensions in Senegal, are the deadliest in recent decades, according to Reuters.

Responding to Sonko’s calls for “civil disobedience,” angry crowds erected barricades in the capital Dakar, looted shops and burned vehicles.

Protests also erupted in Ziguinchor, the opposition leader’s home-town in separatist-minded Casamance region, and in St Louis, the closest city to the GTA scheme.

Sonko — who denies wrongdoing — did not appear in court last week to answer to a long-running allegation of rape and was eventually acquitted of that charge.

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Nevertheless, the presiding judge did find him guilty, in absentia, of corrupting a minor, sentencing the politician to two years in prison.

Sonko is already serving a six-month suspended prison sentence in a libel case and was reported to be in his residence in the capital city at the time of publishing.

Perhaps fearing more violence, the police had yet to arrest him.

Sonko’s supporters worry the court conviction could stop him running in Senegal’s February 2024 presidential election when there will be much to play for, because the winner will be in office just when revenues start to flow from Sangomar and GTA.

Sonko and his African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics & Fraternity party claim all the court cases are part of a politically motivated plot orchestrated by President Macky Sall, to head off any serious political opposition ahead of next year’s election.

Protests: Security forces face supporters of Senegal opposition leader Ousmane Sonko during clashes. Photo: REUTERS/SCANPIX

Under Senegal’s constitution, Sall should not be able to run for office again next year, because he will already have served the maximum allowed of two five-year terms.

But opposition parties believe he aims to bypass that limit by excluding from the count the seven-year term he was serving before Senegal’s constitution was revised in 2016.

Abdoulaye Wade used a similar argument to run for a third term in 2012 but, ironically, lost to Sall.

Many partial and impartial observers believe Sall will seek a third term, unable to resist the allure of significant revenues from Senegal’s hydrocarbon resources and the trappings of power.

And what Sall seems to have learned from Wade’s loss is that neutralising popular opposition politicians, like Sonko, will boost his chances of being re-elected.

As Michelle Gavin at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations explains: “The long list of Sall’s political opponents who have been disqualified from challenging him due to judicial decisions has surely raised eyebrows, but (his) continuing refusal to rule out a destabilising third term should trigger real alarm.”

She hopes officials at the highest levels in the US administration “are speaking plainly to Sall and those around him about the very present dangers of distorting Senegal’s democracy to satisfy one man’s ambition.”

If this reasoning falls on deaf ears, it will be left to Senegal’s voters to do their duty, fired up by Sall taking out rival politicians.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)