1999 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 4.0
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 4

Trend Arrow ↑

Senegal receives an upward trend arrow due to efforts to make the electoral process more fair and make peace with Casamance rebels, and the release of a number of political prisoners.


In 1999 Senegal was preparing for presidential elections in February 2000 while making advances toward ending a 17-year rebellion in the troubled southern Casamance region. President Abdou Diouf, of the Socialist Party, is facing a number of challengers to his rule of nearly two decades, including popular opposition leader and law professor Abdoulaye Wade, of the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS). Other aspirants include former ruling party member Moustapha Niasse, now of the Alliance of the Forces for Progress (AFP). He is a former foreign minister and has served as the United Nations special envoy to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Attorney and former minister Djibo Ka, of the Union for Democratic Renewal, is also seeking the presidency. If no candidate obtains a majority on February 27, a second round will be held in late March.

Negotiations with the rebel Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) in 1998 appeared to have been mere politicking on the part of the Diouf government, while recent efforts ring more genuine. The two sides signed a ceasefire in December 1999, agreeing to meet once a month for six months in Banjul, The Gambia, for further discussions. A previous ceasefire broke down. Officials said they would review the movement's demand to be transformed into a political party. A number of prisoners have been released, and the group's leaders are no longer under house arrest. Serious abuses by both sides in the fighting have been reported.

Casamance is almost entirely separated from the rest of Senegal by The Gambia, but is vital to Senegal's economy. The violence there has deterred tourism, disrupted rice production, and thereby harmed Senegal's economic growth. It has also tested the capacity and discipline of the country's professional and largely apolitical military. Senegalese peacekeepers have served in various parts of the world, including Bosnia, East Timor, Lebanon, Rwanda, and Liberia. Senegalese forces in Guinea-Bissau withdrew this year after 2,000 had been sent there in 1998, ostensibly to support Guinea-Bissau's now deposed government, but also to destroy suspected rear bases of the MFDC guerrillas.

Since independence from France in 1960, Senegal has escaped military or harshly authoritarian rule. President Léopold Senghor exercised de facto one-party rule under the Socialist Party for more than a decade after independence. Most political restrictions were lifted after 1981. Diouf succeeded President Senghor in 1981 and won large victories in unfair elections in 1988 and 1993.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Senegalese people's right to choose presidents and legislative representatives in multiparty elections is constitutionally guaranteed, but has been realized only partially in practice. For decades, the Socialist Party's overwhelming dominance has blocked opposition chances to gain power. Voting regulations blatantly favored the ruling party for the first three decades after independence. Changes to the 1992 Electoral Code lowered the voting age to 18, introduced secret balloting, and created a nominally fairer electoral framework. The Socialist Party-controlled government, however, has used state patronage and state media to protect its position. Questions about the credibility of the National Elections Monitoring Committee have been raised by the appointment of a former supreme court justice to its leadership to replace a former interior minister. Nongovernmental organizations are monitoring distribution of voter cards to prevent possible fraud. There was an attempt by parliament to limit the number of party representatives that could be on hand at each polling station, but the effort failed.

The May 1998 polls returned the Socialist Party to a comfortable majority of seats in the national assembly, but also reflected a continuing slide in the party's share of the popular vote. Ruling party candidates won 93 of 140 seats, while the PDS won 23 and the Union for Democratic Renewal (URD) won 11. The election was judged by most observers to be the fairest in Senegal's history. The opposition, however, complained of fraud, which has historically helped to ensure successive, robust Socialist Party victories.

Poor pay and lack of tenure protections create windows for external influence on a judiciary that is, by statute, independent. In high-profile cases, there is often considerable interference from political and economic elites. Uncharged detainees are incarcerated without legal counsel far beyond the lengthy periods already permitted by law. The government released 120 suspected rebels in February. Efforts were underway to pardon another 218 prisoners, including suspected MFDC members. Security forces are reportedly responsible for dozens of extrajudicial executions, disappearances, and acts of torture to extract confessions related to the Casamance issue. Rebels are accused of torturing and killing dozens of civilians.

With the exception of activities by Islamist groups, freedom of association and assembly is broadly respected. Religious freedom is honored in Senegal, which is 90 percent Muslim. Human rights groups are among many nongovernmental organizations that operate freely. Five members of the powerful Senegalese Islamic brotherhood, the Mourid, were released in August after having been accused of being behind attacks on two mosques of a rival brotherhood. The Mourid has strong financial and political influence and is likely to back Diouf for president.

Freedom of expression is generally respected but not always guaranteed. A court in March sentenced an opposition leader to six months in jail for libeling Diouf and barred him from voting or standing in elections for the next five years. Members of the independent media are often highly critical of the government and political parties. The government does not practice formal censorship, but a strong element of self-censorship is instilled through fear of laws against "discrediting the state" and disseminating "false news." There are three independent television stations and numerous independent radio stations.

Constitutional rights afforded women are often not honored, especially in the countryside, and women have fewer chances than men for education and employment. Despite government campaigns, spousal abuse and other domestic violence against women are reportedly common. Many elements of Islamic and local customary law, particularly those regarding inheritance and marital relations, are discriminatory toward women. Senegal banned female genital mutilation in December. Violators could serve five years in prison.

Union rights to organize and strike are legally protected, but include notification requirements and can carry penalties. Nearly all of the country's small industrialized workforce is unionized, and workers are a potent political force. The National Confederation of Senegalese Workers is linked to and provides an important political base for the ruling party. The National Union of Autonomous Labor Unions of Senegal, a smaller, rival confederation, is more independent. A court in May ordered three trade union activists to pay U.S.$450,000 to the National Electricity Company following a strike in 1998 that sparked some violence and led to a two-day blackout. The court also upheld jail sentences of six months against the leader of the electricity workers union and two colleagues. Nine other union activists were freed.

Senegal's population is mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture. There has been steady growth in the industrial sector, but lack of open competition obstructs independent business development. Major business opportunities in Senegal still require important political connections. The World Bank hailed liberalization of the country's banking and telecommunications sectors, while a number of foreign companies signed public agreements with the government in 1999 for offshore oil and energy exploration.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.