Long celebrated as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, Senegal has passed new laws with sweeping definitions of terrorism, which opposition politicians and activists say could be exploited.
The Senegalese parliament passed the two laws without proper debate on 25 June, opposition parties said. The opposition reportedly learnt about the laws as it was being passed and tried to stop it, coming to blows in Parliament and calling for protest.
Now, opposition politicians are trying to dismantle the law. They have approached Senegal’s Constitutional Council to have the laws repealed.
Opposition politicians fear the bill will be used to suppress protest as President Macky Sall prepares for a possible third term. Senegal’s Constitution only allows two presidential terms, but the opposition fears Sall will use a loophole to run again in 2024.
Sall, however, has rubbished allegations that he plans to run again, arguing that the new laws are aimed at tackling a security threat in an increasingly restive region. The region has seen jihadist insurgent groups battling across the Sahel, creating cross-border instability. The new laws aim to update Senegal’s definitions of terrorism, maritime piracy and transnational organised crime.
Aisha Dabo, of the Dakar-based democracy advocacy group Africtivistes, says: “The issue is not the law being passed, the issue is how the law can be manipulated to put dissidents or opposition leaders in prison.”
The laws modernise Senegal’s existing legal definition of terrorism for the internet. An offence on information technology carries a penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone viewed as spreading information that could be deemed terrorism, or anyone viewed as actively recruiting anyone to join these groups. In some cases, it is up to life in prison.
Senegal already has specific laws regulating the online space, says Dado. She fears the new laws could be used to criminalise an utterance as broad as a Facebook post by a frustrated citizen. Activists also fear the new laws prevent peaceful protest.
“While authorities have legitimate concerns about the growing influence of Islamist armed groups in the Sahel region and the threat they may pose to Senegal, they should make sure that the laws are not used to suppress basic rights,” says Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“From now on, if you have to organise a march, in addition to the authorisation, you must have control over those who will respond and make sure that there will be no breakings,” says lawyer Manou Diokh. “If, however, there is destruction of property of others during the demonstration, you risk falling under the qualification of terrorist.”
The laws can also punish anyone accused of sharing information linked to a person or organisation seen as “seriously disturbing public order,” says Diokh, who specialises in cyber law. That, too, is still open to broad interpretation.
The new laws come months after Senegal experienced some of its most violent protests. Demonstrating against the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, young people looted supermarkets and ransacked filling stations.
The 46-year-old politician, who is popular among young people, is accused of sexually assaulting a massage therapist. His supporters believe the charges were fabricated to prevent him from running in the next election.
At least five people were killed. A commission was established to investigate the deaths, but nothing came of it. Instead, laws have become “tougher” under Sall, says Dabo.