“Ladies, massage your husbands at home please, the peace of a country depends on it.”
“Tell me one thing that’s made your country famous – a masseuse”.
These are some of the “jokes” circulating on social media in Senegal, following accusations of rape made against Ousmane Sonko, a leading opposition figure, by Adji Sarr, who works/worked at a massage parlour it is said he visits regularly. I wondered how this young woman felt as a barrage of memes and jokes pop up on my timeline. I wonder as people laugh and mock her while being outraged on behalf of the man she has accused. Is she thinking, “what about me? Where is your outrage for me…”? Last I heard, she has had to go into hiding, after receiving numerous death threats, despite or perhaps in spite of the numerous protests across the country essentially in solidarity with Sonko in the face of an extremely undemocratic response by the government.
Protests started on March 3rd, 2021, when Sonko was arrested after parliament stripped him of his immunity in a questionable move. As the protests spread, true to the modern-day protest, Senegal started trending on social media around the continent, at least. I combed through several primers on “what is happening in Senegal”, none of them mentioned Adji Sarr or the rape. If rape is mentioned, it is quickly followed with “it is politically motivated” to cast doubt on Sarr’s case and silence her.
Extensive media coverage has focused essentially on Ousmane Sonko and the injustice he is facing, again almost nothing about Adji Sarr. A few local and international media and activists have bemoaned the impact on survivors of rape and the implications for justice and accountability, but not near enough. The headlines remain full of Mr Sonko and the democratic and socio-economic crisis the country finds itself in. The overall situation itself is rather complex and has several layers that cannot be seen as separate.
Both the government and opposition have leveraged this political moment to rally their supporter base. The government has taken advantage of the opportunity to side-line and shut down a leading opposition figure without due process. The opposition has seized the moment to air growing grievances and dissatisfaction with the current government, especially relating to how it has become increasingly autocratic.
The recent statements by President Macky Sall, reducing curfew hours; and the initial statement by the Minister of Interior Antoine Diome, berating protesters and labelling them terrorists, indeed shows the massive disconnect between the government and its people; and does not bode well for the future of democracy in this country. President Sall was recently re-elected to a second five-year term in 2019, and it is not clear whether he will attempt to run for a third term in 2024 – a move that would be unconstitutional.
Socio-Economic Frustrations/Growing Inequalities
The massive youth bulge of the 16 million Senegal population, especially its young men, are mostly unemployed or underemployed without real prospects. It is a country with a large expatriate community (the capital Dakar is one of the most expensive cities to live on the African continent) and glaring differences in lifestyle driven by the costs of essential commodities. It is no surprise that the youth have taken up arms to resist a situation that exacerbates their current state of affairs. It is no surprise that this resistance has extended to the looting, pillaging, and destruction of companies that represent those whose lifestyles have not been visibly impacted by the global economy and/or the COVID-19 pandemic, beyond not being able to travel.
Repercussions of COVID-19
The narrative that COVID-19 has not impacted Africa as much as the rest of the world is growing increasingly problematic. Mainly because often, the focus of the impact of this unprecedented global health crisis has been on lives lost- and rightly so- but not enough on the millions who are struggling to survive economically. In Senegal, the curfew imposed in response keeps many young people out of employment as waiters in restaurants, servers in nightclubs, taxi drivers, delivery men, and couriers. Many live off of what they make daily, often not more than $5 a day. If they can no longer work, how would they eat, pay rent, and simply thrive?
This is why the government response to the accusations against Sonko brought so many, frustrated with the governance and economic status quo, to the streets. But even as we protest and want an equitable share of the national resources and systems that work for us, is this the same system that would work for Adji Sarr? I am afraid not!
It looks like, after all, this young woman’s path is not so different from other survivors who have dared to speak up against a powerful man. Her body has become a battleground on which powerful men are fighting for political leverage over each other. Her body has become the space on which youth are protesting socio-economic disparities and dissatisfaction with the government.
Her body has become the street on which people are resisting the restrictions and negative impact that comes from living through a global pandemic. Her body has been reduced to an object upon which we trample and we have completely erased her from public discourse. Her story has been turned into a joke that the frustrated citizenry use as distasteful humour on social media and debate with friends and family. A young woman’s life is in danger, and her chance at justice is waning-even with Sonko charged and released on bail. We know the court of public opinion and what happens outside courtrooms matter for the health and safety of anyone who makes a rape case.
Can we claim to want what is just for ourselves without deeply looking inward to find out why a nation makes a woman’s health and life politically expedient?
This public discourse that is putting her and other survivors of rape and sexual and gender-based violence at significant risk, reinforcing doubt and belittling her experience before she even has access court can’t bring us safety for all. From the outside, it might be easy to assume that this is another instrumentalization and weaponization of rape as a tool against political opponents. But we know the complex nexus of power, justice, and accountability in spaces where women are often tokenized to advance political goals.
As we embark on this fight for democracy and accountability, I urge us to remember the trigger. A young woman, Adji Sarr, dared to say – “he raped me”. And may we remember enough to say she too deserves to be heard. She deserves protection; she deserves due process. She deserves safety, not the maligning and slander that is so commonplace right now. If you are tempted to think – oh, it’s just politics, remember how much courage it takes for a rape survivor to speak out.
To speak out against a powerful political figure in the current systems across the world is almost to give up before you even start. How can we get Adji Sarr the support she needs at this time? We fail her when we only stick to the narrative of the powerful, even when that powerful person has been a victim of the state. When we fail to question why the leader is asking for charges to be dropped and the young woman’s in hiding, her life in danger, the democracy and freedom we are screaming while waving the Senegalese flag is not for everyone.
Yes, absolutely #freeSenegal – but remember this freedom must extend to all citizens, irrespective of their gender, social status, power, and privilege. Absolutely #freeSenegal, but first, we must #freeAdjiSarr.
Nadia Ahidjo-Iya is a feminist currently living in Senegal. Find her on Twitter @Asmaaouu