The June 23 Movement And Democracy: A Senegalese Spring? – Analysis


By Ella Scheepers

This paper intends to analyse the impact of the social movement M23 on civil society activity and democratisation in Senegal. The movement was born into a political system that has historically been described as a healthy democracy, an exception in the region of West Africa, with periodic multiparty elections, an elected national assembly and a strong president. [1] The constitution guarantees civil liberties such as freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of religious practice. But this democracy with its rare – for Africa – stability could be under threat, as discussed in Section A. Whether it survives may depend on the efforts of an extraordinary alliance of politicians, activists and ordinary citizens.

In 2000, long-time opposition politician Abdoulaye Wade won the presidential election and overturned 40 years of unbroken rule by the Socialist Party (PS). It was hailed as an historic victory for democracy and the new president promised that the country would never again come under de facto one-party rule for decades on end. But only ten years down the road, Wade’s own government is threatening to become that which it fought so hard to reject. [2]


First, President Wade has attempted to extend his time in office beyond the two terms permitted by the constitution. He argues that, since he was elected before the current constitution came into force, his first term only began in 2007, a full seven years after he was first elected. Thus he argues that he is still eligible to run for a ‘second’ term in 2012, even though this would theoretically allow him to remain in power until 2019 – 19 years after he was first elected.[3]

In a further attempt to ease Wade’s re-election, the Council of Ministers in June 2010 drafted and adopted a constitutional amendment bill to be submitted to parliament. The amendment sought to amend the Constitution of the Republic of Senegal of 22 January 2001 to introduce the office of vice-president and to lower the threshold for winning the presidency from 50 percent to 25 percent of the vote in just one round, instead of two. It is widely believed by Senegalese voters that these steps, taken together, add up to an attempt by President Wade to win the presidency for a third time, despite a much reduced share of the vote, and to appoint his son as vice-president, putting the latter in pole position to succeed when his father, officially 86 but almost certainly at least 90, passes on.

However, Wade’s plans have been met with extraordinary reluctance from the Senegalese people. Their resistance boiled over on the morning of the 23 June 2010, when hundreds of Senegalese people rallied throughout the country to oppose the tabling of Wade’s constitutional amendment bill in parliament. The mobilization was one of the biggest ever recorded in the history of Senegal and resulted in the withdrawal of the bill.

It was an unprecedented defeat for Wade. But more importantly, it was a striking assertion of democratic values by the citizens themselves. The collaboration – dubbed M23 (June 23 Movement) – of political leaders, civil society, artists, independent personalities, religious leaders and many civilians was fundamental to the success of the campaign.

The campaign against the constitutional amendments was initiated on the 17 June, when RADDHO (Rencontre Africaine pour la Defense des Droits des l’Hommes), a world renowned human rights organization based in Dakar, organized a press conference in partnership with different organizations including Amnesty International, the Senegalese League of Human Rights and civil society organizations working around elections, to denounce the proposed bill. They argued that the proposed amendments were incompatible with the Senegalese constitutional regime and would have dire consequences for the 2012 presidential elections and the future stability of the country.

Later, this group established a committee and met with political leaders who shared their concerns about the president’s plans. Out of this meeting the slogan ‘Hands off my constitution! emerged which emphasised the power placed on the constitution in protecting the rule of law and rights of people in Senegal. The objectives of the movement were: (i) to respect and safeguard the constitution and democratic principles; (ii) to promote transparency and fair elections; and (iii) to advocate for the adoption of urgent measures of good governance.

It is open to question how far the coalition of activists that has emerged in Senegal represents the majority of the citizens, or how far counter demonstrations by Wade’s supporters are authentic. What is undeniable is that this new model of civil society collaborating with the opposition, clergy and other actors is becoming a common feature in African democracies. Is it reasonable to postulate a growing recognition that achieving political and social change requires collective consciousness and organisation and cannot rely on the short-term impact of street protests or the individual efforts of any one party?


This paper intends to analyse the impact of M23 on civil society activity and democratisation in Senegal. Since the beginning of 1990, there has emerged in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa (and other parts of the world) an unmistakable and almost inexorable process of democratization, variously named the ‘second African independence’ or ‘second liberation’. Rather than fighting for freedom from foreign rule, Africa is on a new path, in Larry Diamond’s words, ‘to freeing African peoples from the domestic tyranny, oppression, corruption and gross misgovernance that have characterized the political experience of most African States since decolonization in the 1960s.’[4]

In West Africa, there has been an emerging trend towards democratic regression, as reflected in new cases of military coups and truncated electoral processes marred by malpractices and violence enshrined within manipulative constitutional processes with little or no regard for the rule of law. [5] Instances abound of multi-party elections taking place, often with no change resulting but accompanied very often by electoral fraud and corruption. These elections have at times resulted in deadly post electoral violence as was the case in Togo, or in civil war as in Côte d’Ivoire, causing the international community to intervene. In other countries like Niger, the government that swore to protect the constitution after coming in through constitutional means was the very one determined to affront the constitutional order. A few countries, however, went through exemplary democratic transition programmes, like Mali and Ghana. In spite of difficulties, they have continued to strengthen their democratic steps.

However, the recent political developments in francophone Africa have been marked by the crude phenomenon of constitutional manipulations, like those proposed by President Wade, and democratic order aberrations. [6]The notorious examples are evident in Niger, as already stated above, Burkina Faso and Senegal. It is within this context of democratic regression that there is an emphasis on development of new approaches to fight against corrosion of the rule of law and democracy and towards a second revolution.

In this context Senegal has seen the rise of new entities within civil society – alliances that cut across class, identity and interest lines – where political opposition meets civil society, and cultural/religious leaders. These entities are discouraged in traditional liberal democracies because of the emphasis on the balance of power through independent sectors of society representing different interests. But the Senegalese citizenship is charting its own course, recognizing that traditional democratic structures do not suffice in checking power and ensuring that the peoples’ needs are met on the ground.

The formation of M23 – a new movement born out of the 23 June protests against President Wade’s proposed constitutional amendments – is the latest result of African democracy at work. Here different (and sometimes opposing) voices join together to create a singular organization for a common cause to protect and promote the constitution and democratic principles. Instead of adhering to rules about what traditional democracy is and what traditional relationships it permits, M23 went back to the basics in defense of the common good, hence bringing together very diverse sections of society.

Its impact has been both immediate – halting the adoption of the proposed amendments in parliament – and there seems to be potential for the development of a longer lasting impression where civil society has a strong voice in the halls of power. However, this phenomenon will be tested in the upcoming 2012 election when the question of whether the movement was the voice of particular interest groups or truly has the peoples’ interests at heart will be answered.


This new feature developing in Senegal is supported by developments in democratic theory that aim to understand democracy in terms of its substantive implications. [7]In terms of Senegalese democracy, M23 can be seen as a physical manifestation of Dahl’s understanding of ‘procedural democracy’ that emphasises principles of political equality, effective participation, enlightened understanding, final control of the agenda and inclusiveness.

Traditional liberal democracy has become trivialized in Africa ‘to the extent that it is no longer threatening to those in power or demanding to anyone’. [8] Advocates of social justice in Africa have to sharpen their tools of analysis to provide directions for non-violent revolutions and to think creatively about the new forms of socio-political organisations that will provide genuine representation. M23 presents a united voice for a common cause that showed itself as a real threat to those in power through its mobilization of ordinary citizens and organization of countrywide demonstrations, as well as its successful engagements with parliament.

The movement emphasises the need for a strong civil society that will facilitate more discussion and inclusiveness. Civil society is the space of uncoerced human association and relational networks formed for the sake of family, faith, interests and ideology. [9] Supporters of civil society have argued that this conglomeration of networks and organizations has helped to fuel democratic aspirations and channel democratic demands in Africa. [10]Proponents maintain that civil society serves as a counter to the actions of the predatory African state, which seeks to limit individual freedoms and to encroach on societal resources. [11] By questioning the acts of state officials and by challenging state policies, civil society organizations can pressure the state to be more accountable and transparent and can facilitate a positive deconcentration of political power. A plural, vibrant civil society encourages political liberalization and the development of a democratic and legitimate state. [12]

The emergence of the M23 movement in Senegal as an unusual partnership between civil society groups, opposition parties and other individual actors is a trend that has been severely criticized. There is a view that if NGOs and other civil society groups get too involved with specific political parties (as opposed to causes, or various components of democracy) then they would become defunct when their party loses an election. The purpose of human rights NGOs and civil society groups, which challenge state power, stretches beyond mere political terms of office. Moreover, there is a fear that co-opting with political parties would taint the ultimate vision of the movement in promoting and protecting the constitution and the rights of the people of Senegal. Many Senegalese people have asked what the role of M23, and its component organizations, would be if the partnership opposition came into power and began to similarly undermine democracy and rule of law in the state.

However, in the process of democratization, where the executive becomes too powerful, it seems that this trend can be used as a tool to protect the rule of law and constitutionalism. It has been very interesting witnessing M23’s effective collaboration between civil society, religious groups, youth and opposition parties in checking the power of the executive to change the constitution. However, the question remains whether M23 as a movement is a permanent feature of the Senegalese democratic landscape or 23 June a one-off occurrence, never to be repeated again demonstration, aimed at sending a message to those in power that they should play the game according to the rules?

The future of the movement will be defined by the future path of politics within Senegal. The members agreeing that whenever there is a threat to constitutionalism and democracy in the country, the movement will engage actively in defining the priorities of the country. For this to happen, this new form of democratic entity – expressing often unheard opinions of the people on the ground – is clearly necessary. [13]


Although the civil society movement in Senegal had made important gains over the past six months, there are nevertheless weaknesses that could hamper its effectiveness going forward. The first challenge is the lack of civil society solidarity for the future path of M23. This weakens the possibility for real change because the divergent views for the vision of M23 represented from different interest groups threaten to tear the movement apart. It is imperative that the civil society members of M23 continue to dialogue to ensure that if the movement continues its vision is clear.

The second challenge is the democratic nature of the movement itself. If the movement does not follow democratic procedures among its members then it is not able to externally challenge repressive state actions and facilitate democratic development. [14] The movement is centralised in the capital city, represented by certain organizations and may thus potentially lose credibility amongst the citizenry and government. This raises the question about how the movement will encourage a level of trust among common citizens. This ultimately weakens the ability of movement to make significant contributions to the democratic progress in Senegal.

The third challenge is the contentious role of politics in the movement. Potentially the partnership with opposition politicians may lead to M23 being labelled by government as part of the opposition and not as a democratic entity that aims to protect rule of law, constitutionalism and democracy in the country. This may limit the effectiveness and ability to negotiate successfully with government to achieve its goals of promoting the interests of Senegalese people. The movement must find a means to show that it is not the machinery of hidden political powers but based in the constitutional democratic nature of the country, representing the voice of the people.

Moreover, the composition of the movement includes entities and figures that are associated with the incumbent government that further delegitimises the ultimate cause of the movement. There is a fear that the values and vested interests of the powerful sponsors of the current status quo (both parties in power and opposition parties) are not interested in the ultimate goal of improving the lives of the Senegalese people but are mainly interested in democracy as a means to power. [15]

Finally the last challenge goes to the base of democracy in Africa. The major challenge for this movement will not be administrative but rather the temporary nature of these partnerships. If this movement aims to make a change in the democratic fabric of Senegal, its voice cannot be a one-off demonstration but must entrench a long-term creative force that constantly engages with government and other democratic structures. The assizes nationals are an existing political mechanism within Senegalese politics, resulting from creative self-funded initiatives between civil society and past politicians. There are possibilities presented here for M23 to engage with this instrument to maintain the momentum in the movement, ensuring all voices are heard.

In conclusion, M23 creates a new force within democracy that does not merely follow the traditional liberal democratic rules of due process and literal application of the law but rather seeks the development of socio-political mechanisms for political accountability. The 2012 elections will be a decisive time for the future of democracy in Senegal and the question remains whether M23 will be a permanent presence and play a pivotal role in defining the agenda in the Senegalese constitutional and democratic architecture.


[1] A Patterson’ A reappraisal of democracy in civil society: evidence from rural Senegal’ 36 (1998) The Journal of Modern African Studies 426
[2] ‘A Niang ‘Between centralization and decadence: Senegalese politics under Wade’ (2009) Pambazuka News available here
[3] T Ginsburg ‘Senegal: will the Arab Spring travel South?’ (2011) Pambazuka News available at Senegal: will Arab spring travel south?
[4] M Owusu ‘Domesticating Democracy: Culture, Civil Society, and Constitutionalism’ in Africa’ Society for Comparative Study of Society and History (1997) 131
[5] A Loada ‘Constitutional Challenges and Lessons from Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Niger’ in Democratic Recession in West Africa: Challenges of Revivalism (2010) 46
[6] As above
[7] P Spicker ‘Government for the people: the substative elements of democracy’ (2008) International Journal of Social Welfare 17
[8] C Ake “Is Africa Democratising?” 1993 Guardian Lecture, The
Guardian on Sunday (Lagos) December 12.
[9] M Walzer ‘The idea of civil society’ 38 (1991) Dissent 293
[10] Above n 5 426
[11] J Bayart ‘Civil Society in Africa’ in P Chabal Political Domination in Africa (1986)
[12] N Chazan ‘Africa’s democratic Challenge’ 9 (1993) World Policy Journal 280
[13] S Diop ‘ Senegal: Twilight of a regime or dawn of a new era?’ (2010) Pambazuka News available here
[14] R Putnam Making Democracy Work (1993) 87
[15] C Ake “The unique case of African democracy” 69 (1993) Journal of International Affairs 242

Ella Scheepers is pursuing an LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

This article was first written for Rencontre Africaine pour la Defense des Droits des l’Hommes (RADDHO) Dakar, Senegal

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