DAKAR — The holiday of Tabaski, the local version of the Islamic Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) which was celebrated on June 29 this year, is usually a big deal in Senegal. After special prayers at the mosque, men slaughter sheep—the holiday honors Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s command—and women cook heaping bowls of mutton. In the afternoon and into the following days, everyone dresses in their finest outfits and visits friends and family to exchange blessings and catch up.

The period leading up to Tabaski is usually frantic. Roads are clogged as everyone tries to get home for the holidays. Livestock markets overflow. Tailors work overtime to sew resplendent outfits. Markets heave as cooking supplies and clothing accessories fly off the shelves.

However, this year, even though I was grounded at home with a newborn, I could feel that the normally frenzied pre-Tabaski energy was subdued. Through sporadic trips across the city, conversations with friends and browsing social media, it was clear that many Senegalese were having a hard time preparing for this year’s festivities. While the reasons seemed disparate—immigrants fearing deportation, others unable to afford to return home or cope with high sheep prices—everyone linked the problems to Senegal’s recent political unrest.

The country’s relative peace and democratic system are often regarded as exceptional in a region beset by coups, insurgencies and grinding poverty. Yet, for the last two years, Senegal has experienced a series of protests that, at least for some, brought its reputation into question.

The upheaval is ostensibly[1] related to the criminal prosecution of the opposition politician Ousmane Sonko. A former tax inspector with a strong following among young people, Sonko insists the charges (the most serious of which was rape) are part of an effort by President Macky Sall to prevent him from running in the 2024 presidential election.


On June 1, after two years of legal twists and turns, Sonko was acquitted on the rape charge but found guilty of “the corruption of youths” and sentenced to two years in prison. Protesters burst onto the streets of Dakar and other major cities, burning tires and throwing rocks at security forces. The government responded by firing tear gas and live rounds, deploying street gangs against protesters and blocking access to social media. Over two days, at least 23 people were killed.

As the violence subsided, the government released a report claiming armed demonstrators were attempting to sow chaos by attacking critical infrastructure and deploying cyberattacks. Many Senegalese rejected that explanation, arguing that Sall’s refusal to announce whether he would seek a third term in 2024 was really to blame for much of the discontent. Sall announced he would hold a dialogue with the opposition, after which he would address the issue of his possible candidacy. As people went about Tabaski preparations, the tension hung heavy.

The following episodes are small windows into how Senegal’s tense politics cast a shadow over what is usually among the most joyous times of the year.

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People from Guinea make up Dakar’s largest immigrant community. While there are a number of wealthy Guineans in the Senegalese capital, the bulk of the community comprises masons, fruit vendors and small shop owners. This year, as members of Senegal’s Guinean community were trying to cobble together the means to celebrate Tabaski, they found themselves sometimes being blamed for the violent protests and subjected to bureaucratic harassment.

Among the hundreds of people arrested during the June protests were 79 Guineans who were promptly deported. Soon after, the government required all foreigners to carry their carte consulaire or risk being deported. Guinean news reported that Senegalese security officers waited at transportation hubs in Dakar to check papers and detain those without them.

A bustling market the day before Tabaski

Alpha Barry is a fitness coach and my neighbor here in Dakar in the quiet upper-middle class neighborhood Mamelles. He was born and raised in Guinea and migrated to Germany, where he lived for many years before moving to Dakar.

“There is already discrimination against Guineans in Dakar,” he told me. “The government is just blaming foreigners for their own problems. All governments do this.”

A dual German-Guinean citizen who is well accustomed to international migration bureaucracies, Barry had his paperwork in order and was not worried about the new policy. However, for many newer arrivals in Dakar, especially those on the poorer end of the spectrum, the crackdown represented an existential threat. The morning after the announcement, the Guinean consulate was mobbed by hundreds of young men trying to complete their paperwork.

When I visited the consulate a few weeks later, I found around 80 young men trying to puzzle out the convoluted queuing system under the watchful eye of Senegalese police. Mingling in the crowd, I heard expressions of mixed feelings. Younger men were frustrated by how unorganized and seemingly arbitrary the system was. Older men, on the other hand, repeated a version of respectability politics along the lines of “if you’re in someone else’s country, you need to have your documents.”

Regardless of how they felt about the new policy, everyone commented that it could not have come at a worse time. As explained to me by Mohammed Ba, a 40-year-old Guinean man who lives with his family in an informal settlement on the edge of the wealthiest part of town, to get the carte consulaire, people had to furnish a birth certificate (available for purchase for 20,000 CFA, around $33) and pay another 5,000 CFA.

Karim Balde and Mbaye wash their family’s Tabaski ram the morning of (2014)

For Ba and many of Dakar’s underclass, wasting a few mornings waiting at the consulate and spending the equivalent of $40 can make the difference between having your own sheep on Tabaski or cooking meat donated by your neighbor.

“Tabaski is already tight,” Ba said. “This came at a very bad time for many families.”

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Guinean immigrants were not the only community in Senegal feeling scapegoated and targeted following the June protests. The suspension of public transportation linking the southern region of Casamance with the rest of the country, right before the holiday when everyone travels home, complicated many holiday plans and reminded some of a darker time in the region’s history.

A largely rural region of sacred forests, mangrove swamps and white sandy beaches, the Casamance feels a world away from sprawling, crowded Dakar. The journey there takes at least 12 hours by road and involves cutting through the country of Gambia. A violent secessionist movement in the 1980s and 1990s capitalized on the region’s unique identity and remoteness but was eventually quelled through a combination of military might and increased state investment.

Ousmane Sonko is the first politician from the Casamance to gain national support. While he avoids regionalism, he is very popular in the Casamance, where he was elected mayor of the region’s capital, Ziguinchor, in 2022. When he was convicted and sentenced in early June, youths in Ziguinchor took to the streets, burning tires, looting a Total gasoline station and bringing the city to a standstill.

A typically placid scene from the Casamance

In response, the government suspended the public ferry and bus services that connect Dakar and Ziguinchor “for security reasons.”

There are other ways to get to Ziguinchor, such as a miserable ride in a seven-seater car, a cramped private bus or a more expensive flight. However, the period before Tabaski is normally the busiest time of the year, and with high demand and fewer options, prices skyrocketed.

Maimouna Diatta is a young woman from Casamance who works as a house cleaner in Dakar. She usually goes home to Oussouye, one of the larger towns in the region, for Tabaski every year.

“Not this year,” she told me, “the prices are too high, and the buses are not safe.”

Many Casamancaise felt singled out by the travel suspension. Decades ago, at the height of the rebellion, they experienced discrimination in the rest of Senegal.

“When I first got to university in Dakar,” Abdoulaye Dabo, a teacher from Ziguinchor explained to me, “people thought I was a rebel and blamed us for the conflict.”

But as the government invested in the region and the rebellion petered out, Casamancaise felt welcomed into the Senegalese nation.

The Total gasoline station in Bignona, Casamance was set on fire during the protests in March 2021

“That Sonko was accepted by youths across Senegal showed us that we are now accepted as equal citizens in our own country,” Dabo told me back in 2021 when Sonko was first charged.

However, the transportation suspensions have rekindled unpleasant memories and made some question their place in the nation.

“This is like a collective punishment,” Dabo said when I spoke with him over the phone right after the holiday. “Tabaski is a time when everyone comes together. By making it harder for us Casamancaise to be with our families, we are wondering what this current government thinks of us.”

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Beyond the situations of Guinean immigrants and Casamancaise, the most common complaint I heard from people in the run-up to Tabaski this year was, as usual, the high price of sheep. Kvetching about the topic is part of the Tabaski tradition. Depending on one’s political persuasion, the annual price increases are either the fault of greedy private traders or the government, which should be regulating the sheep market.

This year, though, everyone agrees the price increase surpassed previous ones.

When I asked why, I got a simple reply: Supply. Indeed, zooming around Dakar, it did seem there were fewer impromptu sheep corrals than usual. The Livestock Ministry even issued a statement that there were enough sheep this year, a clear sign the issue was agitating the public.

When I called friends across Senegal to ask about regional sheep markets, I was told variations of the same story. Ibrahima Barry Balde, my former host father in the city of Kolda who used to dabble in sheep flipping, told me the sheep shortage was real. According to him and a number of others I spoke with, it was a result of sheep traders from Mali and Mauritania—the source of many of Senegal’s Tabaski rams—being afraid to bring their merchandise into Dakar due to the supposed potential for unrest.

Ibrahima Barry Balde during his sheep-flipping days (2014)

Curious whether that explanation was valid, I reached out to Aliou Samba Ba by phone the day before Tabaski. Ba (no relation to the aforementioned Mohammed Ba from Guinea) leads a network of herders in northern Senegal and southern Mauritania. He confirmed that in early June, following the protests in Dakar, a rumor spread among Malian and Mauritanian herders that a foreign herder had been attacked at a livestock market outside Dakar. While the attack never happened, he repeated, it spooked the market in the run-up to the holiday. 

“Finding the sheep is always the hardest part of Tabaski,” my host father, Balde, explained to me, as if I had not watched him go through this struggle for years.

“But the prices this year,” he paused and sucked his teeth. “Politics infects everything!”

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Despite the challenges, on Tabaski morning, mosques around Senegal filled with worshippers dressed to the nines. After prayers, Ba and other Guineans briefly forgot their paperwork problems and shared their feast with their neighbors. Casamancaise gathered with those family members who could make it home and sipped sweet tea. And despite the conditions of scarcity in urban areas, some sheep remained standing that afternoon.

Nonetheless, the specter of unrest still hung heavily in the air as President Sall said he would address the nation and announce whether he would seek a highly controversial third term right after the holiday. Dakar remained quiet the Monday after the holiday as people braced for unrest, expecting him to announce he would indeed run again. Twenty minutes into his speech, he finally uttered the words everyone had been waiting for: “I will not be a candidate in the 2024 election.”

Opinions varied following the speech, but most agreed that Sall had pulled the country back from the precipice. For a brief moment, some even forgot that it was his refusal to address a third term that had brought the country to the brink in the first place.

“Senegal will have peace,” Ba told me. “And, hopefully, next year politics won’t interfere with Tabaski.”


[1] While the most heated recent protests have occurred following turns in Sonko’s trials, under the surface many Senegalese say anger over the “Sonko affair” is “just opening the door” to grievances about issues like anti-Covid measures or, more recently, price rises for basic commodities following the war in Ukraine.

Top photo: Young Guineans protesting perceived mistreatment outside the Guinean consulate in Dakar