Honors Thesis Spotlight: The Prison, The Prophet, and The People: [In]Justice in Senegal

The disrepute of America’s criminal justice system and their endemic issues of police violence have continued to heighten within the past couple of years. However, many activists, politicians, and celebrities in the United States have begun to draw parallels between these egregious systematic acts and Nigeria’s violent Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This comparison proves to be problematic. Viewing African issues through an American lens can take away from the unique history and development of justice systems in West African nations. Researcher Simone Burgin fixates her thesis on the justice system of Senegal, a West African nation. She argues that the state’s presence and its absence in Senegal shape every aspect of criminal justice and crime prevention in Senegal.

The first section of Burgin’s thesis focuses on the idea of the state, its role in the practice, and the idea of justice. It begins by reviewing the colonial development of criminal justice in Senegal as an inherently repressive nature. Pre-Colonial judicial practices in Senegambia did not typically use confinement in prisons as punishment; instead, punishments included whipping, fines, exile, or death for the guilty party that was determined through ordeals. The French were the first to introduce a widespread system of imprisonment as punishment. Prisons began to emerge and as they spread, Colonial administrators regularly used fear of imprisonment as a tool of control over colonized Senegalese.

Burgin then moves into how these justice systems look in independent Senegal, including the unique role of the African state in creating and using disorder. She begins by defining “crime” in an African context as the violation of legal and social codes governing behavior: “The Senegalese state, like its colonial counterpart (Ondrus 2017, 267), is a “state of exception” (Agamben 1998, 2005), whose security agents enforce laws without being accountable to the law itself. When state authorities fail to conform to state law, they enable other potential sources of justice beyond the state to proliferate (see Hellweg 2011, 221),” (28).

Any definition of crime must therefore include a mention of disorder, especially in terms of how social and political actors use and provoke disorder in African states for their own benefit amid “confusion, uncertainty, and sometimes even chaos,” (28). Disorder brings on several issues such as a patrimonial system, high levels of government inefficiency, high levels of administrative inefficiency, a lack of transparent institutions, and a “general disregard for the rules of the formal political and economic sectors,” (28). The solution to disorder—and therefore crime—does not necessarily come from the state. Instead, various patrons—including religious and community leaders and politicians—may offer more personalized solutions to crime and disorder. In the years following the independence of the Senegalese state in 1960, the government was relatively stable, consistently civilian-ruled, largely non-repressive, and tolerant of a certain pluralism and contestation for the better part of three decades. However, in the mid-1980s Senegal began to experience the stress of structural adjustment programs and associated economic decline.

“Since independence, the neocolonial period has brought its own challenges to justice in Senegal. Senegalese distrust police and prisons, and for good reason… Justice serves the state, rather than the Senegalese, and definitions of criminality, policing, and justice have shifted as needed to accommodate state needs,” (48).

The second half of the thesis focuses on what falls outside (although relates to) the state. Burgin first looks at the highly influential Sufi brotherhoods and the relationship of Islam to justice. Due to Islam’s prominence throughout the country, perhaps the largest source of so-called “non-state” influence is the Sufi brotherhoods. Africans “fall back” on religious institutions as alternatives to state programs and resources to ensure “security and protection.” Another method that Senegalese have developed justice practices beyond the state is through local and privatized justice practices. Community aid, vigilantism, and private security firms allow Senegalese to take responsibility for their security. Security and justice thus remain never-ending challenges in Senegal just as they do around the world.

Simone Burgin is a graduate of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. This post was based on Simone’s honors thesis, written by COSSPP Blog Intern, Jillian Kaplan.

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