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The Demise of Senegalese Democracy

President Macky Sall has called off his country’s presidential election just weeks ahead of the vote. His unconstitutional decree will not only keep him in power, but threatens to throw Senegal into violent chaos.

By Bamba Ndiaye

February 2024

On Saturday, February 3, Senegalese president Macky Sall informed the nation that he was postponing the presidential election scheduled for February 25. The move was necessary, he claimed, to prevent “a new crisis” from erupting over an ongoing conflict between the judiciary and parliament. It was a stunning and unexpected decree, roundly denounced by trade unions, religious institutions, the press, and citizens alike. It is also the culmination of the acute democratic backsliding that has characterized Senegal since the beginning of Sall’s second term in 2019. If unchecked, this constitutional putsch undeniably marks the demise of Senegalese democracy.

Days before Sall’s weekend announcement, lawmakers from the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) and the ruling Benno Bok Yakkar (BBY) coalition accused two Constitutional Court judges of corruption. They allege that BBY’s presidential candidate, Prime Minister Amadou Ba, bribed two judges to eliminate a political opponent, PDS candidate Karim Wade, from the race. When the Court released its list of official candidates on January 20, Wade’s name had been missing, ostensibly because he possessed dual citizenship (French and Senegalese) when he filed his candidacy. PDS and BBY lawmakers objected to the decision and introduced a parliamentary resolution to investigate the court. It was an unlikely alliance between the two parties, but each stood to benefit: PDS wanted to ensure its candidate remained on the ballot, while BBY infighting had led it to move against its own candidate, the unpopular Amadou Ba, who is believed to have a slim chance of winning.

In truth, the president and his fellow legislators have created an imaginary institutional crisis to justify a constitutional coup. Sall seized on this political wrangling to egregiously violate the country’s electoral laws and constitution by invoking “exceptional prerogatives” and unilaterally canceling the election hours before the start of the campaign season. But none of the conditions that would allow for the suspension of the election have occurred, and thus there is no valid reason for invoking this power.

By stalling the election, Sall and his ruling coalition are buying time — to reorganize their ranks and avoid a potentially humiliating electoral defeat. In so doing, Sall is de facto claiming the right to a third term (after long refusing to say that he would not run again this year), which is synonymous with a coup according to the Senegalese constitution. Indeed, Sall knows as much. When his predecessor’s government floated the idea of postponing the 2012 election, Sall said: “The president cannot prolong his term; it is impossible. He cannot add one day to his term; otherwise, the country will be in chaos because people will not acknowledge his legitimacy. This is fiction, and people who think like this must stop dreaming.”

It now appears that it is Sall who is dreaming. And the danger of Senegal being thrown into chaos is real. Sall’s attack on the country’s democratic institutions has reignited the specter of violence following months of détente after a bloody summer in 2023, when the popular opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was convicted for “youth corruption,” sparking violent protests across the country and among the diaspora. The government cracked down harshly in response, with dozens of protesters perishing, most after being beaten or shot by the police. The regime also banned the local press from sharing images from the protests and shut down the internet for days, bringing financial and commercial services to a complete standstill. By halting the democratic process and continuing the repression, Sall risks provoking similar violent clashes between the masses and the police.

The Precursors of Democratic Demise

Senegal has been on a long, steady slide toward autocracy. Over the past three years, the country has consistently performed poorly on many fundamental democracy indicators: Arbitrary detentions of activists, artists, journalists, protesters, and political opponents have reached unprecedented heights. Freedom of expression, opinion, and the press is stifled. As I write these lines, mobile internet service in Senegal is cut off. The independent outlet Walfajri TV’s license has been revoked by the communications ministry and its headquarters shut down by the police.

Under Sall, a critical Facebook post, the wrong emoji, or a WhatsApp message can result in a prison sentence. Many citizens have suffered this fate, including social activist Ousmane Diagne; Papito Kara, who later died trying to reach Europe in a pirogue; and Bassirou Diomaye Faye, the presidential candidate of Sonko’s party, PASTEF les patriotes, who is currently incarcerated on terrorism and insurrection charges. Faye’s crime? Posting a diatribe against the justice system on Facebook.

Organizations including RADDHO (Senegal’s African Assembly for Human Rights), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have documented how the Sall regime has grown increasingly repressive. Vowing to reduce the “opposition to its simplest expression,” Sall and his allies have weaponized the judiciary and the administration against political opponents to an unprecedented degree. The ruling coalition deals with the political opposition by simply sidelining key opponents through lawsuits and other legal maneuvers with the help of a complicit judicial machine beholden to the president.

The government’s treatment of Sonko, who placed third in the 2019 presidential election, testifies to the cynicism of a regime built on repression. Last June, Sonko was convicted of “youth corruption,” followed by charges of defamation in December, a ruling that disqualified him from running in this year’s election. The June ruling sparked outrage, and rioting broke out across the country. Not long after, he was again arrested, this time on charges of theft and accusations of fomenting an insurrection, and the government dissolved PASTEF.

The Rise of the Antisystem and the Fear of Defeat

In 2016, Sonko was fired from his longtime post as a tax inspector after exposing and criticizing ethics violations committed by the national government. He was elected to the National Assembly the following year and quickly became the opposition’s main spokesperson. In March 2021, Sonko was briefly detained for disorderly conduct while going to court for a preliminary hearing on charges of rape and making death threats, both of which were dismissed in the June 2023 ruling. Sonko had met Bassirou Diomaye Faye, another tax inspector, years earlier while they both worked for the tax office, and Faye became a founding member of PASTEF. Unlike Sonko, Faye does not (as yet) have any convictions preventing him from running for president.

PASTEF prides itself on being an “antisystem” party — that is, a pan-African reformist party that seeks to challenge political, administrative, and economic flaws, build alliances against neocolonialism, and redefine the historical, economic, and financial partnerships between Senegal and the West, especially France. The party vows to renegotiate economic contracts signed by previous regimes, to fully investigate financial scandals and the (mis)management and appropriation of public funds, and to reevaluate the use of the CFA franc (the euro-backed currency), all of which have become strong popular demands across the continent. The emergence of the “antisystem” instills fear among entrenched African regimes and political classes that are not ready for profound sociopolitical and economic changes.

The rise of antisystem sentiments, especially among young Senegalese and embodied by the now-dissolved PASTEF, undoubtedly prompted the constitutional coup. Party leaders Sonko and Faye, despite being in prison, continue to enjoy significant support — enough, according to some polls, to win the presidency. And they have rallied a large coalition behind them that even includes former key members of Sall’s government such as Aminata Touré, a former prime minister.

Given BBY’s struggle to sell its candidate to the people amid the real possibility of soon having an antisystem president in the palace, the incumbent and his coalition have likely been operating in panic mode. Perhaps they believed that they could neutralize Sonko, dismantle his party, and in the process kill the “PASTEF Project,” along with its spirit. That hasn’t proven to be the case. The Constitutional Court’s unlikely validation of Faye’s candidacy and the popularity of the rallying cry “Diomaye moy Sonko” (translated as “Diomaye is Sonko”) surely sparked trepidation in the regime’s ranks.

They may have feared some retribution for the past twelve years? Or a landslide electoral loss in February 2024? Or Sall may have been genuinely concerned by the PDS’s corruption allegations, given that its own presidential candidate had been imprisoned on embezzlement charges and subsequently exiled? One thing is certain, however. By postponing the election and prolonging his own presidency, Macky Sall signed the death certificate of Senegalese democracy. It will take bravery and a robust resistance to save it.

Bamba Ndiaye is assistant professor of African studies at Emory University and host of The Africanist Podcast. His research focuses on African social protest/movements, pan-Africanism, democratization, and popular cultures.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images




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