Will the next twelve months see the death of Senegalese democracy?

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In the run up to Senegal’s presidential election in 2024, the big question on everyone’s lips is not just who will win, but who will run? The incumbent Macky Sall, once the great hope of democrats, is now looking like he wants to stay in power, and is willing to break presidential term-limits to do so. So how did we get here? Will he succeed? And what would that mean for democracy in Senegal?

In Senegal, the year 2000 marked the end of 40 years of state power for the socialist party, when it was defeated by Abdoulaye Wade and the Sopi (change) coalition. This represented the country’s first transfer of power, although the former ruling party remained influential within the National Assembly until 2007. The second political “alternance” took place in 2012 with the coming to power of Macky Sall. The campaign was dominated by the controversy surrounding Wade’s candidacy, after he broke a promise not to stand. Although the Constitutional Court approved his candidacy, protests broke out and strong public disapproval – and Sall’s pledge to respect term limits – led to Wade’s defeat.

In the years that followed, the 2016 referendum seemed to have cemented a culture of democracy in Senegal. Most notably, Article 27 of the Constitution states that “no one can serve more than two consecutive terms”. Yet despite endorsing the constitution at the time President Sall is now the latest in a growing line of leaders to show signs of wanting to remain in office – or wax-waxet as they say in Wolof.

Although Sall hasn’t made this change official for the moment, members of his party, Alliance for the Republic (APR), have proposed him as their candidate for the presidential election scheduled for February 2024. His refusal to rule out standing has resulted in controversy and popular resistance, with the following consequences since March 2021:

  • More than 17 dead.
  • 600 political detainees, including activists and other opposition allies.
  • 2 gendarmes killed.
  • A police officer who lost his hand after the explosion of tear gas during a rally.
  • The disappearance of two soldiers, one of whom was found dead in circumstances not yet elucidated.
  • Families destroyed.
  • A national economy in crisis with many schools and companies at a standstill.

At the same time, Senegal appears to be developing a two-track justice system where reports from the Court of Auditors are ignored for the favoured ministers and allies of the president. Amidst all of this chaos, President Sall has remained quiet, only fuelling popular fears that he will refuse to stand down, generating a major political crisis.

Sall’s main opponent is the populist mobiliser Ousmane Sonko, the leader of the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party. The mayor of Ziguinchor, Sonko is currently facing a series of major setbacks including allegations that he raped an employee of a beauty salon. As these issues are manipulated by all sides, women’s rights are weakened and the prospects for political instability only increase.

He has also been accused of defaming the Tourist Minister, for which he was given a six month suspended jail sentence that could make him ineligible for the election. That would risk triggering a wave of violence that Senegal has never seen before.  

Whatever one thinks of Sonko, the perception that the rule of law is being used to marginalise him, while freedom of the press is flouted, is a very dangerous combination. The fact that he has recently been illegally consigned to house arrest in Dakar – after a period when his location was unknown and rumours spiralled that he had been detained by the police – will only further stoke the flames of political unrest.

Sonko’s supporters, especially young people, are ready to die to see him come to power. “It’s not about Sonko himself. It’s about protecting our hope for a better future through his strategic program to liberate the country from the dependence inherited from colonialism, economic crises, inequalities, threats to the regional security and the lack of respect for our culture of democracy” confided a young man whom I met recently in Ziguinchor, where hundreds of vigilante groups gather every day at Sonko’s house, and increasingly in other parts of the country, to protect him.

Civil society leaders have responded by holding a national dialogue on 31 May but it is not clear what they can do to bring the country back together in the face of intransigent leadership on both sides of the political divide.

Borso Tall (@NBorso) was a Chevening Scholar and a Mandela Washington Fellow and is now a freelance journalist based in Dakar.

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