Political Turmoil in Senegal

President Macky Sall, first elected in 2012, is just days away from completing his 12-year run as leader of Senegal. His second term ends on April 2. The transition comes at a complicated time for the country, which has faced an unprecedented political crisis and a string of deadly demonstrations.

The past three years have been marked by a series of legal disputes that resulted in the arrest of Ousmane Sonko, the Sall regime’s leading opponent, who was also ruled ineligible to run for president. Senegal thus faces an unusual scenario whereby neither the incumbent nor his main rival will be on the ballot when voters head to the polls, on March 24, to choose their next leader from a field of 19 candidates.

Deadly demonstrations in three parts

Sall earned his second term in 2019 with a single-round victory that was later challenged but never formally appealed. Soon after, the president introduced a major institutional reform that abolished the post of prime minister, allowing him to manage his Cabinet directly. Sall later reinstated the position, following contested legislative elections in 2022.

The year before, in March 2021, violent demonstrations broke out in the capital Dakar and other Senegalese cities after Sonko, on his way to court to answer rape allegations levied by a beauty-salon masseuse, was arrested on charges of disturbing public order and participating in an unauthorized demonstration. The clashes lasted five days and resulted in 14 deaths, as reported by the human rights group Amnesty International. Sonko, leader of the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity party (PASTEF is acronym in French), finished third in the 2019 presidential election with more than 15 percent of the vote.

Sonko was later placed under judicial supervision. His party and opposition allies characterized the affair as a government plot to neutralize a political rival, and were quick to draw parallels with the Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall cases. Wade, a former minister, was sentenced in 2015 to six years in prison and fined 138 billion West African CFA francs (US$229 million) for illicit enrichment.  Khalifa Sall, the then mayor of Dakar, was convicted in 2018 on embezzlement charges. Both were then unable to challenge President Sall in the 2019 elections.

The events of March 2021 pushed the country into unfamiliar territory and proved to be the opening act in a three-part series of deadly demonstrations.

On the political front, the Sall government and its allies face a broad coalition of opponents gathered around Sonko and Khalifa Sall.  Known as Yewwi Askan Wi (liberate the people, in Wolof ), the coalition had its breakout moment in local elections (for mayors and departmental council presidents) held in January 2022. It won in several major cities, most notably in Dakar, Thiès and Ziguinchor, where Sonko himself was elected mayor.

A few months later, in the July 2022 legislative elections, government opponents nearly won control of Senegal’s unicameral parliament, the National Assembly. Together, an inter-coalition of opposition parties won 80 of the Assembly’s 165 seats. As a result, President Sall lost his absolute majority of 125 deputies, leaving power divided in the legislature for the first time in history.

In June 2023, violent demonstrations erupted once again after Sonko was handed a two-year jail sentence for “corrupting youth.” The same court acquitted him of the rape charge and a separate charge for making death threats. Sonko, who refused to appear at the trial, was sentenced in absentia.

News of the verdict caused tensions to boil over once again in the capital and in the country’s interior cities, including Ziguinchor. The Senegalese government reported nine deaths in the resulting demonstrations. Sonko’s camp claimed that authorities imprisoned more than 1,500 people, many of them opposition activists.

Sonko himself was arrested the following month, on July 28, in Dakar. The prosecutor’s office stated that Sonko was under investigation for “various counts of crimes and misdemeanors.”

Elections indefinitely delayed

Just a few weeks earlier, on July 3, 2023, President Sall announced that he would not seek a third term, despite efforts among his supporters to convince him otherwise. In the end, and given how tense things are in Senegal, a certain political lucidity prevailed. Had the president insisted on running again – in violation of Senegal’s constitutional term limits – it would most certainly have plunged the country into chaos.

Instead, Sall tapped his then prime minister, Amadou Ba, to run as his would-be successor. A number of dissident candidates (from within the governing coalition) would also compete.

The election was initially set to take place on February 25. But to everyone’s surprise, President Sall announced a little more than three weeks earlier – on Feb. 3 – that he had signed a decree that essentially postponed the vote indefinitely.

It was a bombshell development given that past Senegalese presidential elections had always been held on schedule, as stipulated by the Constitution, which states specifically that voting take place on the third Sunday in February, in this case Feb. 25.

In making the announcement, President Sall spoke of “a dispute between the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council over a case of supposed corruption involving judges.”

Lawmakers from the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) had called for a parliamentary inquiry into two of the Constitutional Council’s seven judges. PDS leaders accuse Amadou Ba of conspiring with the judges to invalidate Karim Wade’s candidacy as president. Wade is the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade (2000-2012). In January the Council ruled him ineligible to run because of his dual French-Senegalese citizenship.

In response to the shock announcement, the National Assembly called on Sall to submit an emergency bill that would postpone the election until December 15, 2024, and allow the president to remain in power until that time, thus extending his term by several months.

On Feb. 5, the Assembly approved the emergency legislation, ending any last-minute hopes that Senegalese voters would go to the polls on Feb. 25, as stipulated in the Constitution.

Defending the Constitution

The formal postponement of the election plunged the country into a state of uncertainty. Opposition leaders cried foul and urged demonstrators to gather in Dakar. Security forces were dispatched to break up the protests, and in various neighborhoods in Dakar and elsewhere in the country, clashes resulted in the deaths of three young people, including a student from Gaston Berger University in the north.

All eyes then turned to the Constitutional Council, the final arbiter in the electoral process, which on Feb. 15 issued two decisions that amounted to a scathing disavowal of President Sall and the National Assembly. Its ruling rejected the two texts – both the decree that Sall announced on Feb. 3 and the emergency bill that the Assembly passed two days later – that had together allowed the election to be postponed until Dec. 15. The Council annulled the former and the ruled the latter to be unconstitutional.

The Constitutional Council acknowledged that it would be impossible, at that point, to organize elections for Feb. 25, as originally planned. It nevertheless urged authorities to move as quickly as possible given that President Sall’s term ends on April 2.

The president responded by inviting a wide range of stakeholders (presidential candidates, including those who are barred from running, civil society representatives, religious leaders, and others) to participate in roundtable meetings to determine a new election date and spell out options for how to proceed once his term expires on April 2. But of the 19 certified candidates, 17 refused to participate, demanding instead that President Sall himself choose a date for the election and thus do his own bidding as far as striking a deal with the Constitutional Council. Civil society groups, organized around the slogan “protect our election,” appeared to share that opinion.

Either way, the roundtable talks proceeded and resulted in a new proposed date for the elections: June 2. But the announcement drew widespread complaints from the public, prompting President Sall to put the matter before the Constitutional Council, which in a decision issued a March 6 date and rejected the June 2 proposal.

The judicial body reminded the president that because his term ends on April 2, elections should be held before, not after that date. Additionally, it confirmed the list of 19 official candidates. And in a second decision, the Council fixed its own date for the presidential election: March 31.

That same day, in a Council of Ministers meeting, President Sall proposed an even earlier date for the vote: March 24. Shortly afterwards, the Constitutional Council ratified the March 24 election date, thus ending the impasse between the executive and judicial powers and saving Senegal’s electoral process.

Decades of democracy

Senegal is rare among the countries in West Africa in that it has never experienced a coup. The public is accustomed to voting, and settling their differences through debate. Historically, power has peacefully changed hands.

The postponement of this year’s election is thus worrisome given Senegal’s reputationas a beacon of democracy in a region that, since 2000, has seen an uptick in coups, with countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and even Guinea under transitional military governments.

Even at its most difficult moments, Senegal has always found a way to preserve its tradition of democracy, and in this current and crucial sequence of political events, it has done so once again. The Constitutional Council proved both its courage and sense of responsibility. The judicial body stepped in, as it needed to, and ensured that the Constitution be respected.

In 2016, it opposed President Sall’s push to reduce the length of his term, as he had promised to do during his campaign. The Council couldn’t then come back in 2024 and validate an extension, by nine or 10 months, of the presidential term. Doing so would be an explicit violation of the Constitution’s intangible tenets, something the Constitutional Council was clear to point out in its March 6 ruling.

All of this is especially important in a political system that affords the president an enormous amount of power. This same institutional architecture is present in nearly all the region’s countries. That President Sall adhered to the ruling and, ultimately, fixed an even earlier date (March 24) for the election demonstrates once again Senegal’s exceptionalism as a democracy in a region battered by a series of coups.

One of the lessons of Senegal’s recent sequence of events is that with an over-concentration of presidential power, other branches of government suffer. This issue needs to be revisited, and in countries throughout West Africa, institutions need to be reinforced so as to ensure a balance of powers involving not only the judiciary but also the National Assembly.

Senegal remains a source of democratic inspiration, even at a time when its current political tensions have been so publicized. That having been said, we cannot ignore the fact that since March 2021, more than 70 people have lost their lives in demonstrations, according to human rights groups.

Late last month, President Sall introduced an amnesty bill covering “events relating to political demonstrations that took place between 2021 and 2024.” This amnesty law, which the National Assembly passed on March 7, has been widely criticized and is opposed in particular by PASTEF.

Ousmane Sonko (imprisoned since July 2023) and Diomaye Faye, the party’s general secretary (imprisoned since April 2023), were released on March 14. Faye has been cleared, furthermore, to run for president, and will do so as Sonko’s stand-in. He’ll thus face off against Amadou Ba, the ruling party candidate.

We can only hope that the March 24 election proceeds peacefully and transparently, and that the next president can open a new chapter in Senegal’s democratic history.

Babacar Ndiaye is a political and security analyst, and research and publications director for the think tank WATHI.

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