Senegal’s Presidential Election, A Victory for Democracy in Africa

Like many here in Africa, I think of Senegal’s stability and tradition of democracy as something that serves our collective African interest, and that should be preserved and encouraged. It was thus with bated breath that I followed events taking place in the run-up to the country’s March 24 presidential election.

The election, preceded by weeks of political tension marked by demonstrations and incidents of violence, resulted in a victory for opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who had been released from prison shortly beforehand as part of an amnesty deal offered by outgoing president Macky Sall. Faye and his allies were thus able, by peaceful and democratic means, to garner the popular support needed to advance their promise of a “rupture” from the status quo. Once again, Senegal managed to emerge from a tense pre-electoral scenario and preserve its reputation as a country deeply committed to democracy and to resolving differences peacefully.

Constitutional Council diffuses a crisis 

This time around, the crisis stemmed from the then President Sall’s decision, in early February, to repeal decree no. 2023-2283, which had set the election for February 25. The National Assembly quickly approved the move, triggering a wave of protests across the country. Less than two weeks later, however, Senegal’s Constitutional Council managed to diffuse the crisis. In a timely intervention, the Council annulled the repeal, paving the way for the presidential election to take place on March 24. Order was thus maintained, and Senegal preserved its reputation, once again, among African countries.

Keep in mind that Macky Sall came to power in 2012, following an election process that was turbulent in its own right due to the participation of Abdoulaye Wade, who insisted on running again despite serving as president twice already (from 2000-2007 and 2007-2012). Critics called his candidacy a violation of Senegal’s term-limit laws. Wade argued otherwise, citing changes in the law (in 2007, presidential terms in Senegal were trimmed from seven to five years) as an excuse for why the term-limit shouldn’t apply in his particular case.

The opposition cried foul and mobilized against the incumbent’s candidacy. Some of Senegal’s international partners, including the United Nations, expressed concern as well, saying that Wade’s participation in the election posed a risk to the country’s stability. Demonstrations led, in some cases, to violent and even deadly clashes, and it was within this context that Sall made the bold decision to stop participating in the protests and instead challenge President Wade in the ballot box.

After demonstrations and tensions Senegal lands on its feet 

More than a decade later, as President Sall neared the end of his own second term, there was widespread speculation that he too would seek a third mandate, and that like Wade he would use a legal loophole (in this case a constitutional amendment passed in 2016) as a pretext. It wasn’t until July 3, 2023 that Sall finally ended months of suspense by announcing that he would not, after all, participate in the 2024 presidential elections.

As chaotic as its electoral processes can sometimes be, Senegal has a way of landing on its feet. I’ve told my Senegalese friends that they need to take better care of their institutions. “Shake the coconut tree too much,” I’ve quipped, “and you risk knocking the whole thing over.”

And yet, for all their shortcomings, the institutions responsible for Senegal’s electoral processes, in particular the Constitutional Council, tend to play their assigned roles and uphold the rule of law. The army, furthermore, respects the limits imposed on it by the Constitution, with the result being that Senegal is one of the rare African countries to have been spared the coup d’état phenomenon.

Democracy benefits from civil society

More than anything else, though, the Senegalese democratic model benefits from the ability of the political and civil society spheres to engage in dialogue, with space given to religious authorities and independent and respected personalities. There’s wisdom in doing so. It’s a wisdom, in fact, that exists in each of our African societies and that political leaders would do well to heed.

I had the pleasure of living in Dakar for six and a half years, from 2008 and 2014, when I served as special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for West Africa. During my time there, I was able to observe Senegalese society up close, to see first-hand how the country’s institutions function, and above all benefit from Senegal’s legendary teranga, a Wolof word that roughly translates as “hospitality” but in reality means so much more than that.

I therefore wish Senegal only the best in its efforts to consolidate and further build on its democratic achievements and stability. I extend the same well wishes to the new group of leaders who emerged as a result of the March 24 election.

I also hope that within the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Senegal’s peaceful transfer of power gets the attention and appreciation it deserves.

I remember that in the early 1990s, for the sake of prudence but also with an eye toward encouraging positive change, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) addressed the issue of democracy, initially focusing on elections but soon afterwards expanding its scope to include unconstitutional changes of government. Since then, the African Union (which replaced the OAU in 2002) and regional organizations have made real progress with regards to election observation. Member states have likewise made progress in their ability to organize elections. But what the AU and other such organizations haven’t done is take things a step further by expanding their democratic agenda to support, for example, independent electoral commissions, constitutional courts and councils, and all the other institutions involved in democratic processes, including the judiciary and the media.

Democracy is more than just elections 

There’s more to democracy, after all, than just holding elections. Democracy also – and above all – depends on the creation of a democratic environment that is conducive to the free and transparent organization of elections. Regarding the issue of unconstitutional changes of government, I personally feel that after a strong initial effort we let down our guard, as evidenced by recent events throughout the continent. The result is a loss in credibility for the AU and other regional organizations, in part due to internal factors, including a certain inconsistency in dealing with the various unconstitutional changes of government that have taken place across the continent. But their efforts have also been hindered by external factors, including outside interference.

It is high time, in my opinion, that we take stock of the structures we have in place to promote peace, security and governance. Adopted in the 2000s, this architecture has never been fully implemented. More than two decades later, it needs to be reassessed with respect to political and social developments, and adapted to the continent’s real capacities and goals within a turbulent and evolving global context.

Said Djinnit, former Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for West Africa. This article was originally published by the West Africa Think Tank.

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