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Senegal’s Democracy Passes Crucial Test

Credit: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Apr 5 2024 (IPS) - The fact that Senegal’s election took place on 24 March was in itself a triumph for civil society. That an opposition candidate, campaigning on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption agenda, emerged from jail to become the continent’s youngest leader offered fresh hope for democracy.

It wasn’t foretold. On 3 February, just as the campaign for the election scheduled for 25 February was to start, President Macky Sall announced he’d postponed the vote. Two days later, in a chaotic session during which security forces forced out opposition lawmakers who tried to block proceedings, parliament voted to postpone the presidential election until 15 December. Civil society saw this as a constitutional coup, since only Senegal’s Constitutional Council has the authority to postpone an election.

In contrast with several other West African countries, since gaining independence Senegal never had a coup. It doesn’t face the kind of security threats that have prompted others in the region to accept military rule, and its civilian rulers have encountered effective checks in an active civil society and independent judicial institutions that have resisted presidential attempts to cling to power.

In the face of yet another such attempt, civil society reacted quickly and the Constitutional Council responded accordingly, declaring the postponement unconstitutional. As a result, the vote was held on 24 March, and Bassirou Diomaye Faye of the opposition Senegalese Patriots (PASTEF) was elected with 54.2 per cent of the vote.

Faye was inaugurated on 2 April, the day Sall’s term ended. An oasis in a region in turmoil, Senegal kept its democratic reputation intact.

Civic space under attack

Ahead of February, civic space deteriorated steadily as political conflict escalated. People had protested for years amid speculation that Sall would try to somehow evade the clear constitutional text that established a two-term limit.

While he eventually dropped his candidacy, Sall increasingly focused on trying to keep his party in power. As he did with the 2019 election, he tried to block anyone who could pose a serious challenge.

The biggest threat was Ousmane Sonko. A former tax inspector turned corruption whistleblower, Sonko had become very popular among young people who saw the political elite as corrupt, self-serving and aloof. The government instrumentalised the criminal justice system against him. Sonko was first arrested in March 2021 and convicted soon after. In local elections held in January 2022, however, he was elected mayor of Ziguinchor city, and in parliamentary elections held in August the ruling party lost its majority.

In May 2023, Sonko was handed a six-month suspended sentence for insulting and defaming a ruling party politician. In June he was sentenced to two years in jail for ‘corrupting youth’, which made him ineligible to stand in the election. While serving his sentence at home in July, he was arrested again on protest-related charges. A few days later, the government dissolved PASTEF.

Every time Sonko was arrested or convicted, people mobilised in his defence. Protests included instances of violence, but the state responded with lethal force. Overall, dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured and detained. Journalists covering protests were harassed and arrested.

The authorities then banned further protests called by the opposition, suspended TV outlets in retaliation for protest coverage, limited internet access and restricted use of some social media. Police arrested journalists for reporting on restrictions placed on Sonko and PASTEF.

On 27 October, hundreds of people gathered in Dakar to demand the liberation of the roughly one thousand political prisoners in long-term preventive detention. In November, PASTEF formed a coalition with other parties and picked Faye as the candidate to replace Sonko. Faye was also in detention, where the authorities sought to keep him for as long as possible to reduce his chances – but he remained eligible as long as he wasn’t convicted.

Civil society’s reaction

When Sall postponed the election, civil society formed a platform, ‘Aar Sunu Election’ (‘Let’s protect our election’), bringing together over a hundred organisations. A demonstration announced for 5 February, the day of the parliamentary vote, was unable to proceed because the National Assembly was cordoned off and unreachable. Protests intensified after the vote, and on 9 and 10 February security forces used live ammunition against protesters, killing at least three and injuring dozens. They arrested hundreds.

Dakar’s local authorities banned a silent march announced by Aar Sunu Election for 13 February. Further attempts to mobilise in the following days were repressed. But the pressure paid off, and on 15 February the Constitutional Council voided the election postponement. On 6 March, parliament passed an amnesty law, following which Faye and Sonko were released from jail. People took to the streets in celebration, and 10 days later they lined up for hours to have their say. They opted for change so clearly that no runoff was needed.

Challenges ahead

The new president – at just 44, the youngest in Senegal’s history – made a meteoric journey from prison to power. He spoke to the aspirations of Senegal’s young people and made clear that a vote for him was a vote for Sonko. As soon as he was inaugurated, he appointed Sonko prime minister.

In a context of escalating living costs, rising unemployment and widespread disillusionment, one of Faye’s major promises was creating jobs. Seventy-five per cent of Senegal’s 18 million people are under 35 and the official unemployment rate is 20 per cent, so there’s a great need. Tackling this would be a big enough promise, but Faye has pledged much more – to reduce entrenched economic disparities, bolster agriculture to achieve food self-sufficiency, restore national sovereignty over critical industries such as oil, gas and fishing, manage natural resources effectively, combat deep-rooted corruption, increase government transparency, strengthen institutions and free Senegal from neo-colonial influences, including the CFA franc, the regional currency controlled by the French government.

It’ll be far from easy to translate promises into tangible outcomes, and Faye will have to navigate the fine line between managing expectations and delivering on them. But for now, Senegal has passed a crucial test of democracy, offering a vital example in a region where it’s often lacking.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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