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Senegal’s Democratic Twilight

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In the intricate tapestry of African Politics, Senegal has long been hailed as a shining democratic example—a nation where liberal values are upheld, and citizens’ voices are heard. But recent events have cast a shadow over Senegal and are ushering in a period of uncertainty and unrest.

In a televised address to the nation on Feb. 3, 2024, just a few hours before the start of the presidential campaign, President Macky Sall abruptly announced the postponement of presidential elections originally slated for Feb. 25, a decision he made unilaterally. A new election date was later set for Dec. 15, 2024, which would extend Sall’s term by nine months. Chaos ensued.

The delay prompted Senegal’s top court to rule it was unconstitutional, has triggered mass demonstrations, and got 15 of the country’s 20 rival candidates to join forces to urge Sall to hold a contest before April 2, when his term expires. He now pledges a vote “as soon as possible.”

What explains all of this?

To justify the delay, Sall cited the need for more inclusive elections. Indeed, several key political figures have been barred by the same top court, the Constitutional Council, over unmet criteria. Among them are prominent opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, currently incarcerated, and Karim Wade, ex-minister and son of former President Abdoulaye Wade who has served jail time over corruption charges and is now living in Qatar. Wade’s disqualification stems from allegations of holding dual French-Senegalese nationality, which is disqualifying under the Senegalese constitution, while Sonko is disqualified over his criminal record. Wade has since accused Amadou Ba, Senegal’s Prime Minister and Sall’s preferred successor, of orchestrating a scheme to manipulate two members of the Constitutional Council into invalidating his candidacy, prompting calls for a postponement. Subsequently, lawmakers from across the political spectrum voted to delay the election until Dec. 15. Yet some opposition members, including Guy Marius Sagna, who sought to challenge the bill’s approval, were removed by police and even briefly detained.

It’s unclear what was Sall’s true motive. Some contend that it stems from Amadou Ba’s lackluster performance in polling data, while others suggest a more personal dimension to Sall’s decision-making—that he wants to remove Ba from the candidate roster in favor of an alternative ally.

In either case, the recent political developments may be a shock to those not closely following Senegal. That’s because Sall has been saying the right things. He announced in July 2023 that he wouldn’t seek a third term, which is illegal under the constitution, and would therefore step down in April. He has also been vocal in advocating for democratic governance within ECOWAS, particularly in the wake of Military coups in neighboring Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

But his record points to a different reality. Since the beginning of Sall’s second term in 2019, Senegalese citizens have faced oppression, endured corruption Scandals, and witnessed the erosion of their democratic rights. Peaceful protests have been met with excessive and lethal force; dissent has been suppressed through media censorship and internet shutdowns; and journalists, activists, and political opponents have been jailed. Freedom House downgraded Senegal to Partly Free in 2020, a position it has maintained since. The international community has largely remained silent, failing to hold Sall accountable for his government’s actions.

Amid the darkness, however, there shines a glimmer of hope—the indomitable spirit of the Senegalese people. From various cities around the country and its diaspora, ordinary citizens have taken to the streets to demand their right to free and fair elections. Nowhere is that more true than in schools and universities that have become battlegrounds for democracy.

Yet the onus of preserving democracy cannot rest solely on the shoulders of youth. Regional organizations such as ECOWAS and the African Union bear a critical responsibility to uphold their mandates of protecting democracy and human rights. They must speak up and ensure that, as Sall recently promised, elections are held as soon as possible. 

But people in Senegal, West Africa, and even further afield must demand more. The concentration of power in the hands of the President, devoid of robust checks and balances, renders the system vulnerable to abuse and undermines the foundational principles of democracy. The fear persists that Sall’s successor, whoever that may be, could try a power grab. There is a History of that in Senegal, rom Leopold Sedar Senghor to Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade.

In a year when more than 2 billion people will vote in elections, ensuring a democracy in Senegal would be a powerful message beyond its borders. For it is a make-or-break year for democracy around the globe.

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