Political tension grows in Senegal after the president’s coup to postpone the elections

When 2024 was released, all eyes were on the presidential elections of the year on the African continent. Among them, those of Senegal. The reality is that a month later, and at the threshold of the electoral campaign, what is one of the strongest democracies in West Africa has experienced one of its biggest blows. Last Saturday, the Senegalese president, Macky Sall, announced during a speech to the nation that the presidential elections were postponed. It took less than 24 hours for Dakar to rise up in protests.

They are not the first. In the summer of 2023, the arrest of Ousmane Sonko, leader of the opposition party Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (known as PASTEF by its French acronym), generated a wave of demonstrations and collapsed President Macky’s popularity. Sall.

Although Senegal has never suffered coups d’état or civil wars since its independence in 1960, it is the first time since 1963 that presidential elections have been postponed. His political history includes 14 presidential and parliamentary elections and a broad package of ratified and signed international human rights instruments.

Now, unlike its neighboring countries in the region – such as Burkina Faso or Mali – that have experienced military coups, the latest authoritarian tendencies of President Macky Sall, emboldened by the arrest and imprisonment of Sonko, have raised suspicions and social tension in this democratic stronghold of West Africa. Added to the political instability in the Senegalese Parliament itself are the vestiges of the colonial heritage accompanied by an anti-Françeafrique discourse. Currently, the official language is French, education and the press are, for the most part, taught and written in French and the national currency is the West African Franc (CFA).

Political crisis

During the announcement of the postponement of the elections, Sall expressed that there were differences between the legislative chamber and the constitutional body in relation to the verification of the candidates on the list for said elections. The head of state, who has been leading the country since 2012, noted that days ago a parliamentary commission had been created to investigate two judges of the Constitutional Council for alleged irregularities in the approval of candidacies. Some irregularities that above all concern those candidates who have dual Franco-Senegalese nationality, prohibited in the country’s constitutional texts.

There are 20 candidates for the elections out of a total of 25 who aspired to participate. Among those excluded, there are two names that stand out. The first: Ousmane Sonko. The young man has become an emblem of the demonstrations that have been shaking the country for several months and he was Sall’s main opponent before he was convicted and imprisoned. Macky Sall was not seeking to revalidate his candidacy, since he was not running in the 2024 elections, but he was seeking to join forces and support the most similar candidate. Here comes the name of another of those excluded from the electoral list: Karim Wade.

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Karim Wade, son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, predecessor of Macky Sall, is the footprint of the establishment. In 2009, his father appointed him prime minister, but three years later he was sentenced to six years in prison and a fine for diverting funds from his ministry to tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands or Panama. Wade spent from 2013 to 2016 in prison, but Sall, also motivated by his personal relationship with his father, granted him amnesty before his sentence ended. Even so, Wade fled the country and then Sall managed to secure his second term in 2019. From then on, already knowing that the current president was not going to run for another term, approaches with “the heir” began.

Even though Wade, a candidate for the Democratic Party, renounced his French nationality, the electoral commission warned that he had not arrived on time. Sall had opted for his profile and now, with lawsuits involved and a declassified Wade, the solution has come with a postponement of the elections. For its part, the decision has been welcomed by Wade’s party, who were seen celebrating it. “We magnify this decision because it is a decision that does justice,” said the party’s youth leader, Franck Daddy Diatta.

In the streets, the postponement has sparked strong protests, often dispersed with tear gas by the Police, and the Senegalese Government has cut off mobile internet connections.

Opacity in the separation of powers

Added to the electoral announcement is the uncertainty regarding political decisions and the control of the president until December 15, the new date that Parliament has approved for the elections. According to Sall, the National Assembly will form a committee to supervise the actions of the Constitutional Council, a measure that is of concern among Senegalese society due to respect for the separation of powers.

If the deputies of Parliament have the last word when validating the candidacies, it will be the leading party, that of Macky Sall, that will make the final decision to decide who can enter the electoral list and who, on the contrary, will be will be left out.

The new plans not only worry civil society but also the main opposition candidates. Especially Bassirou Diomaye Faye, Sonko’s colleague in PASTEF who is currently under arrest on charges of contempt of court, public disorder and defamation on social media.

Regional and international reactions

The recent statement by the Economic Community of West African States (known as ECOWAS) expresses concern about the reasons that have led to the postponement of the elections. In its official statement, the organization calls on the political class to resolve differences through dialogue.

On the other hand, the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), recently formed by the coup governments of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger that withdrew from ECOWAS, has adopted a much more critical stance. The AES has accused Sall of planning an institutional coup d’état, without regard to the country’s Constitution. Some African leaders have also taken a stand. In the case of the president of Guinea-Bissau, Sissoco Embaló, in favor of Sall’s decision, expressing his support for the Senegalese president.

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