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Senegal's Democratic Crossroads: Upholding Principles Despite Political Turmoil

Updated: May 23

Protests have erupted across Senegal over the past couple of weeks, after a controversial bill in Parliament was pushed through at the behest of President Macky Sall, postponing the election on the 25th of February for another 10 months, over the ineligibility of some opposition candidates.

In a raucous and heated debate in Parliament during which police had to remove some members of the opposition from the chamber, 105 of the 165 MPs supported the bill, handing Sall the Presidency until December 15th. The move sparked almost 2 weeks of protests, which saw violence engulf the nation’s capital Dakar.

Macky Sall was expected to step down in adherence to Senegal’s two-term limit. His critics have claimed that Sall had planned to try and cling onto power by amending the constitution to ensure that he can run. The delay to elections has fuelled these suspicions.

Senegal holds the distinction of being the only country in West Africa not to have experienced a military coup. In a region (and continent) where political interventions by national militaries are frequent, Senegal stood out as a beacon of transparent democratic processes with its three peaceful transfers of power and timely elections. This has ultimately dealt a huge blow to Senegal’s credibility and image. Sall has erred in taking a leaf out of the West African playbook, to try and unduly influence the elections.

Sall’s run-in with the country’s opposition precipitated similar unrest in 2021 and 2023, when protests were initially sparked by the arrest of the anti-establishment opposition leader Ousmane Sonko in February 2021, on charges relating to rape allegations. After being released in May of that year and cleared in June 2023 following two years of investigations, Sonko was arrested again in July 2023 for allegedly “disturbing public order”, with the government dissolving his PASTEF party. 

Sonko, a former tax-inspector turned whistleblower, enjoys huge swathes of support amongst Senegal’s youth, and is regarded a threat both to Sall’s authority and his APR party’s chances of getting their candidate – Amadou Ba – elected as president. 

Sonko frequently attacked the government’s cozy relationship with Senegal’s coloniser France, extremely contentious not least owing to the continued use of the Central African Franc (CFA), a currency pegged to the Euro used by several West African nations. Critics say that it is a clear way of France maintaining control over the region, through neo-colonial methods such as France controlling 50% of all foreign exchange reserves from countries using the CFA.

Unlike Sonko, Sall has been outspoken in his support for the CFA, stating that it is “a currency worth keeping”. This had eroded his standing with the country’s youth, who take a negative view of Senegal’s continued adoption of the CFA and France’s lingering presence in the region. In a country where poverty stands at 36.3% and youth unemployment at 16.9%, the CFA is the stick that the youth of Senegal use to beat the government with.

Sonko’s reinstatement as a candidate for the Senegalese presidential elections has further compounded Sall’s attempts to try and manipulate the electoral process, culminating in attempting to delay the process by pushing through the controversial bill earlier this month.

Sall's latest attempt to delay the elections, ostensibly to navigate legal hurdles, has been swiftly rebuked by the constitutional court, reaffirming Senegal's commitment to democratic norms. This was a huge win for democracy, leaving Sall looking more and more like the tin-pot dictator.

However, in a recent development aimed at quelling the ongoing political unrest in Senegal, President Macky Sall has proposed a general amnesty bill for political protesters arrested since 2021. This move comes as part of Sall's apparent effort to find a peaceful resolution. This gesture indicates a step towards addressing the grievances of the opposition and the public but it's too little too late.

Sall’s mandate is set to end on April 2nd, leaving huge question marks hanging over the future of Senegalese politics. Whilst the constitutional court has made it clear that it will be impossible to hold elections on February 25th, they have nonetheless urged the president to hold elections before his term expires, to preserve the democratic process and rule of law.

The crisis that has dramatically enveloped Senegal follows a worrying worldwide trend of leaders embracing authoritarian tendencies and taking advantage of their democratic processes. The decision of the constitutional court to annul the bill that would have delayed the elections is a huge sign of hope for the people of Senegal. Whilst Macky Sall has tried to make amends by releasing over 300 political prisoners, the damage has been done. Ultimately, the fate of Senegal hinges on its ability to uphold democratic principles, hold free and fair elections, and ensure a peaceful transition of power. Anything less would betray the aspirations of its people and undermine the country's standing as a beacon of democracy in West Africa.

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