News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Participation / Civil Rights - West Africa Pre-Election Tensions in Senegal

The president’s move to delay the vote to December threatens to stoke anger and sow division



Felix Atchadé,

Demonstrators protest against the delay of the presidential vote in Dakar, Senegal, 9 February 2024.
Demonstrators protest against the delay of the presidential vote in Dakar, Senegal, 9 February 2024. Photo: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Stefan Kleinowitz

On 25 February 2024, 6.7 million Senegalese citizens were expecting to elect, from among 20 candidates, a successor to President Macky Sall, who has held office since 2012. In a dramatic turn of events, on 3 February, the eve of the launch of the election campaign, Sall announced in a brief address to the nation that he was repealing the decree he had issued a few months prior that would convene the electoral body.

Félix Atchadé is editor of and the blog

Two days later, the National Assembly passed a bill setting 15 December as the date for the election. MPs from the opposition have filed appeals against this decision in the Constitutional Court as well as the Constitutional Council. The latter decided on 15 February that the postponement of the election was unconstitutional and that the election had to be promptly organised. A date is not yet set, but the Senegalese people are eagerly awaiting it.

Sall’s pretext for postponing the election was the establishment of a parliamentary commission that would inquire into the circumstances of how candidates were added to the ballot, in addition to a bill calling for the election to be postponed until this was investigated. Many opponents and independent commentators have called this presidential announcement an “institutional coup d’état”. Some commentators suspect that Sall’s announcement was motivated by the very real possibility that opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye would have won the election.

The ballot as it stood for the February election presented an unprecedented configuration. The incumbent may not stand for re-election due to a two-term limit, while his main opponent, Ousmane Sonko, had his candidacy rejected by the Constitutional Council due to a criminal conviction for defaming an MP. The electoral campaign and actually planned election were to take place against a backdrop of both extreme tensions between the various political stakeholders, and a degeneration of democracy characterized by various restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, and the arrests of activists and leaders of political parties and grassroots movements.

The stakes of this vote are high, and it has many socio-economic, political, and geopolitical implications. Domestically, there is the vital question of the Senegalese state’s trajectory — status quo, or more sovereignty vis-à-vis France and ECOWAS — as well as issues of democracy, social inequality, the fight against poverty, access to education and health care, employment for the large cohort of young people entering the job market every year, and how to distribute resources in the near future when the country will become a major oil and gas producer.

The Senegalese election is to be held in a sub-region of West Africa that has experienced several military coups in recent years (Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger) and biased elections marred by violence and significant loss of human life (Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea). In the Sahel sub-region which Senegal is a part of, many countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad) are destabilized by jihadist terrorist insurgencies. The global context, marked by the wars in Ukraine and Palestine, in addition to reshaping global and sub-regional geopolitics, has repercussions that call into question the current economic room for manoeuvre.

Democratic Backsliding, Authoritarian Drift

Senegal, with a population of 18 million, half of whom are under 19, is known for its political stability and democratic traditions. Since gaining independence in 1960, the country has undergone two peaceful transitions and had only four different men as head of state.

The next president will be responsible for restoring the tarnished reputation of a democracy in tatters, as attested to by damning reports from various NGOs on the state of human rights and democratic freedoms in the country. The postponement of the election and decision-making process have once more demonstrated the country’s poor democratic standing.

Even before the “institutional coup d’état”, Samira Daoud, Regional Director for West and Central Africa at Amnesty International declared: “The Senegalese authorities are intensifying repression ahead of the 2024 presidential election by cracking down on human rights, restricting civic space, banning protests and detaining a journalist and opposition figures . . . This trend of repression must end now to de-escalate the tensions.”

Since 2012, those in power in Senegal have drifted into increased authoritarianism. Over the past three years, President Macky Sall, who in 2015 promised to “reduce the opposition to its simplest expression”, has stepped up retaliation against political forces that do not support him. Demonstrations are suppressed with unprecedented violence and live ammunition is regularly fired at demonstrators. Human rights organizations and the press have reported dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries since March 2021. Freedom of expression is trampled, with journalists, YouTubers, and activists being imprisoned, media outlets shut down, and TV signal cut off without warning.

Likewise, freedom of assembly is impeded, with access to political party headquarters blocked by law enforcement officers. Excessive use of force is employed to maintain order, including suspension of access to social networks, torture in police stations and in army squadrons, and people are disappeared.

More than 1,500 activists and political leaders are being preventatively detained on charges including ‘inciting insurrection’, ‘defamation of public authorities’, and ‘undermining state security’.

In response to the trial of Ousmane Sonko, head of the Patriots of Senegal (PASTEF) and mayor of Ziguinchor, Senegal experienced a new outbreak of violence and repression at the beginning of June 2023: “According to Amnesty International, at least 23 people have been killed during the violent protests that have broken out in Dakar and Ziguinchor since 1 June, and the Senegalese Red Cross reports that a further 390 have been injured. The demonstrations have been marred by a number of human rights violations, including excessive use of force and attacks on freedom of expression and information, with access to social media and mobile Internet being suspended.”

More than 1,500 activists and political leaders are being preventatively detained on charges including “inciting insurrection”, “defamation of public authorities”, and “undermining state security”, etc. The party experiencing the majority of this persecution of opponents is PASTEF. It has been dissolved, and its president and secretary general imprisoned. The latter, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, will fly the party’s flag in the next election.

Most of Senegal’s left-wing parties have been involved in managing power since 2012. The Party of Independence and Labour (PIT-Sénégal), for example, has been in government since the start of Macky Sall’s presidency. Its Secretary of the Central Committee is the Minister of Civil Service, Labour and Relations with Institutions. He is credited with organizing the recruitment of civil servants in a transparent manner and according to objective criteria.

PIT-Sénégal, which also had participated in previous governments, eventually broke with its tradition of being an irritant to the presidential majority. Throughout the outgoing president’s two terms in office, PIT-Sénégal went along with his authoritarian excesses and failed to act as lookout protecting the world of work. The party even used reactionary rhetoric when justifying the worst human rights violations and violent repression of opposition leaders and activists.

A Multitude of Candidates despite the Hurdles

Unlike in 2019, several candidates managed to clear the administrative legal hurdles required to be on the ballot. This time around, the political players have mastered the 2018 electoral endorsement law, which paved the way for President Sall’s previous victory by pitting him against just four candidates.

The present candidates can be placed in three groups, two of which have opposing positions regarding the question of national sovereignty (status quo versus radical change), “good governance”, societal values, democracy, and the rule of law. Some Senegalese commentators speak in terms of “system” and “antisystem” candidates. The third group is made up of non-political figures from the world of business or civil society organizations whose intentions and goals are not always clear.

Five figures are considered to have the best chance of winning the election:

  • Bassirou Diomaye Faye is a senior civil servant and Secretary General of PASTEF, the main opposition party, which was dissolved by presidential decree in July 2023. Mr Faye’s candidacy was not anticipated — he is standing in for opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, whose candidature was declared invalid. Faye is currently in prison for charged including defamation and assault of state security. It is claimed that the government intends to use this postponement to make time until Faye is condemned, resulting in his ineligibility to run.

    Bassirou Diomaye Faye’s recently unveiled programme is consistent with that of Ousmane Sonko and PASTEF. It is in line with the nationalist, or rather, sovereigntist current of thought, and is pan-Africanist. This attachment to the homeland is neither chauvinistic nor ethno-nationalist. Faye calls for a citizens’ revolution to ensure that Senegalese democracy delivers on its promises of freedom and equality. The argument is all the more popular in Senegal after more than a decade’s experience of the flouting of democratic principles and a caricature of the rule of law.

    The movement’s social base is made up of the intellectual petty bourgeoisie and the suburban working classes, but also includes the national bourgeoisie who have amassed their “primitive accumulation” in the so-called informal sector.
  • Amadou Ba has been Prime Minister of Senegal since September 2022, and was Senegal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of the Economy and Finance under President Macky Sall. He is a senior civil servant who has been active in every party that has come to power. He is the candidate supported by the outgoing president and the ruling coalition. Some commentators also consider him to be France’s favourite candidate.
  • Idrissa Seck was prime minister from 2002 to 2004, mayor of Thiès from 2002 to 2014, and president of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council from 2020 to 2023. This is his fourth presidential election. Seck has a long and distinguished political career. Even though his star seems to have faded, he could still play an important role in this election. He is conservative and only left the camp of the ruling coalition a few months ago.
  • Khalifa Ababacar Sall is a former government minister and formerly mayor of Dakar. He is a social democrat with a long and precocious political past. In 2019, he was prevented from taking part in the election because of a judicial conviction and it is a candidate thanks to a political arrangement. In recent years, he has been a leading opposition figure. He is not a sovereigntist candidate.
  • Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne was Prime Minister under President Macky Sall from 2014 to 2019. He was a member of the ruling coalition until Amadou Ba was chosen as leader.

Continuity or Radical Change?

The first issue is that of appeasement, necessitating the resumption of a fruitful and sincere dialogue that avoids conflict escalation. The challenge is enormous, given the shattering of the opposition’s trust in the President’s word.

Likewise in the neutrality of the electoral administration: the past months have shown that major doubts could arise concerning the democratic nature of the vote. In recent months, the electoral authority has shown that it will obey orders from the government in defiance of both the law and court rulings. It sabotaged Ousmane Sonko’s candidacy and systematically blocked him from accessing his rights, legitimizing fears that it will do the same while conducting an election.

Senegal is in the process of becoming an important player in the West African oil and gas industry. Extraction of the oil and natural gas discovered off the coast is envisaged to begin by the end of 2024. Tapping into these oil and gas reserves offers considerable opportunities for Senegal in terms of export, revenue, job creation, and economic development. However, it is important that the country manages these resources responsibly and sustainably, ensuring that the economic benefits reduce poverty and minimize the environmental impact of extraction.

President Sall’s incomprehensible decision to repeal the decree convening the electoral college opened up a period of uncertainty and increases fears of a further continuation of the cycle of demonstrations and violent repression of the last three years.

In addition to issues relating to democracy, justice, and “fair governance”, sovereignty will be at the heart of electoral debates. As far as sovereigntist candidates are concerned the questions of the CFA Franc (the West African common currency), of independence from France, and the position of local level entrepreneurs on the national economic stage are important issues. They want Senegal to move away from an outward-facing economy supplying world markets with commodities with low added value.

The sovereigntist candidates see the country as stuck in a neo-colonial position. For these candidates, Senegal remains, sixty-four years after its independence, economically, financially, politically, and culturally dominated by France. The sovereigntist position on the CFA Franc is attracting a lot of attention, particularly from France and the global business community. It also mobilizes opposition in several African countries. That is why in many West African countries, all eyes are on Senegal.

The vote scheduled for 25 February 2024 looked like it would be just like the previous ones: an election campaign marked by tension and sporadic violent incidents, ending with a calm voting day. In this scenario, a second-round vote would undoubtedly have been necessary to decide between the government’s candidate and the opposition candidate, with a greater chance of victory for the opposition.

President Sall’s incomprehensible decision to repeal the decree convening the electoral college opened up a period of uncertainty and increases fears of a further continuation of the cycle of demonstrations and violent repression of the last three years. The next few months are likely to be very turbulent, with eruptions of anger from a people that, until now, have been placated by the hope of going to the polls to oust the current regime.

Will the police continue to oppress demonstrators? Will the business community continue to accept the disruption of economic activity that results from government measures like cutting off mobile Internet? Will the institutions that guarantee law, order, and safety continue to support a president whose legitimacy is rapidly crumbling? What will the opposition do after 2 April 2024, the constitutionally stipulated date for the end of Macky Sall’s term of office?

For now, the opposition has announced that after that date, it will no longer recognize Sall as President of the Republic.

Translated by Eve Richens and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.