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Vol 65 No 4

Published 15th February 2024


Fury as Sall's vote delay unleashes mayhem

The President's mismanagement of his succession crashes the country's reputation for stability and its growth prospects

President Macky Sall's announcement on 3 February postponing this month's elections has wrecked what was left of his legacy and is undermining Senegal's governance amid multiple clashes between activists and state security forces engulfing at least eight cities. Since the beginning of February, at least three people have died in clashes with security forces.

The spreading turmoil prompted United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken to call Sall on 13 February asking him to press ahead with elections as initially scheduled this month, or soon afterwards. So far, France's President Emmanuel Macron, fearing that any intervention from the former colonial power would fuel unrest, has declined to comment on the latest political implosion in francophone West Africa.

Political veterans in Dakar rail against the damage they say that Sall is doing to the country's social fabric. At least 16 people were killed in protests May and June last year after tensions ratcheted up over the past two years. This unravelling accelerated as Senegal was preparing to launch its oil and gas industry, with strong European support. This crisis will further delay the US$4.8 billion Grande Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA) project with its plans to produce 100,000 barrels of oil a day and export 2.5 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) a year.

The fury provoked by Sall's move was exemplified by the resignation of Abdou Latif Coulibaly, Secretary-General in the presidency and a former Sall loyalist. The latest twist has led some to speculate that it may have been an unwritten deal between President Sall and opponent Karim Wade that sparked the turmoil. Coulibaly certainly thinks so.

Coulibaly resigned in disgust less than an hour after Sall had announced he was postponing the presidential election, the first round of which was scheduled for 25 February. It is the first such postponement in Senegal.

Corruption claim
Sall insisted the postponement was necessary because of a dispute over the list of approved candidates for the elections and that parliament would have to probe claims of corruption in the Constitutional Court. That chimed with complaints from Karim Wade's camp after the Court had blocked his nomination citing his failure to surrender his French nationality before the registration deadline. Dual nationals are barred from standing.

Coulibaly's hypothesis was partially confirmed on 5 February when the Assemblée Nationale voted to postpone the first round of the presidential election to 15 December. The motion was jointly passed by the ruling Benno Bokk Yakaar (BBY) coalition and the Wallu Sénégal coalition dominated by Wade's Parti démocratique Sénégalais (PDS) with 120 votes out of 165 deputies.

The government called gendarmes into the chamber to eject vociferous opposition members. Deputies also voted to keep Sall in office until the election of his successor, eight-and-a-half months after 2 April, when his term is supposed to expire.

Coulibaly, also a former investigative journalist who was at Sall's side for 12 years, declared himself bitterly disappointed with a leader who had once fiercely opposed manoeuvres to prolong presidential terms. Perhaps he could not countenance the notion of a political alliance between Sall and Wade.

Coulibaly had blamed Wade for serial budget overshoots on the giant infrastructure projects that he oversaw as a multi-portfolio minister under his father, President Abdoulaye Wade (AC Vol 49 No 5, The Wade summit). Until now Coulibaly has been more indulgent towards claims of financial shenanigans under Sall's presidency.

Yet the key opposition player in the drama remains former tax inspector Ousmane Sonko, whose claims in his book in 2017 of grand corruption in the country's nascent oil industry badly dented the Sall government's reputation (AC Vol 59 No 23, A well-oiled machine). Last May, Sonko was tried in Dakar on charges of raping a masseuse named Adji Sarr. The court cleared him of the rape charges but found him guilty of 'corrupting a minor', sentencing him to two years in jail. Sonko is currently appealing this conviction. (AC Vol 63 No 19, Weakened president in troubled waters).

Yet it is on the grounds of a separate two-month suspended sentence for defamation – after accusing tourism minister Mame Mbaye Niang of embezzlement – that Sonko has been barred from contesting in this year's presidential election.

Expecting such problems, Sonko's campaign team lined up a stand-in, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, also a former tax inspector and secretary-general of his officially dissolved Patriotes Africains du Sénégal pour le Travail, l'Ethique et la Fraternité (Pastef) movement. On 28 January the campaign released a video, filmed before Sonko was jailed, in which he endorses Faye as his 'little brother… more honest than me… extremely brilliant'. That circulated alongside multiple TikTok clips in which Sonko lacerates successive French governments for neo-colonial policies in Africa (AC Vol 65 No 3, A crowded field).

This Sonko-Faye double act looked poised to succeed. The little known Faye, detained since April on a charge of incitement to insurrection but not yet convicted and therefore eligible to run, was widely expected to hoover up the pro-Sonko vote and make it through to a second round of voting; or even clinch victory on the first ballot.

As that plan unfolded, it was becoming clearer that the technocratic Prime Minister, Amadou Ba, handpicked by Sall as a successor last September, might not even make it into the top two in the first round of voting. A bland long-serving former finance minister who was briefly foreign minister, Ba was reckoned to need a comprehensive image makeover and a crash course in election campaigning. As election day approached, his standing slipped further.

That may explain why Sall postponed the election and why his BBY supporters threw their weight behind the PDS demands for a national assembly enquiry into alleged corruption at the Constitutional Council, to justify the election delay. The PDS named two veteran judges, Cheikh Tidiane Coulibaly (brother of Abdou Latif Coulibaly) and Cheikh Ndiaye, as those principally involved in skulduggery at the court. Justice Ndiaye has launched proceedings against the PDS, for defamation and holding a magistrate in contempt.

As the pressure mounts, the government camp is fracturing. We have heard reports of a noisy argument between Sall and Ba on 2 February. Ba is said to have opposed the postponement plan. He also rejects claims from the Wade camp that it was he who raised the dual nationality issue to block their candidate.

Deals and delays
Much of the blame may come down to Wade's complacency. Last June, a deal at the national dialogue talks allowed Wade and former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall to run for the presidency despite convictions for financial offences. The law disqualifies all dual nationals, but it was not until October that Wade went to France's consulate in Doha, where he was in self-imposed exile, to renounce his French citizenship.

That would have squeezed the timing between the formal publication of Wade's change of status in France's official journal and his return to Dakar to start campaigning. Many insiders say that he was not serious about running for the presidency in a race where his chances were slim.

That complicates matters for the ruling party. Sall's aides have been trying to dispel rumours that Ba could be dropped. But they don't have any obvious candidate to replace him. Sall has ruled out a third term for himself but is extending his tenure in what many, especially oppositionists, regard as a 'constitutional coup' and a 'dismantling of Senegal's democracy'.

Sall claims he had to act due to an 'institutional crisis' but that overstates it. Politicians were bickering but most had adjusted to the exclusion of Wade and Sonko, which the latter had circumvented with Faye's candidacy.  Some claim the religious brotherhoods were alarmed by Wade's exclusion. But their main concern is peace and social cohesion, both of which are now in jeopardy.

Sall's latest calls for a national dialogue have been met with widespread scepticism. Former mayor of Dakar and now leading oppositionist Khalifa Sall dismisses it as 'serving no purpose'. Like many, he holds Senegal's ruling elite responsible for confecting the crisis. The government has eroded civil liberties, throwing hundreds of opposition supporters in detention.

Outside the presidency, Sall is becoming more and more isolated. Alongside Coulibaly, Awa Marie Coll Seck, who served as Minister of Health, and Zahra Iyane Thiam, who is Director-General of the Senegalese Agency for Export Promotion, hitherto both close loyalists, also quit in protest.

Reputational blow
Postponing the election, together with the wave of resentment and protest that it has triggered, has shaken the country's reputation for stable governance, undermining its economic and financial credibility, built up over the past decade.

Sall's election shock sent bond spreads surging as international investors downgraded Senegal's risk rating far below other CFA zone economies such as Benin and Côte d'Ivoire. Western chancelleries have stayed warily silent or sharply criticised the move. The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations said the postponement 'puts the country on a dangerous path towards dictatorship, and must not be allowed to stand'.

France has supplied anti-riot gear to the gendarmerie. But this does not imply unwavering support for Sall. Months back, Paris despatched senior officials to meet discreetly with Sonko's camp, reassuring them that it would not take sides and would work with whomever the Senegalese elected.

Some are speculating about a Sall-Sonko deal. But what that would entail remains obscure. For now, the bet is on Sall finding another ruse to hold onto power if he lasts until December. Others predict more unrest, or even a military coup, a first for the country.

The fastest route to defuse the tension would be for Sall to reverse the postponement. That looks unlikely, given his legendary stubbornness. Alongside the mass protests across the country, the next key dates are 25 February when the election should have been held, and 2 April when Sall's mandate expires.

Senegal's innovative activists are preparing more protests and responses to what they expect to be more serious repression by the tens of thousands of gendarmes Sall has been recruiting. The official crackdown is targeting the media: Walf TV, the only network covering the protests live, was ordered to shut on 10 February but has since resumed operations. It seems the government is worried by broadcast images of the gendarmes' crackdown and their liberal use of French-supplied anti-riot gear.

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