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Vol 65 No 7

Published 28th March 2024


Faye's victory shakes up the region

In jail until ten days before the vote, a political outsider has been elected president on the first ballot

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2024

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2024

As detailed results from around the country trickled in, Amadou Ba, former Prime Minister and standard bearer for the ruling Benno Bokk Yaakaar (BBY) alliance, could draw only one conclusion. By the afternoon of 25 March, less than 24 hours after the polls had closed, it was clear that he had been decisively defeated by Bassirou Diomaye Faye of the radical opposition Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l'éthique et la fraternité (Pastef).

It is by any measure a political earthquake. A man who was in jail until 10 days before the vote, and had never won elected office, failing even to capture a municipal council seat in his home area two years earlier, has been elected head of state with 53.91% on the first ballot.

The result will be felt across West Africa – and in francophone nations across the continent. Deep disenchantment with the old political class has set in, with Sahelian military putschists exploiting these frustrations.

Now the Senegalese have shown that citizens can use the ballot box to remove a discredited administration. They have done so in a peaceful and transparent process, protected by the law and state institutions. It could give electoral politics a boost.

This is unsettling for the military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea and Gabon. It should also worry civilian rulers who have manipulated electoral and constitutional rules to marginalise or exclude opponents, reinforcing their grip on power.

Senegal is an influential country. This election could help the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) which has been struggling to restore faith in constitutional multi-party politics and counter the drift towards another round of military coups.

But it also poses awkward questions for establishment leaders such as Alassane Ouattara in Côte d'Ivoire or Nigeria's Bola Ahmed Tinubu – both of whom saw their election victories, in 2020 and 2023, mired in controversy.

They will probably seek to draw Faye into the heart of the regional club. But he will want to maintain a distinctive profile, to protect his own political base and credibility.

Faye's radical profile and potential popularity among West African youth may provide useful support for efforts by UN Special Envoy to the region, Leonardo Simão, to soften the Sahelian juntas' hostility to Ecowas leaders. It might help him persuade them to rethink their withdrawal from the bloc.

For countries outside the region, Faye's victory is double-edged. While emancipation from the claims of French dominance of Senegal has been a prominent element of Pastef leader Ousmane Sonko's pitch over the last three years, both sides have been preparing for this moment.

Months ago, France sent high-level envoys to meet privately with Sonko and reassure him that they would work with whoever the Senegalese chose as their president. Emmanuel Macron's 25 March congratulations to Faye announced on X (formerly Twitter) was no surprise.

President Macky Sall has been a close ally to Paris. But Macron's officials were alarmed by the accelerating crisis under Sall's rule. Macron had worked hard to convince him to stand down. Succession by a contentiously elected Ba would have perpetuated the grim mood, and its by-product of resentment of the former colonial power. Officials Paris may even have been quietly relieved to see Faye's victory.

But tone and pitch of message will matter. Interviewed last week, Faye was at pains to stress the importance of mutual respect in bilateral relations, whether with France, the United States or other countries.

In 2012, it was the run-off ballot that delivered victory for Macky Sall, even though he was then the popular hero challenging an ageing President Abdoulaye Wade, who had persuaded the Constitutional Council to let him seek a third term.

Yet, this time, the Pastef machine, although deprived of formal party status by the authorities and amidst a field of 19 candidates – though two minor names ultimately dropped out – managed to easily outpoll Ba's 36.02%.

In Senegal votes are counted in public in individual polling stations as soon as the polls close at 6pm – with local results reported live on local media. By mid-late evening on 24 March, long before official provisional figures could emerge, the Ba camp was admitting that Faye had won.

And by 3.15pm the next day, their hopes that strong late returns from the government's northern strongholds might force the contest to a second ballot had been dashed – and so Ba made the concession phone call.

Beforehand, most expected that the contest would go to a runoff. There were so many candidates, including major names such as Aliou Mamadou Dia, of the Islamist Parti de l'unité et du rassemblement (PUR), former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Rewmi party chief Idrissa Seck – who had been runner-up in 2019 with 20.51%.

But all these, and others, were marginalised by the struggle between Faye, the emblem of change, and Ba, the face of the status quo. Dia (2.51%) and Sall (1.55%) were the only other candidates to clear 1%.

Faye owes his impressive victory in part to the popularity and youth appeal of Sonko, for whom he was the substitute candidate, and to the movement's campaigning savvy.

As it became clear in mid-2023 that Sonko risked jail and exclusion from the election, because of his convictions for criminal defamation and corruption of juvenile morals, the team secretly filmed his video endorsement of Faye, ready for surprise publication in the final months before the poll. And their election poster slogan was even more direct: 'Diomaye moy Sonko' ('Diomaye is Sonko'). 

Equally important, was the scale of Senegalese citizens' fury at the way Macky Sall was eroding the country's democratic values and civic freedoms and presiding over the politicisation of the judiciary.  That was exemplified by Sonko's highly questionable jail term for defaming a minister and, previously, by the six-year sentence imposed on Khalifa Sall for political misuse of municipal funds to prevent him challenging Macky in the 2019 presidential contest.

The deaths of at least 60 protestors in street clashes with the security forces and the jailing of hundreds of mostly young people over street protests or even Facebook posts, deepened disenchantment with Macky Sall even among many of the urban middle class who were benefiting most from economic growth (AC Vol 65 No 4, Fury as Sall's vote delay unleashes mayhem).

Corruption was another grievance, with deep resentment at the president's appointment of his brother Aliou – facing allegations over contentious oil dealings – to head a state investment fund (AC Vol 63 No 11, Macky Sall faces the third-term curse). But it was perhaps Macky's ambition to run for a third term that brought matters to boiling point.

The head of state's declaration last July that he would not do so, lowered the temperature. Then the people's mistrust and fury surged on 3 February when he unilaterally announced the postponement of the presidential election, with his parliamentary supporters attempting to schedule it to December.

The Constitutional Council blocked this manoeuvre. But that did not defuse anger towards Macky Sall. And Ba, his chosen candidate, has paid the price.

Although Ba performed respectably almost everywhere, his areas of greatest strength were in the thinly populated north-east. He was decisively outpolled by Faye in the populous Dakar conurbation, and several other key urban concentrations including Thiès, Ziguinchor and the holy city of Touba, seat of the Mouride religious brotherhood.

The last-minute endorsement of Faye by former president Abdoulaye Wade, a Mouride, and his son Karim – disqualified from the election – probably contributed to the Touba result. And this may have consequences in the future.

As Faye and Sonko reflect on appointments to the new governing team, they know that it may well have been the support of the Wades and their Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS) that carried Faye to a first-round victory.

By contrast, they owe nothing to the many serious but minor candidates who might have hoped to parlay second round support for a ministerial post.

Faye will want to reassure and demonstrate competence quickly. Financial jitters or a lack of business confidence would hamper the government's effort to boost growth and cut unemployment. Poor governance standards would put at risk the newly won support of middle ground voters.

So the appointment of some respected former ministers and other public figures looks probable – perhaps former premier Aminata Touré – who has supported Sonko over the past 18 months – or Thierno Alassane Sall, a parliamentarian noted for his commitment to financial rigour and transparency.

Faye will also need a legislative majority in the 165-seat National Assembly. At present, the Yewwi Askan Wi alliance has only 56 seats. Even if he can restore the broader but short-lived previous partnership with the 24 Wade supporters and get the backing of the two genuine independents, he will fall short of a majority.

He might hope to tempt some members of Macky Sall's now demoralised BBY alliance. That could be a reason to appoint one or two dissident members of the outgoing administration, such as Aly Ngouille Ndiaye.

Another option would be to hold early legislative elections later this year. That would allow the Faye-Sonko team to capitalise on their victory and ensuing political honeymoon. Given the magnitude of the task ahead of them, those conditions will not last long.

Diomaye Faye – from prison to the palais

Victory in the 24 March elections for Bassirou Diomaye Faye, the presidential candidate of Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l'éthique et la fraternité (Pastef) – officially dissolved as a party by the authorities but, in reality, very much alive – is widely seen as a triumph for his political mentor Ousmane Sonko.

Ever since Sonko's strong third place in the 2019 presidential election, the anti-corruption campaigner had been regarded as the most potent threat to Macky Sall's hopes of winning a third term. As Senegal entered the final run-up to the rescheduled contest it was Faye's more poised and quiet personality that came to the fore. His was the face on most of the campaign posters.

Faye and Sonko are the closest of allies. After Faye's release from Cap Manuel prison, south of Dakar, welcoming crowds in the capital chanted: Diomaye moy Sonko, Sonko moy Diomoye ('Diomaye is Sonko, Sonko is Diomoye', in Wolof). The two men were colleagues in the Impôts et Domaines (the national tax inspectorate) in Dakar. When they joined, it was headed by Amadou Ba, Faye's main rival in the 24 March election. Some Dakarois say that Faye's excellent work record in the tax authority made Ba reluctant to attack him during the campaign. 

When Sonko and Faye founded Pastef in 2014, it was Faye who generated the ideas and policies for the nascent movement. They differ in style and, as the past year has shown, have different political strengths.

Sonko, quick to find slogans and impulsive in his actions, has a popular touch that has inspired hundreds of thousands of young Senegalese. Last year, after weeks of street protest and speculation at his court battles, his boyish image on every poster, he seemed to garner an almost religious aura.

Yet, many Senegalese asked what could have induced a public figure with presidential ambitions to have risked visiting a massage parlour during the Covid lockdown – the February 2021 adventure that culminated in Sonko's conviction last year for 'corrupting juvenile morals'.

It was then that Faye, the trusted backroom colleague, assumed the role of party secretary-general and kept the machine on the road.

Their political tactics were evident in a slick media operation that remained in close touch with reporters, even foreign journalists, and continued to organise briefings and press messages even when both Faye and Sonko were in jail.

Faye's organisational discipline was also reflected in Pastef's detailed and thought-through policy programme. He played a key role in knitting the Yewwi Askan Wi alliance with Khalifa Sall the former Dakar mayor, which captured most of Senegal's main cities and towns in the January 2022 municipal polls and won 56 seats in the July parliamentary elections of the same year.

This calm focus on political strategy and results suggests that Faye will bring to office some of the skills that he will need in government. The differences from Sonko should not be overstated. The two men – of similar age, with Faye turning 44 on 25 March – have always been close. Faye named one of his children Ousmane.

Both were active in the tax service trade union, Syndicat autonome des agents des Impôts et domaines, another key political base. Sonko has family roots in Casamance, in the south; Faye is from Ndiaganiao, near Mbour, just two hours' drive south of Dakar. And he is less adept at campaigning politics and not an instinctive orator like Sonko. Faye failed to win a local council seat in his home area even amidst the Yewwi triumph of 2022. He has kept his personal vision for Senegalese society out of the debate.

A committed and conservative Muslim, he has two wives. That has attracted much foreign media coverage, though it is not unusual in Senegal. Faye's second wife, Absa, is Muslim; his first wife, Marie Khone, the mother of his four children, is Christian.

In a pre-election interview with Le Monde – a newspaper selected to get his message to Paris policymakers – Faye stated that his faith was a personal matter noting that 'Senegal remains a democratic country, a republic that has chosen secularism, enshrined in the Constitution'.

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