Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

The political situation in Senegal is currently marked by sharp tensions caused by political competition in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election — tensions which are also laying bare the limits of President Macky Sall’s attempts to consolidate his political hegemony. For a long time, it remained open whether he would stand for election to a third term. After denying as much at the beginning of July, the pre-election campaign is now characterized by measures against the opposition member Ousmane Sonko. Sall may not be planning to return, but he’s doing his utmost to make sure his opponents won’t, either.

Maurice Soudieck Dione is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, Senegal.

No Third Term for President Sall

Until recently, it appeared that President Sall was seeking a third term, although his 2012 election victory was against Abdoulaye Wade, who unconstitutionally stood for election for a third time, triggering a major socio-political crisis. During his second term since 2019, Sall made increasingly ambiguous remarks about whether he would run again in 2024.

According to the specious argument used by those in power, this is Macky Sall’s first five-year term. During his first presidency, a constitutional reform took place that reduced the term of office for presidents from seven to five years. Accordingly, the seven-year term from 2012 onwards should not be counted. However, the argument is invalid — a third term is explicitly prohibited in the 2001 constitution.

Macky Sall’s ambivalent statements threatened a repeat of the severe crisis of 2012. Ultimately, Sall gave in to popular and international pressure and abandoned his plan. In his address to the nation on 3 July 2023, he declared, “my long and thoroughly considered decision is not to stand as a candidate in the next election on 25 February 2024”. This settled the burning issue that threatened the peace and stability of the country.

Disarming the Opposition

Another source for the current tensions is President Sall’s attitude towards the opposition. In 2015, he declared that his party was “going to reduce the opposition to its simplest form”. Sall has also warned the opposition, stating: “Don’t wake the sleeping lion, he doesn’t want to hurt you.” This seems odd, as Sall was endorsed by all opposition parties, notably by the Socialist Party (PS), which held power from 1960 to 2000, and today is led by Ousmane Tanor Dieng. Sall was also supported by l’Alliance des Forces de Progrès (AFP), which split off from the PS, and is chaired by political heavyweight Moustapha Niasse.

After the elections, President Sall secured the loyalty of his allies by giving them positions as the heads of national institutions, ministries, executive bodies or agencies, and boards of directors. Niasse was elected President of the National Assembly for two successive terms, and then appointed Personal Representative of the Head of State. The secretary of the PS, Dieng, was first a close colleague of Sall’s and was later appointed Chairman of the High Council of Territorial Authorities. Niasse and Dieng were expected to quash any desire from within their respective parties to mount a challenge to President Sall’s leadership.

Where this did not succeed, court cases were supposed to eliminate Sall’s competitors. One example is Dakar’s mayor Khalifa Sall from the PS, who was caught up in a scandal linked to the embezzlement of impress funds. In 2017, Khalifa Sall was sentenced to five years in prison with a fine of 5 million CFA francs for fraud, embezzlement of public funds, forgery and forging administrative papers, and complicity in the forgery of business records. The aim was to ensure that his candidacy for the 2019 election would be rejected. The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the Senegalese state for the numerous violations of Khalifa Sall’s rights in 2018.

Prior to the Khalifa Sall scandal, there was also the case against Karim Wade, a former minister who was influential and powerful during the reign of his father, President Abdoulaye Wade. Karim Wade was sentenced to six years in prison and a fine of 138 billion CFA francs by a special court called the La Cour de Répression de l’Enrichissement Illicite (CREI), which was reconvened for this case in 2012 following a 30-year hiatus.

This court is highly problematic regarding the principles that guarantee a fair trial, amongst others because is reverses the burden of proof. This is why, in 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Karim Wade’s imprisonment to be arbitrary and called on the Senegalese government to take the necessary measures to remedy the situation and conform to international human rights standards.

An Uncontested Election

In addition to the elimination of the two opposition politicians, to facilitate his re-election in 2019, President Sall imposed a sponsorship system. This requires candidates to receive 0.8 to 1 percent of votes from registered voters to become an official candidate, which led to the exclusion of 22 candidates under opaque conditions. In April 2021, the ECOWAS Court of Justice ruled that sponsorship was illegal because it violated the principle of free participation in elections. The court gave the Senegalese state six months from the date of the notification to comply with the decision, but the state has been slow to implement it.

From the five candidates shortlisted for the 2019 presidential election, three have been eliminated: Idrissa Seck re-joined President Sall’s camp in November 2020, Madické Niang abandoned politics at the recommendation of his religious advisor, and Issa Sall joined the government, acting as minister-counsellor. Macky Sall became president, and thus only Ousmane Sonko continues to present any opposition.

When institutions are manipulated for political, personal, and partisan interests, feelings of distrust and scorn for them develop, particularly among young people, who make up the largest population bracket.

Sonko is a tax and property inspector who created and led the Syndicat Des Agents Des Impôts et Domaines before founding his party, Patriotes africains du Sénégal Pour le Travail, l’Éthique et la Fraternité (PASTEF), in 2014. Disbarred from the civil service in 2016 for failing to uphold his obligation to professional discretion, Sonko took part in the 2017 parliamentary elections, winning the only seat for the coalition he leads. Sonko came in third in the 2019 presidential election with 15.67 percent of the vote, behind Idrissa Seck and the re-elected Macky Sall.

To reinforce his personal power, President Sall abolished the position of Prime Minister in May 2019, immediately after his re-election.

The Sonko Affair

The scandals involving Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall have led to the widespread perception that the justice system is rigged to remove political adversaries — an idea that has been reinforced by the legal setbacks of Sall’s most popular opponent. In fact, when Adji Sarr, a young woman employed at a massage parlour Ousmane Sonko used to frequent called Sweet Beauty, accused him of rape and death threats in February 2021, he and his supporters claimed that he was the victim of a plot hatched by the regime to remove him from the 2024 presidential election.

As a result of clashes between his followers and the police, Ousmane Sonko was arrested on his way to court in March 2021 for endangering public security. This in turn led to violent demonstrations in Dakar and many other towns across the country. The gendarmerie fired live ammunition on protestors: 14 people were killed, 590 injured, gendarmerie barracks and battalions were attacked, public buildings were ransacked, and supermarkets and petrol stations were looted. Religious and community leaders were able to calm the situation through mediation.

In local elections on 23 January 2022, the opposition coalition Yewwi Askan Wi (Liberate the People) under Sonko’s leadership won six departments and the cities of Dakar, Rufisque, Guédiawaye, and Thiès. The trend was confirmed at the legislative elections on 31 July 2022, when President Sall won by an extremely slim majority with support from 83 out of 165 MPs.

Sonko’s growing popularity makes him a difficult opponent for the current government, meaning that one case follows another. Court proceedings have led to police violence against Sonko and his supporters. PASTEF leaders, activists, and sympathizers have been arrested, imprisoned, placed under judicial supervision, or fitted with ankle bracelets, as have sympathetic journalists, activists, columnists, influencers, and other vocal supporters.

A National Dialogue?

In order to contain the tensions, President Sall resolved to set up a national dialogue, which was apparently an amalgamation of the traditional political forces, especially the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) and the breakaway fringe of the PS, personified by Khalifa Sall. Together they were to act against Sonko, who refused dialogue with his party because of the ongoing arrests.

Thanks to the dialogue, which began on 31 May 2023, Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall are now eligible again, while Sonko’s situation seems to have been left out. Idrissa Seck also benefited from the dialogue, which made him leader of the opposition, ending the controversy over whether he or Sonko could claim that role. During the dialogue, the procedure for the sponsorship system for the presidential elections was also revised.

Through the national dialogue, the political elite has managed to break the opposition coalition Yewwi Askan Wi — particularly by exploiting deep differences between Sonko’s PASTEF and Khalifa Sall’s Taxawu Senegaal. PASTEF MPs did not vote for the bill which enabled Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall to take part in elections and even challenged it before the Constitutional Council, without success.

Sonko Knocked Out

Sonko refused to attend the trial involving Adji Sarr on 23 May 2023. On 1 June 2023, the verdict was announced: while Sonko was acquitted of the death threats charge, the charge of rape was reduced to corruption of a minor, for which Sonko was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. This sentence is widely viewed as unjust, and as an attempt to remove Sonko from the 2024 election.

The country was set ablaze by violent demonstrations in the wake of the verdict. Demonstrations on 1–2 June officially resulted in 16 deaths, 500 arrests, and extensive damage including the ransacking of banks, particularly in the suburbs, and the vandalization of public and private property including the rapid transit bus system and regional express trains. The radio station Wal Fadjri had its transmission cut off, and mobile internet was also cut.

The regime justified the repression on the grounds of keeping the peace and protecting national institutions. But when institutions are manipulated for political, personal, and partisan interests, feelings of distrust and scorn for them develop, particularly among young people, who make up the largest population bracket. This reinforces the tension in the country.

Sonko was arrested on 28 July 2023. The following day, the prosecutor announced at a press conference that Sonko was charged with incitement to riot, criminal association, endangering state security, conspiracy against state authority, acts and manoeuvres intended to endanger public security and cause serious political unrest, criminal association in connection with a terrorist enterprise and the theft of a police officer’s mobile phone, who refused to delete photographs of him. His PASTEF party was placed under arrest and dissolved by the investigating magistrate on 31 July 2023. The Home Minister’s notice cited the following reasons:

The PASTEF political party, through its leaders and committees, has frequently incited its supporters to riot, resulting in serious consequences, including numerous deaths, many injured, and looting and destruction of public and private property. The most recent serious disturbances to law and order occurred in the first week of June 2023, following those that occurred in March 2021.

In prison, Ousmane Sonko went on hunger strike, which has continued ever since. Very weakened, he was admitted to the main hospital. His lawyers have raised concerns about the state of his health.

Currently, it looks as if Sonko will not be able to contest the 2024 elections. Different opinions exist on the interpretation of the Code of Criminal Procedure on the violation of the obligation to be present at a court ruling. The prosecution insists that the person convicted in absentia can be deprived of their rights.

Based on this tendentious interpretation of the legal provisions, Sonko was removed from the electoral lists. As he is now neither eligible to vote nor to be elected, he cannot run in the 2024 presidential elections. In light of this, the discontent of many Senegalese remains high.

The situation remains tense for other reasons. President Sall’s announcement that he will not stand again in 2024 and his difficulties in nominating a candidate in his grand coalition creates a delicate political situation for the ruling majority. Add to this a worsening political climate, in which the cost of living is rising, migration is claiming many victims in the ocean or in the desert, and poverty is on the rise. Furthermore, there is massive youth unemployment and intrigues over the exploitation of gas and oil resources. All this, together with increasing terrorism in the region and sporadic violence, stokes latent political tension.

By Joy

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