/ 3 February 2024

Senegal election still anyone’s game

Senegal Politics Vote Ba
Not guaranteed: Prime Minister Amadou Ba is the ruling party’s presidential candidate for the February 2024 presidential election, after President Macky Sall said he would not seek a third term. Photo: Seyllou/AFP

Under the watchful eye of the international community, Senegal — often held up as a bastion of stability in coup-hit West Africa — is preparing for a potentially fraught presidential election.

No clear frontrunner has yet emerged in the 25 February vote, with an unprecedented 20 candidates in the running including an imprisoned anti-establishment contender.

Fears of pre-election violence have not materialised despite a turbulent candidate validation process and the elimination from the race of prominent opposition figures Ousmane Sonko and Karim Wade. But tensions persist just days before campaigning officially begins on 4 February.

“I think I’ll be elected in the first round on February 25,” Prime Minister Amadou Ba told French news networks France 24 and Radio France Internationale.

Ba was chosen by President Macky Sall as his successor after Sall announced in July that he would not seek a third term — making this the first Senegalese election without an incumbent standing.

Analysts agree that neither Ba, a continuity candidate, nor any other of the hopefuls are guaranteed a place in the second round. 

“This is the most open election” of the 12 presidential votes held under universal suffrage since Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, said Sidy Diop, deputy editor of Le Soleil daily newspaper.

The eventual outcome is just one of the unknowns in a keenly watched election at home and abroad.

Senegal is among the bottom 30 countries in the world on the United Nations Human Development Index but is due to start producing hydrocarbons this year.

Despite a growing trend in the surrounding region, Senegal has never experienced a military coup, leading Western powers to praise its stability, democracy and history of peaceful power transfers.

But, since 2021, Senegal has witnessed often deadly unrest caused by the bitter stand-off between the state and opposition firebrand Ousmane Sonko. The violent episodes have led to dozens of deaths and hundreds of arrests.

Human Rights Watch and others have denounced Senegal’s repression of opposition leaders, the media and civil society — to which the government has responded that “all freedoms are exercised without hindrance”.

Sall has maintained strong ties with the West at a time when Russia’s influence is growing in the Sahel and nearby countries are battling jihadist insurgencies. But he has called for a diversification of partnerships and proclaimed that Africa’s place as Europe’s “private turf” is over. 

Sonko’s pan-Africanist rhetoric and tough stance on former colonial power France has also struck a chord with Senegal’s disaffected youth. Sonko, who came third in the 2019 presidential election, has been jailed since the end of July on a string of charges.

The Constitutional Council rejected his bid to run in February’s election but along with his dissolved party, Pastef, he has put forward a substitute candidate — Bassirou Diomaye Faye. 

Faye is also detained but his candidacy was approved by authorities, making him the first imprisoned hopeful to run in a Senegalese election. 

Analyst Sidy Diop listed Faye as among the favourites to win, along with Ba, former deputy minister and Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and others. But he said the turbulence brought about by the pro-Sonko camp might put voters off. 

“One of the problems with Pastef is that it is frightening” voters, Diop said, adding that “elections are won by the working classes” whose days are focused on finding work and income. 

“These classes need stability,” he said. 

Ba has lauded the achievements in office of the incumbent president Sall but said he needs to “do even better and even faster”.

The infrastructure projects undertaken by Sall’s government have not benefited everyone. His successor would inherit the legacy of the last few difficult years of Sall’s presidency, marked by Covid-19, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the departure of tens of thousands of Senegalese to Europe. 

Ba also faces significant challenges and rivals from within his own camp. Doubts about his ability to win have prompted speculation that those in power may wish to postpone the election. 

It comes as Wade, who was excluded from the presidential race, has called for an inquiry into the workings of Senegal’s Constitutional Council, the body which announces the winner of the election. 

Against all odds, MPs from the president’s party supported the move.

Working-class Senegalese voters said anonymously that they would not accept a postponement.

Gilles Yabi, executive director of the Wathi think-tank, instead anticipates possible “points of tension” when the results are announced. — AFP