/ 9 February 2024

Senegal crisis dents democracy and business, say Dakar residents

Police Intervene Against Opposition Supporters In Senegal
Delay: Supporters of opposition presidential candidates protest at the Saint-Lazare intersection in Dakar after the postponement of Senegal’s 25 February presidential election. Photo: Cem Ozdel/Getty Images

Sitting on top of piles of second-hand clothes in Dakar’s Colobane market, Assane Fall said he was “hurting” after the parliament’s decision to postpone Senegal’s presidential election.

Like many residents of the capital, Fall was proud of his country’s democratic principles, making it a peaceful outlier in coup-hit West Africa.

But Senegal is now in the grip of its worst crisis in decades after President Macky Sall on Saturday announced a delay to the 25 February vote.

It was a date that “belong[ed] to the people, the day on which they were supposed to choose their elected representative, but Macky Sall took it away from the 18  million Senegalese,” Fall said.

On Monday, MPs approved a delay until 15 December, paving the way for Sall to remain in office until his successor is installed, probably in 2025.

Sall said he postponed the vote because of a dispute between the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council over the rejection of candidates, and for fears of unrest as seen in 2021 and 2023.

But the opposition suspects the delay is part of a plan by the presidential camp to avoid defeat, or even to extend Sall’s term in office.

The move sparked widespread outcry, materialising into sporadic incidents on the streets, which were suppressed by security forces.

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do. When we demonstrate, we are put down with tear gas,” said Fall. 

His remarks garnered approving nods from fellow traders at the market, situated in a working-class district of the seaside capital. 

Monday’s bill was passed almost unanimously, but only after security forces stormed the parliamentary chamber and removed some opposition deputies, who were then unable to cast their votes.

While MPs were jostling in parliament, many traders in Dakar were shutting up shop for fear of riots, looting, fires or blockades.

The capital and wider country have experienced several bouts of unrest in recent years. 

In 2021 and 2023, violent protests left dozens killed, hundreds arrested and led to the closure of a university and the dissolution of anti-establishment party, Pastef.

For many living on the breadline, a day without work can mean a day with little to eat.

“I didn’t leave the house yesterday [Monday] because of the protests,” said Talla Sall, who sells packaging bags. “I’ve lost money”.

Shops began to slowly reopen on Tuesday at Sandaga market, another of the capital’s shopping hotspots.

But Moussa Seck, who was manning a stall offering a variety of services including cellphone money transfers, was adding up his losses.

The government early on Monday suspended cellphone internet access, citing the dissemination of “hateful and subversive messages” on social media.

“Yesterday was a dead day for us. Our work was hampered by the demonstrations and the cutting off of mobile data,” Seck said.

“Without data, customers can’t transfer money. I usually receive more than 100 customers a day. I didn’t even get half of them. It’s depressing because the customers still aren’t coming.”

Small traders and delivery drivers rely on social media for business and are acutely affected by restrictions on mobile internet access. Money transfers to the country from Senegalese living abroad also play a considerable economic and social role. 

Economic woes were compounded further by the authorities’ move to temporarily ban the use of mopeds and motorbikes in Dakar on Monday.

“Every time there’s political tension, it’s us deliverymen who suffer,” said Baye Cheikh Diouf. “I no longer have any confidence in the institutions.”

Clothes seller Abdoulaye Toure struck a more defiant note but couldn’t help drifting towards hopelessness. 

“We rely on God. We’re resilient. We do our duty. We work by the sweat of our brow. But it’s hard. People are beginning to lose hope,” he said. — AFP