DAKAR, SENEGAL - FEBRUARY 09: Protesters barricade a street by burning wood, tires and using iron panels as they gather at the Nation Square to stage protest against postponement of presidential election in Dakar, Senagal on February 09, 2024. Following the intervention of security forces during the protest, demonstrators set fire to many vehicles in the region and set up barricades by burning tires in some streets. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu via Getty Images)
President Macky Sall’s decision to postpone Senegal’s presidential elections left many of his international allies stammering for a response.
The country is one of Africa’s strongest democracies. Last July, Sall bowed to pressure not to run again after serving his two terms. All seemed set for the people
to elect his successor from a pool of 20 candidates on 25 February.
Then he had another thought.
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) initially put out a statement asking Senegalese authorities to set a new date, apparently agreeing with
Sall’s Saturday decree. But the bloc made a quick about-turn, issuing a second statement calling for a return to the original electoral timetable.
In a similar show of vacillation, the European Union supported Ecowas’s first statement only to issue another statement of its own on 7 February, warning that
“the postponement tarnishes Senegal’s long tradition of democracy and opens up a period of great uncertainty”.
The African Union asked “the competent national authorities to organise the elections as soon as possible in a spirit of transparency, peace and national harmony”, more or less repeating Sall’s own words.
In Senegal, Sall’s move was not as mystifying.
Analysts and people on the street echo each other in saying Sall’s action has a lot to do with the fact that Senegal is on the verge of becoming an oil and gas giant.
Between 2014 and 2016, during Sall’s tenure that began in 2012, Senegal discovered oil and gas that could earn the country $1.5 billion from exports in the first three years of production.
“Whoever gets to run the country will have the upper hand regarding how to manage the resources,” says Marc-Andre Coly*, a lecturer at a university in Dakar. This is partly “why people are motivated in taking part in the elections not as voters but as candidates”, he said.
Seventy-nine people put their names forward to run for the presidency, each paying the 30 million CFA ($49 000) required to apply.
Moussa Ndiaye*, a street trader in Dakar, echoed Coly. “They want to make money with oil and they will keep it for themselves.”
Sall maintains his promise not to run in the election but his chosen successor,
Prime Minister Amadou Ba, is not popular. Of the other candidates who expected to run on 25 February, Karim Wade is popular and, crucially, not hostile to Sall, unlike Bassirou Diomaye Faye, another strong contender.
Faye is the candidate from the party of Ousmane Sonko, the opposition figure who has been prosecuted several times and ultimately disqualified from running.
But on 20 January, when the Constitutional Council, which vets and validates electoral candidates, released the final list of 20, Wade’s name was missing.
The son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, he was born in Paris to a French mother and the council found that he was a dual France-Senegal citizen at the time of registering his candidacy. The law requires presidential candidates to hold Senegalese citizenship and none other.
A row erupted between the council and MPs in Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS). The legislators accused the seven judges on the council of having “dubious connections” and “conflict of interest”. A parliamentary inquiry into the MPs’ accusations was set up.
Officially Sall is postponing the election to allow this conflict time to resolve. But some see his own self-interest playing a part.
Speaking anonymously, a political analyst in Senegal said the president escalated the row to a crisis because the ruling party faced the prospect of losing. A delay would buy it time to find a more suitable candidate or negotiate a backroom agreement with Wade — if he can get back on the ballot. On 16 January, days before the final candidate list was released, France formally stripped Wade of his French citizenship. With an ally in the presidential mansion, Sall and his party won’t be cut off from the oil and gas windfall.
While described by some as a “constitutional coup”, the postponement now has the legal dressing it needs to be formal. MPs heatedly debated it into Monday night, with some being forcibly ejected from the parliamentary chambers, and eventually voted to delay the elections until 15 December. No party has an absolute majority in parliament, but the alliance between the ruling party, Benno Bokk Yaakaar, and Wade’s PDS was sufficient.
But outside the corridors of power “there’s a fog around the alliances and the deals that are taking place. Therefore everything is difficult to understand,” said Coly. He has decided not to vote. “That in itself is a statement. I feel utter disgust regarding politics.”
Regardless of where the chips may fall, Ndiaye is planning to leave the continent because money is tight for people like him and he does not believe the oil and gas windfall will change that.
“Whether it’s Sall or Wade or whoever, I am struggling. They are wasting time and
making noise,” he said.
Tensions remain high in the capital. In WhatsApp messages, civil society groups have called for “civil disobedience” including a halt to economic and educational activities. On the streets around the National Assembly building are groups of heavily armed security enforcers and any hint of a growing gathering has been met with tear gas.
*Names have been changed
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here