/ 7 February 2024

Democracy at the crossroads: Unravelling the political turmoil in Senegal

Senegal president Macky Sall.
Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who rejected pursuing a third term, symbolised a commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

In the aftermath of coups in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, resulting in their departure from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who rejected pursuing a third term, symbolised a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. 

His decision not to participate in the 2024 election eased concerns about democratic erosion. But these fears resurfaced during a speech on 3 February when Sall, just hours before the commencement of election campaigns, abruptly reversed course, postponing elections indefinitely, depriving more than 18 million Senegalese of their right to vote, without legal backing. 

The president cited a lack of clarity over the presidential candidate list and abolished a measure from November 2023, which had established the election date as 25 February. 

This was bolstered by Senegal’s parliament which voted on 5 February to postpone the election by 10 months to 15 December 2024 in a chaotic session that saw opposition lawmakers being kicked out.

Sall’s decision is particularly concerning in a region grappling with coups, where similar interference with the constitution and polls has led to military overthrow. His move has triggered debates on whether it amounts to a civilian coup, prompting questions for the African Union and Ecowas regarding the application of instruments prohibiting unconstitutional changes of government. 

Senegal faces new challenges and threats to its democratic norms because of Sall’s indefinite postponement of the poll. While Ecowas and the AU have urged the president to uphold the country’s long-standing democratic tradition and called on competent national authorities to promptly organise elections with transparency, peace and national harmony, the country is already in chaos, with Senegalese taking to the streets to protest against their disenfranchisement.

Amid the protests against Sall’s decisions, Senegal’s overall democratic standing, as indicated by various democracy indices, remains relatively high. The Varieties of Democracy 2023 V-Dem report positions Senegal in the top 30% to 40% of the most democratic countries in Africa, alongside Malawi, Lesotho, Liberia and Botswana. Furthermore, Senegal secured the 57th position out of 179 on the liberal democracy index, its ranking preceding Namibia (59) and succeeding Malawi (56).

Designated as an electoral democracy since 1983, Senegal was among the earliest African nations classified as such by V-Dem, following Mauritius and Botswana. Among V-Dem’s five democracy-related indices, Senegal holds the highest rank in the electoral democracy index, signifying strengths in free and fair elections, an open civil society space, universal adult suffrage, and protections for citizens’ freedom of association and expression

The nation has also been noted for the freedom for opposition parties to form and organise, albeit more pronounced before recent developments with Sonko’s Liberate the People coalition.

Another significant aspect of Senegal’s democratic strength lies in the electorate’s unwavering support for democratic norms. According to Afrobarometer’s round 9 survey (2021/2023), 84% of respondents expressed a preference for democracy over any other form of government. 

This enduring support for democracy among Senegalese has persisted over time. Despite Sall entertaining the idea of running for a third term, generating media frenzy and criticism from democracy defenders, he, in a live speech in July 2023, pledged to concede power. This capitulation was possibly in response to the will of the people, approximately 80% of whom support term limits according to Afrobarometer data. Moreover, over 80% of respondents favour regular, open, and honest elections as the method for selecting the nation’s leaders.

Historically, Senegal has been widely praised for fostering an independent media environment, setting it apart from its sub-regional counterparts. Over the past decade, there has been a notable surge in the establishment of independent television and radio stations, along with various print outlets. However, recent actions undertaken by the Sall administration have significantly impeded this progress. 

On 5 February, in response to citizen demonstrations, the Senegalese government imposed a temporary shutdown of mobile internet services, marking the third such suspension within a mere nine months — an authoritarian move reminiscent of previous instances. Notably, in June of the preceding year, mobile internet access was cut for over a week following protests related to Sonko’s imprisonment.

This alarming pattern of internet suppression reflects the growing challenges to civic technology and digital engagement in Senegal and Africa as a whole. The escalation of digital repression and the constricting civic space is evident, with internet shutdowns serving as a direct response to activism. Compounding these concerns is the suspension of Walf TV, accused by the government of inciting violence during its coverage of protests. The collective impact of internet and alternative media bans heightens apprehensions about the erosion of democratic principles in Senegal. 

The recent instances of internet shutdowns have triggered widespread outrage among concerned netizens, who are using social media platforms and hashtags such as #FreeSenegal and #KeepItOn to express their dissent. 

This trend not only impedes citizen activism but also undermines a crucial element in fostering public awareness of governance issues. The restrictions hinder the mechanisms for collective mobilisation, obstruct dialogue between citizens and elected officials, impede the demand for transparency in the operations of public institutions, and hinder the reinvention of forms of citizen action.

Sonko’s disqualification, attacks on media freedom and information access, and Sall and parliament’s decision to indefinitely postpone elections all raise serious questions about the integrity of the electoral process and the overall commitment to democratic principles in the country. These recent events highlight the fragility of democratic institutions and processes in the face of executive decisions that undermine established norms. Despite Senegal’s historically strong democratic standing, the recent events suggest a worrisome trend that threatens the country’s democratic gains. 

The commitment of the electorate to democratic values, as indicated by surveys and data from V-Dem and Afrobarometer, contrasts sharply with the actions of the political leadership, creating a dissonance that may impact the country’s democratic reputation.

As Senegal grapples with political uncertainty, the need for upholding democratic values, transparent electoral processes, and protection of political freedoms becomes more crucial than ever. The unfolding events in Senegal serve as a stark reminder that even in established democracies, the fragility of democratic institutions requires constant vigilance and commitment to democratic ideals.

Nyasha Mpani is the project leader for the Data for Governance Alliance Project at the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation based in Cape Town. Amara Galileo is a PhD candidate of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware in the US.