/ 6 April 2024

Bassirou Diomaye Faye’s rise to power and the quest for systemic change

Inauguration Of Senegal's New President Bassirou Diomaye Faye
Bassirou Diomaye Faye, Senegal's president, speaks during his inauguration ceremony in Diamniadio, Senegal, on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. Senegal's opposition politician Faye was sworn in as president on Tuesday, becoming the youngest elected African leader less than three weeks after he was released from prison to run in the election last month. Photographer: Annika Hammerschlag/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In Senegal, it took less than 24 hours after the closing of the polling stations to get the outcome of the presidential election held on Sunday, 24 March. Against all odds, the anti-system opposition candidate, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, designated successor of the leader of the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (Pastef), Ousmane Sonko, emerged victorious in the first round. 

The victory was acknowledged the day after the election by Amadou Ba, the ruling party candidate, and President Faye assumed office less than a week later, becoming the fifth and youngest president to rule in Senegal. He promised systemic economic changes and the restoration of state capacity.

The newly elected president boasts extensive field expertise in finance and state capacity. Following his graduation from the National School of Administration, he embarked on a distinguished career within the prestigious National Tax Administration. It was during this time that he was introduced to Pastef by his tax colleague and future political mentor, Sonko, at the Gym club. Their discussions revolved around dismantling the CFA franc financial system, implementing governance reforms, and advocating for economic protectionism. 

The two men shared the belief that the partnership with France needed to be renegotiated and saw the emergence of a petroleum economy as an opportunity to propel Senegalese economic independence to new heights.

Sonko emerged as the natural leader of the newly formed party, Pastef, with Faye poised to become one of his closest friends and allies. Established in 2014, Pastef began to capture the imagination of urban youth, gaining popularity rapidly. Faye operated behind the scenes, serving as the party’s secretary-general, known for skillfully balancing various factions within the party. He excelled as a party organiser, governing through consensus-building and compromise.

The party’s rapid growth was unstoppable and posed a threat to the legacy of the “Liberal family”, in power in Dakar since 2000. President Macky Sall took this threat seriously and weaponised the judicial system to imprison the party leadership and over a thousand of his supporters. Sonko was jailed in July 2023, forfeiting his eligibility to qualify for the presidential race. Faye became Pastef’s “Plan B”. He assumed leadership of the party, preserved its unity and kept the flame burning.

Many believed that Pastef and Senegal’s democratic exceptionalism were dead. Senegal has been embroiled in the same historical turmoil as its fellow West African neighbours, sharing similar political, economic and demographic realities. However, Senegal has maintained solid democratic institutions, including a free press, an independent electoral commission, and a constitutional court. It has never experienced a military coup or an overstay in power. 

Since the 1990s and the emergence of “democracy without multiparty politics”, alongside the implementation of the IMF-driven neoliberal agenda, the Senegalese state — like many others in the continent — has followed the neoliberal mantra of growing strong with the weak and weak with the strong. The era of neoliberal reforms would result in 15 years of impressive annual GDP growth, and significantly transformed Senegalese infrastructure. 

However, only a small portion of the population experience the benefits. As in other neoliberal economies, the wealth created would mainly be captured by a tiny national bourgeoisie, and money would never trickle down from the top of the income pyramid to the bottom. 

Following trends seen in Dakar, Kampala and Abidjan, foreigners with access to international capital enjoy greater influence over the state than local citizens. Multinationals have found it relatively easy to navigate tax exemptions, secure state protection and funnel wealth out of the country — illustrating the dynamic of “weak with the strong”. 

Conversely, citizens have witnessed the collapse of state service delivery in areas such as education or food subsidies, while policing capacity has been bolstered both domestically (against political opposition) and at the borders (to curb migration to the European Union) — highlighting the dynamic of “strong with the weak”.

It should come as no surprise that West African youth have strongly welcomed military coups in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. They are more likely to support strong rulers than an ineffective neoliberal democracy. Many in West Africa believe that reclaiming their national sovereignty cannot be achieved with the same governing class responsible for these failures.

To break away from the neocolonial “pact”, Senegal has opted for democratic tools, marking a first in the region and potentially setting a continental precedent. In his inauguration speech on 2 April, President Faye pledged to use these tools to effect systemic change. His call to regulate foreign capital interests should be regarded with careful consideration.

Dakar could emerge as an exciting laboratory where democratic solutions are being developed—a rallying cry to reconsider youth inclusion in neoliberal economy, depart from the CFA to set independent monetary policy, and negotiate financial sovereignty with international institutions.

Thomas Lesaffre is a politics and governance lecturer and a Kampala base freelance journalist.