Macky Sall Bring the Electoral Process to a Halt and Drown Senegal into a Major Political Crisis

15 février 2024
By Martin Mourre, Researcher affiliated to the Institut des mondes africains (IMAF)

For the past ten days, since President Macky Sall announced the postponement of the presidential election, Senegal has been living in uncertain times[1]. On Saturday 3 February, on the eve of the start of the presidential campaign, Macky Sall decided to abrogate the 25 February ballot by decree. The deputies met on Sunday and the following Monday to vote, in a surreal atmosphere in which opposition deputies were expelled from the Assembly by the GIGN and did not take part in the vote, on a law setting 15 December as the date for the first round of the presidential election. They thus extended the term of office of the current tenant of the Avenue Roume palace. In his address to the nation on 3 February, President Sall argued that there was a « dispute » between different institutional bodies, the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council, which risked creating « pre- and post-election disputes ». This dispute stems from the Constitutional Council’s invalidation of the candidacy of Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, on the grounds of dual nationality. It was only a few days earlier, on 16 January, at his request, that this French nationality was in fact withdrawn from him, but after Wade had declared in mid-December that he only possessed Senegalese nationality, the condition required to stand for the supreme magistracy before the Senegalese people. The Constitutional Council therefore considered this to be a case of perjury, while on 24 January his party, the Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS), referred the matter to a parliamentary committee of enquiry into suspicions of corruption concerning two judges on the Constitutional Council. However, proven perjury should have automatically disqualified Karim Wade and cut short any recriminations. Finally, on 2 February, another candidate’s dual nationality was revealed. On Saturday 3 February, faced with these various episodes, Macky Sall announced the suspension of the electoral process, arguing that « while it still bears the scars of the violent demonstrations of March 2021 and June 2023, our country cannot afford another crisis ». Yet the crisis has never been as deep as it was on 3 February.

President Sall’s decision to suspend the electoral process stunned all those who follow Senegalese politics. Yet it was not so surprising, given the warning signs, and must be seen in the context of a protean history of state repression. The violence of March 2021 and June 2023 to which Macky Sall refers was the result of a merciless struggle between him and a new player in the political arena: Ousmane Sonko. Sonko, who came third in the 2019 presidential elections with nearly 15% of the vote, has gradually been able to rally around himself and his party, the Parti africain sénégalais pour le travail, l’éthique et la fraternité (PASTEF), various social and political forces which were reflected electorally in 2022 with major successes in local and then legislative elections where, as part of an inter-coalition including, ironically, the PDS, PASTEF almost found itself in a position to win and govern[2]. PASTEF’s success can be explained by the continuing deterioration in the living conditions of the majority of Senegal’s population, who are not seeing the fruits of the growth that the government is promoting. Since March 2021, the debates that should be taking place – economic, social, security and international policy debates – have been largely overshadowed by the single legal debate concerning an accusation of rape brought against Ousmane Sonko. While he was due to be heard by the Senegalese courts, his supporters are rising up against what they consider to be an attempt to eliminate their leader. From 3 to 9 March 2021, the country embraced itself and 14 people were killed. In June 2023, Ousmane Sonko was finally sentenced in this case, known as the Adji Sarr case after the complainant, to two years in prison, not for rape but for « corruption of youth »[3]. On this occasion, a large section of young people once again mobilised and were brutally repressed. A total of 29 people were killed, both in working-class neighbourhoods in Dakar and its greater metropolitan area, and in Ziguinchor in Casamance[4]. The vast majority of these deaths in March 2021 and June 2023 – and on several occasions in 2022, bringing the total to almost 50 – were caused by live ammunition. These deaths, often attributed to police officers, gendarmes or riot police close to the government, have been documented[5], to the extent that they are currently the subject of a request for investigation by the International Criminal Court. By cancelling the elections of 25 February 2024, Macky Sall is aware that he is running the risk of further bloodshed. Three more people died on 9 and 10 February: Alpha Yoro Tounkara, a 22-year-old student at the Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, Modou Gueye, a 23-year-old street vendor who died in Dakar, and Landing Diedhiou, an 18-year-old secondary school student who died in Ziguinchor. On 13 February, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office said it was « deeply concerned by the tense situation in Senegal ». These acts of violence are clearly intended to intimidate other demonstrators and reflect a more general deterioration in the conditions in which democracy is exercised, whether in terms of freedom of the press, where, according to the annual Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranking, the country has fallen from 47th place in 2020 to 104th place in 2023 out of 180 countries[6], or the recent alert from Human Right Watch (HRW) recalling the more than 1,000 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience held in the country’s prisons[7].

Ten days after Macky Sall’s institutional coup de force, Senegal is at a crossroads. Two questions arise: when and how will the President leave power? Although they do not foreshadow a similar trajectory for the country, several recent scenarios of postponed elections or violations of institutions can be evoked. The first comes to mind in neighbouring Guinea, where after a constitutional amendment in 2020 that allowed him to stand for re-election and win a third term, Alpha Condé was ousted by the army a year later. The same cause but different effects in Côte d’Ivoire, where President Ouattara, citing a « case of force majeure », stood for re-election in 2020 and is due to complete his term by 2025. Also in West Africa, in 2017, the Gambian Yahya Jammeh, defeated in the elections but refusing to recognise the result, was finally ousted by military pressure from several West African countries, led by Senegal. An almost identical situation occurred in the United States on 6 January 2021, with the storming of the Capitol where President Donald Trump refused to accept his defeat – a reminder, if any were needed, of the extent to which attacks on democratic rights are a major trend of our time on a global scale. Finally, let us cite one last example, the most dramatic but perhaps one of the closest in form to what happened on 3 February in Dakar. In 1992, in Algeria, the government halted the electoral process when it was well under way – in this case the second round of legislative elections, when the opposition, embodied by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), had won the first round. This was followed by a black decade that claimed tens of thousands of victims. All these situations obviously have their particularities and comparison is not reason, but it is true to say that Senegal is at a crossroads in its trajectory. President Sall will have to leave the palace sooner or later, whether it is on 2 April, when he was originally scheduled to hand over power, which is what the opposition is now calling for; whether it is after a new presidential election, which would take place in December, according to the provisions adopted last week by the National Assembly – even if appeals have been lodged by the opposition; in a few years’ time, after a new term in office or through a constitutional amendment linked to an emergency situation – something that many analysts are beginning to talk about and fear; or because a series of events will force him to do so. The historians of the future will have to analyse the underlying reasons for the institutional coup d’état of 3 February, and ask themselves when President Sall came up with the idea of postponing the presidential election, who in his inner circle might have supported the idea, and how such a plan was hatched. Today, in the examination of when and how Macky Sall will leave power, much of the foundations of what the Senegalese Republic has been since its creation in 1960 are at stake.


[1] This text was written on Sunday 4 February, and as the situation evolves daily, it is possible that some of the elements developed here will quickly become obsolete.

[2] Martin Mourre, « Élections législatives au Sénégal : recomposition du parlement et enjeux pour la démocratie », IRIS, 19 August 2022.

[3] In a separate case, Ousmane Sonko was convicted of defaming the Minister of Tourism. This sentence became final after an appeal, and it was this conviction that led to the Constitutional Council invalidating his candidacy for the presidential election. PASTEF was nevertheless able to put forward another candidate in the person of Bassirou Diomaye Faye who, according to polls circulating informally – official polls are banned in Senegal – was likely to win the election, which was the real reason for Macky Sall’s decision to postpone the election.

[4] This figure is not the result of an official assessment, but of a journalistic investigation that also identified and named the victims, see Clair Rivière, « Au Sénégal, des visages et des noms sur les morts de la répression », Afrique XXI, 9 February 2024. The journalistic project, CartografreeSenegal, by the collective La Maison des Reporters, can be consulted here.

[6] Reporters Without Borders, « World Press Freedom Index 2023 ».

[7] Human Right Watch, « Sénégal : Répression pré-électorale », 22 January 2024.


Translated by Deepl.
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