Avoiding the worst-case scenario in Senegal

2023-06-22

President Macky Sall’s upcoming address to Senegalese citizens will be critical to easing deep-seated political tensions that have thrown the country into chaos. He will speak to the nation when the current national dialogue is concluded, at the latest on 25 June. With Senegal’s presidential polls scheduled for February 2024, the dialogue must make headway on resolving the country’s problems.

Tensions boiled over when Sall’s main political opponent, Ousmane Sonko, was sentenced on 1 June for corrupting the youth. The Criminal Court’s decision sparked violent protests in which at least 16 people were killed and over 300 injured. Sonko’s arrest two years earlier while attending a court summons resulted in similar violence that led to 14 deaths and the destruction of public and private property.

This is Sall’s third dialogue since he came to power. Those held in 2016 and 2019 were boycotted by some of the opposition and failed to reach consensus on institutional reforms or resolve differences over the electoral process.

The Forces vives du Sénégal (F24), a platform of around 100 representatives of civil society organisations and political parties opposed to Sall’s candidacy, are boycotting the current dialogue. This could jeopardise the chances of reaching an agreement.

Persistent ambiguities around a possible Sall candidacy would exacerbate tensions

The talks began the day before the violent demonstrations, and aimed to discuss 47 major issues relating to the country’s future. However, for Senegalese citizens, three of these are the most pressing.

The first relates to Sall’s silence on his potential candidacy in 2024. He was elected in 2012 for a seven-year term under the 2001 constitution, which limited presidential terms to two. To keep his campaign promise of reducing his seven-year tenure to five years, he included the reduction of the presidential term in the draft revision of the constitution in 2016.

However, when Sall asked the Constitutional Court for an advisory opinion, it ruled that the new law on the length of the president’s tenure couldn’t apply to the first term. His supporters interpreted the court ruling as setting the record straight, with the first seven-year period in office being outside the scope of the term limits, therefore giving him another term.

Their call for another term is at odds with the opposition’s interpretation of the new provision, and is opposed by many Senegalese and civil society organisations. For the latter, the revision relates to the duration of terms of office and not term limits, which have been in place since a 2001 referendum. That would mean Sall reached the constitutional limit of two terms after his re-election in 2019.

The current crisis offers an opportunity to resolve differences surrounding the electoral process

Persistent ambiguities around a possible Sall candidacy would exacerbate tensions. An attempted third-term bid by then president Abdoulaye Wade in 2012 plunged the country into violence, leading to 12 deaths.

The second key issue covered in the dialogue is the opposition’s call to abolish or revise the sponsorship system adopted in 2018. The law requires candidates to collect sponsorship from at least 0.8% and at most 1% of registered voters, from at least seven of Senegal’s 14 regions.

The transparency of the system, from the collection phase to the verification of the number of sponsorships, has been a point of contention as illustrated during the 2019 and 2022 polls. Consensus on the practical arrangements would avoid questions about the credibility of the bodies involved or whether the electoral process is sincere and inclusive.

Inclusivity in the 2024 elections is the third issue the dialogue must resolve. This pertains particularly to the participation of the main opposition figures – Karim Wade, Khalifa Sall and Sonko. The 2018 electoral reforms require a political candidate to be a voter and not subject to ineligibility penalties that disqualify citizens convicted of particular crimes.

Any scenario in which a major opposition figure is again excluded from the presidential race could lead to violence

Neither Wade nor Khalifa Sall could run in the 2019 presidential polls following their conviction for unlawful enrichment and fraud involving public funds, respectively. Both have declared their candidacy for the 2024 elections, but their eligibility remains uncertain.

Sonko was sentenced on appeal to a six-month suspended prison sentence for defamation and public insult on 8 May and to two years imprisonment on 1 June on charges of corrupting young people. This could jeopardise his presidential run next year.

The violence in early June, images of which were widely circulated on social media, not only revealed the depth of Senegal’s political crisis but showed the entrenched positions of both the government and opposition. This could damage Senegal’s reputation for stability and democratic resilience in West Africa.

The country’s religious leaders have intervened to help reduce tensions and continue the talks. But it is up to the political actors to create, through the dialogue, the conditions for peaceful and inclusive presidential elections.

None of the main declared opposition candidates is certain to take part in the election at this stage, due to court convictions and the uncertainty surrounding sponsorship. Against this backdrop of tension and mistrust, any scenario in which a major opposition figure is once again excluded from the presidential race could lead to violence.

The current crisis offers an opportunity to resolve differences surrounding the electoral process, specifically concerns about a possible Sall candidacy, sponsorship and the civil rights of key opposition figures.

As the guarantor of the country’s stability, the president’s statement on these three issues will be decisive. Failure to resolve them would effectively mean the failure of the national dialogue. Subsequent tensions could plunge Senegal into a pre-electoral crisis with unforeseeable consequences.

Paulin Maurice Toupane, Senior Researcher and Aïssatou Kanté, Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

Image: © John Wessels / AFP

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