Last week, Senegalese President Macky Sall postponed the country’s presidential elections, pushing them back from the scheduled date of Feb. 25 until December—the first time an election has been delayed since the country gained independence in 1960. To contain the sometimes violent unrest that has followed, Sall has banned protests and shut down mobile internet access. This authoritarian turn has plunged the West African nation into a crisis that threatens to bring an end to its historic status as a democratic bastion in the region. 

The crackdown follows months of machinations aimed at blocking the candidacy of Ousmane Sonko. An anti-establishment crusader and the mayor of Ziguinchor, in the southern region of Casamance, Sonko had already been barred from running as a result of political maneuvers by the Sall government. The official basis for this was a series of court proceedings against him on several trumped-up legal allegations. Last June, he was tried and sentenced in absentia to two years in jail on the obscure charge of “corruption of youth”—distinct from statutory rape—over an alleged relationship with a 20-year-old woman. In July, prosecutors brought further accusations against him, of inciting insurrection and endangering state security. 

Nevertheless, in December, a court in Dakar reinstated Sonko’s candidacy. But other maneuvers soon followed. On Jan. 5, a court upheld a defamation case against Sonko. On the same day, the constitutional court rejected his application to run for office, with the excuse that his paperwork wasn’t filled out correctly. A couple of weeks later, when the final list of candidates was published, Sonko’s name wasn’t on it, triggering the current wave of outrage. 

The election’s postponement has plunged Senegal into a crisis bigger than any of the previous few years. The annulment of elections is being challenged in court by a coalition of 11 candidates. Meanwhile, there are virtually daily riots across the country. The anger on display has been building for some time, coming after two years of protests against Sall’s alleged misappropriations of funds and the lockdown of the population during the pandemic. 

Sonko’s arrest and the obstruction of his candidacy are merely the latest stage of a blatant campaign of harassment and intimidation waged against opposition candidates. A news release from Human Rights Watch last month summed it up: At this point, as many as 1,000 opposition members, dissidents, and activists have been arrested around the country since March 2021. This is in addition to the legal dissolution of Sonko’s party, PASTEF, last July.    

By blocking Sonko, Senegal’s ruling elite is attempting to contain an upwelling of popular discontent that dates back to March 2021, driven by young people disaffected by the deep social and economic crisis afflicting the country—the worst in its independent history. Life in Senegal has become exorbitantly expensive since the 2020 lockdown, which saw nightly curfews, transport restrictions, and the closure of small industries in tourism and other sectors, many of which have never been able to reopen. The economy has tanked across all industries: micro-enterprises that were profitable before the pandemic (fishmongers, textile vendors, tailors) can no longer find customers. Many are now eating only once or twice a day. 

The resulting popular discontent propelled the 49-year-old Sonko to greater prominence. He began his career as a tax and estates inspector, and was head of the tax-auditing team responsible for the real-estate sector. His workplace didn’t have a union, so he created the Independent Union of Tax and Estates Workers, becoming its first general secretary from April 2005 to June 2012. But it wasn’t until 2016 that he first captured broad public attention for alleging serious fiscal and budget irregularities on the part of top officials. 

That was also when his troubles began. In 2016, he was fired by Sall’s government for dereliction of duty, which was widely reported in the media, identifying Sonko to the public as a thorn in the side of members of government. In 2018, he published his book, Pétrole et Gaz au Sénegal (“Oil and Gas in Senegal”), in which he accused the president and his allies of misappropriating the country’s natural resources. Journalists from the BBC came to Senegal to investigate; one of the individuals caught up in the scandal was Sall’s younger brother, accused of receiving $250,000 from a gas contract with BP. In 2022, Sonko was one of the most prominent figures who denounced the gross misappropriation of Covid funds for which senior politicians were investigated in December 2022. These exposés instilled a legitimate fear among the political class of its fate in the event of a Sonko government. 

Senegal’s elections hold major importance for West Africa, which has seen a series of coups in recent years. The country has distinguished itself for its open political and journalistic debate and frank exchange of views, and its peaceful transfers of power have long made it a beacon of democracy in the region. The Socialist Party held the presidency for 40 years, first under independence leader Léopold Sédar Senghor and then under his successor, Abdou Diouf. Power then passed peacefully to Diouf’s rival, Abdoulaye Wade, in the year 2000, when he defeated Diouf in that year’s elections. At the end of Wade’s term in 2012, Macky Sall took his place. All this happened without conflict—although the victory of Wade in 2000 did see some protests amid fears that Diouf might seek to steal the elections.

Widespread outrage over the country’s dire situation always made it unlikely that this year’s transfer of power would be as smooth as the previous ones. With the economy in freefall and young people increasingly radicalized against the establishment that has run Senegal for decades, the chances of Sall staying in power for a third term collapsed. In July 2023, the incumbent announced that he would cede his power in the next elections. But his protégé and handpicked successor, Prime Minister Amadou Ba, got off to a poor start in the polls as Sonko’s popularity rose, giving rise to the efforts to block the anti-graft crusader’s candidacy. 

When the crisis began to come to a head in January, Sonko remained calm. Over the last two months, barricaded in his cell, he made videos instructing on what to do should he not succeed in continuing his candidacy. In a video message to activists disseminated on Jan. 25, he accused Sall of spearheading a conspiracy against his candidacy. He then reorganized his campaign around his party ally, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, encouraging his supporters to vote for him. Sonko’s party, PASTEF, then called for a “sacred union of the entire opposition, of everyone who has been barred, [and] the nomination of an independent body to organize the elections.” Birame Souleye Diop, PASTEF’s vice president, told supporters that a vote for Faye was a vote for Sonko. “Stay united till Feb. 25” was the demand. 

“The entrenched elite seems willing to sacrifice democracy to remain in power.”

But the latest turn in this saga has punctured the hope that working through existing state institutions could achieve change peacefully. With the realization that there was no way to avoid defeat—and investigation by a new government—Sall has turned to increasingly open authoritarianism. The Senegalese government has been close to Western powers ever since independence, and France has a large military base near Dakar, but so far Paris has been quiet about Sall’s crackdown, and Western media have likewise kept mum. To many Senegalese, this is a slap in the face from the West. The ideal of democracy has been invoked for years to gain leverage over African nations, but now democracy’s defenders seemingly have nothing to say when a leader they have backed for over a decade—Sall—carries out a de facto coup to retain power and deploys soldiers to the streets to quash protests.

In recent years, Senegal has retained nominal political and institutional continuity, even as coups have toppled governments across much of West Africa. Sall’s unprecedented postponement of the elections has already brought the country’s long record of peaceful transfers of power to an end. Now, with Senegalese youth out on the streets, feeling they have nothing to lose, the entrenched elite seems willing to sacrifice democracy to remain in power and avoid prosecution. The only alternative is the ascent of a new government that reflects the younger generation’s aspirations. The future of Senegal and the region depends on what happens next. 

Translated from the French by Victoria Hartgrove.

Mamadou Ndiaye is a journalist based in Senegal.

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