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Senegal: March 24*

*Postponed from February 25. See explainer.

President Macky Sall’s announcement on February 3 to postpone presidential election three weeks before its scheduled date threw Senegal into political turmoil. Senegal has never experienced a postponement of an election. A subsequent controversial vote by Sall’s ruling coalition to delay the presidential election until December 15 would have extended Sall’s term by eight months from its constitutionally mandated limit. Following robust pushback by domestic and international actors and a decision by the Constitutional Council deeming the postponement illegal, Sall relented and set a new election date for March 24.

Senegal’s 2024 presidential election represents a pivotal juncture in the country’s journey toward more accountable, responsive, and democratic governance. President Macky Sall is stepping down after his constitutionally limited second term and the election will usher in new national leadership for the first time in over a decade.

Senegal has made noteworthy progress since the first transition between parties in 2000, when incumbent president, Abdou Diouf, lost his bid for reelection and stepped down. In 2012, there was another case of an opposition party candidate (Macky Sall) winning elections and taking office—one of the signature indicators of a consolidating democracy.

An opposition rally in Dakar, Senegal.

An opposition rally in Dakar, Senegal. (Photo: AFP/Guy Peterson)

An instrumental factor in Senegal’s democratic progress has been its active and organized civil society, characterized by vibrant youth participation, which has held public officials accountable for upholding term limits and democratic processes—a process that has not always been smooth or straightforward.

Senegal’s election management body, the Autonomous National Electoral Commission, has established a reputation for independence as seen by the ruling party losing seats in both 2022 and 2023 legislative and municipal elections, respectively. The former is significant in that it has shifted the legislative landscape from a near supermajority for the ruling Benno Bokk Yaakaar (BBY) coalition to close to parity with a coalition of opposition parties, necessitating genuine debate and compromise. The opposition now also controls majorities in Senegal’s main municipalities.

Senegal has furthermore distinguished itself from its neighbors in West Africa by building and sustaining an apolitical military with a culture of military professionalism and service to the public. This has contributed enormously to the country’s stability and public trust. The 85 percent of the Senegalese population that says it trusts the military is among the highest on the continent.

The final years of President Macky Sall’s tenure have been marked by threats to the country’s democratic gains.

Despite these commendable democratic qualifications, the final years of President Macky Sall’s tenure have been marked by heightened tension and threats to the country’s democratic gains. First was Sall’s extended flirtation with vying for a constitutionally prohibited third term—further fueled by his proposal to postpone the 2024 election. This worried many Senegalese that Sall would try to join the trend of African leaders evading term limits and undermine the country’s hard-earned precedent on this issue.

Second the Sall administration has attempted to bar Ousmane Sonko, seen as a prominent contender from African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party, from competing. Mayor of Ziguinchor, Sonko is popular among Senegal’s youth for his fiery rhetoric and taking strong stances against corruption. He has faced various charges, including insurrection, that are widely seen as politically motivated, and has spent much of the past year in prison or the hospital following a hunger strike to protest what he considered his unjustified detention. Police crackdowns on protests surrounding Sonko’s sentencing and trials have reportedly led to 50 deaths between 2021 and 2023 among this typically peaceful populace. Hundreds more have been arrested. An Amesty Law passed in the negotiations to reschedule elections, would free political protesters arrested since 2021. At the same time, human rights groups have criticized the amnesty saying it will exonerate government and security officials involved in the heavy-handed crackdown under Sall’s tenure.

Many independent observers have viewed the charges against Sonko as politically motivated as they follow a pattern, dating back to the 2019 election, of the Sall administration charging leading opposition candidates with criminal activity, effectively derailing their candidacies. Sonko, along with Karim Wade (son of former President Abdoulaye Wade), had been barred from running in 2019 due to criminal allegations levied by the government. Wade is also barred from running in 2024 on the grounds of his dual nationality.

Senegal: courthouse where the trial of opponent Ousmane Sonko was being held

Senegalese policemen and gendarmes are seen at the entrance to the Dakar courthouse where the trial of Ousmane Sonko was being held on June 1, 2023. (Photo: AFP/Seyllou)

The presidential election is seen as wide open. The standard-bearer for Sall’s BBY coalition is Prime Minister Amadou Ba, a former finance and foreign minister. Bassirou Faye, a 43-year-old tax inspector, is heading the ticket for Sonko’s PASTEF party.

Other leading opposition candidates include former mayor of Dakar, Khalifa Sall, (no relation to Macky Sall), former prime minister (2002-2004) Idrissa Seck, former prime minister (2014-2019) Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne, mayor of the town of Linguere and former energy and interior minister, Aly Ngouille Ndiaye, and Anta Babacar Ngom, the only female candidate and head of Senegal’s largest poultry company.

Senegal employs a two-round voting system, requiring a winning candidate to garner more than 50 percent of the vote.

Recent years have also seen unprecedented pressure on Senegalese media, which has long enjoyed a tradition of independence. This includes unlawful arrests, attacks, and judicial persecution. Several prominent journalists have been charged with disturbing the peace and insurrection for criticizing the government. The courts have typically thrown out such cases but sometimes not until after months of detention. This has risked creating a chill on Senegal’s cherished press freedom and freedom of expression. The Sall administration has also periodically blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube, and TikTok. Senegal’s press freedom ranking has dropped 55 places, from 49th out of 180 countries to 104th between 2021 and 2023 under Reporters Without Borders’ rankings.

Senegal’s 2024 elections will represent an opportunity to rebuild social cohesion and address a host of strategic issues.

The election will hopefully provide an opportunity for Senegalese to turn the page and focus on the future priorities for the country. Key among these is addressing youth unemployment, which stands at 20 percent despite annual per capita economic growth averaging 3.4 percent during Sall’s time in office. Such incongruencies are part of a pattern of growing inequities felt within Senegal. These divergences are also, in part, shaped by Senegal’s rapidly expanding population (growing at 2.5 percent annually) resulting in 43 percent of the population being under the age of 15. Senegal is also facing the loss of arable land due to coastal flooding and inland droughts, which have direct political implications for a country where three-quarters of the workforce earn their livelihood from the land.

With the expanding threat of violent extremism in Mali stretching westward, Senegal also faces a heightened risk of militant Islamist violence. This is reinforced by indications that these militant groups (notably Katiba Serma), are trying to establish themselves among communities in Senegal’s east, which overlap with those from across the border.

Senegal also faces expanding Russian-sponsored disinformation campaigns that threaten to foster confusion and disillusionment with democracy, the government, and Senegal’s ties to the West. These are accompanied by domestic and militant Islamist disinformation seeking to weaponize grievances for political gain.

In addition to transitioning to a new leader and solidifying Senegal’s precedent for orderly political transitions, Senegal’s 2024 elections will represent an opportunity to rebuild social cohesion and set the country on a path to address a host of other strategic issues.