Senegal’s Presidential Election: A Seismic Event with West African Aftershocks
Senegal’s Presidential Election: A Seismic Event with West African Aftershocks
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Senegal’s Presidential Election: A Seismic Event with West African Aftershocks

The election of Bassirou Diomaye Faye as president of Senegal opens a new chapter in the country’s history. His landslide victory could also mark a turning point for all West Africa.

This text is a slightly revised version of the one published in French on the Jeune Afrique website on 27 April 2024.

Until a few weeks ago, the countries of West Africa, and particularly the French-speaking ones, seemed stuck in one of two regime types. On one side were nominal democracies led by ageing elites who have held power for so long that they may be incapable of responding to the younger generation’s profound desire for change. On the other were military regimes that took the reins through largely bloodless putsches that swept such old rulers away – though not entirely. These military regimes inspired hope among many people, though so far they have delivered few results, especially on the security and economic fronts. The popularity these regimes now enjoy could soon fade, especially as they are brutally repressing all forms of opposition.

Two Dead Ends and a Third Way

The gulf between these two regime types - worn-out democracies, on one hand, and military autocracies, on the other - has widened in recent months. In August 2023, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), brandished the threat of armed intervention against the putschists who had overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum in Niamey. In the end, ECOWAS did not act, but it did provoke a response, with the Nigerien junta joining the military-led governments of Mali and Burkina Faso in September to create their own union of “khaki regimes”, the Alliance of Sahel States (AES). The next January, these three states announced their withdrawal “without delay” from ECOWAS.

In this polarised region, where the political systems are on one of these two dispiriting paths, the election of President Bassirou Diomaye Faye in Senegal offers a tantalising glimpse of a third way. After coming close to derailment in January, when incumbent Macky Sall announced he would postpone the presidential election amid opposition claims he was manoeuvring to extend his time in power, the vote took place a month behind schedule on 24 March. The result not only proved that Senegalese democracy is resilient, as no one would think of contesting it, but it also demonstrated that it can respond to profound hopes for change through the ballot box.

When President Diomaye Faye was inaugurated on 2 April, the audience applauded the military regime representatives in attendance and largely shunned those from other West African countries, indicating the former’s surprising popular appeal. But make no mistake: Diomaye Faye’s election puts the two dead ends of worn-out democracy and military authoritarianism on an equal footing. It points to a third way in which democracy can produce change, provided it relies on strong mobilisation of citizens in the civic arena, consolidated political institutions and, above all, a genuinely free and transparent electoral process.

Much Left to Do 

This third way is itself still only a hope. Rejuvenating the power structure does not necessarily bring systemic progressive change. It is notable, for instance, that Diomaye’s cabinet includes very few women. The road to change is also strewn with obstacles, and failure remains a possibility. Diomaye Faye made many promises to young people, and they could be terribly disappointed. Much remains to be done by the new president, his prime minister and their first government. The Senegalese people will be watching them closely.

Furthermore, all West Africa will be watching to see whether authority won through the ballot box can bring about the desired change. The new president has many national and regional priorities on his desk, including fighting corruption, better sharing of national resources, reconnecting with citizens, switching from the CFA franc to a new currency and restructuring external partnerships. There will undoubtedly be tense moments and difficult choices.

A delicate early task for Senegalese diplomats will be managing the crisis caused by the AES countries’ withdrawal from ECOWAS. President Diomaye Faye has already announced that he wants to mediate between the two blocs, with the aim of bringing the three Sahelian countries back into the ECOWAS fold. ECOWAS itself is in need of reform, both to make it more functional and to make it better reflect the aspirations of West African citizens. After months of confrontation between ECOWAS and the AES, bridging the gap between the two would be a major accomplishment lending Senegalese diplomacy considerable weight at a key moment for West Africa.

Winners and Losers

In the months ahead, Senegal’s international partners should likewise make no mistake: change is not simple, and it will create winners and losers. It will be accompanied by a good deal of uncertainty. In recent years, partners have focused on security and stability in a region hungry for renewal. As a result, they have often worked to preserve hated regimes, thus coming to be badly discredited themselves. The prospect of a third way should inspire international partners to adopt new approaches in Senegal and the rest of the region, no longer thinking of Sahelian and West African countries as sources of risk but reconceiving them as places of opportunity.

Though the future of West Africa remains uncertain, the breath of hope offered by Senegal’s democracy is welcome indeed. Occasion for celebrating the region’s political dynamics have been rare these past few years.

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