How youth upended politics in Senegal

Thursday June 27 2024
senegal youth

Students walks as they pass an electoral billboard of the Senegalese presidential candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who is backed in by opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, in Dakar, Senegal on March 20, 2024. PHOTO | REUTERS


Bassirou Diomaye Faye, 44, is not a Gen Z. He probably even vied for the Senegal presidency knowing he couldn’t win just yet. No one his age had ever won.

But the Senegalese politician’s luck turned in two ways: a strong backing by a popular opposition leader barred from running, and massive support from the youth.

These youths had been misused, underused or abused before in politics with the old guard routinely winning from their votes.

Last year however, they poured into the streets after various opposition leaders were arrested and jailed. It made it worse that former president Macky Sall considered running for third term, disobeying the country's two-term tradition.

Read: Senegal president to leave office in April

What Senegalese authorities took for a flash in the pan would later turn out to be formidable political movement that dislodged the old order and heralded the younger leadership in Africa.


Faye is the youngest Senegal president since its independence in 1960. His victory turns out was the fruit of active participation of the youth who had previous only been considered to be angry mobs of stone-throwing thugs.

As the country prepared for elections in 2023, opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, 50, was detained, accused of sexual misconduct but which his supporters saw as political blackmail.

Macky Sall would then do two things that angered the public more: He delayed elections initially meant for February 3, arguing the country’s parties hadn’t agreed on how to conduct them, and omitted some of the top contenders from the list. This made the youths turn to the streets, voicing their strong disapproval of Sall’s decision.

Despite government intimidation and violence, they lit up streets until the Constitutional Court ruled that the presidential election must be held before the end of Sall’s official term, then scheduled for April. 

Senegal has been the only francophone West African country without a successful coup yet. But its older politicians had angered publics before. Since 1960, Senegal’s leaders, from Léopold Sédar Senghor to Macky Sall, have attempted to remain in power through arbitrary means, suppressing political opposition, restricting freedom of expression, and manipulating the integrity of electoral processes.

Read: Faye's rocky road to Senegal presidency

West African political analyst Annika Hammerschlag argues deadly riots rose in Senegal after conviction of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and the widespread demonstrations were the latest in a cycle of unrest in the country stretching back two years. But ahead of this election, even children joined in the protests.

The anger was directed at the then Senegalese president, Macky Sall, who, since taking office in 2012, had cracked down on press freedom, jailed journalists and political opponents, and tried to stay longer in office. 

Sonko, former tax inspector-turned-whistleblower, had been popular because he has been electrifying young people with a slick social media campaign, which he uses to rip into Senegalese elites and whip up nationalist sentiment.

Using his youthful charm and digital connection with the youth, Sonko instead chose to back Diomaye. Essentially, Sonko did so because he had been time barred from running, but it catalysed a generational shift from Senegal's old political order, according to Mr Hamet Fall Diagne, a Senegalese commentator.

But Sonko was only a part of its movement. Many young Senegalese had been frustrated by economic and social inequalities and have seen the opposition comprised of mainly young people as a viable alternative, in a country where nearly four in 10 people live below the poverty line and about 22 percent of working age people are without a job, according to the World Bank.

Sall’s younger opponents promised to create jobs and grow the economy. In Africa, unemployment has often been the barrier the old guard used to profit from youth votes, by promising jobs. In turn, it kept the young ones in perpetual use.

Read: Key issues shaping Senegal general election

Omoyele Sowore, leader of the African Action Congress (AAC) in Nigeria and one of the unsuccessful presidential contenders last year, argued Senegal had shown that can be upended.

 “Our young people in Nigeria are concerned with doing what I call tag-along. They are more interested in becoming special assistants to governors or senators. I have not seen that clear aspiration on the part of our young people to become leaders,” he lamented on Tuesday. 

“You cannot be young, mission-driven, and a visionary and go and hide your bushel under some of these old people who have no idea of how to even operate a phone.”

In fact, Nigeria’s youth, one study showed in December, prefer to flee the country and run some cryptocurrency account, rather than take down politicians.

In Senegal, Faye’s support transcended age and caught in more people generally frustrated with the Macky Sall failures. But he can thank the younger voters who were just as frustrated with the lack of opportunities in one of the most stable countries in West Africa, incidentally surrounded by those struggling. Faye also profited from the fact that someone actually stood up to face the problem.

“My fear is that many African youths could not be able to sail the boat of leadership because they have become more mundane and lacking in character and are very flashy and highly dependent in Western culture that could spike their taste and compromise governance,’’ said Danjuma Muhammad, Vice Chairman of Independent Media and Policy Initiative (IMPI), a think-tank based in Abuja.

Senegal’s, he said, was an inspiring case that that can spark a wave of youthful participation in politics across Africa. 

In West Africa, some youth had been taking shortcuts, however, such as joining terror gangs or secessionist groups, both of which most West African countries like Nigeria are battling. That can be a thin line, argued Emeka Nwankpa, a political analyst who tracks trends in the region, between influencing positive change and appearing desperate.

“We must address these issues through persistent engagement and demand for accountability from our leaders,’’ he said. 

“The fight for good governance is a continuous one.”