Senegal Constitutional Council ruling brings respite amid uncertainty

Tuesday February 20 2024

Senegal's president Macky Sall (C) attends a national dialogue that aims easing political tension and violence ahead of the February 2024 presidential election in Dakar, Senegal on May 31, 2023. PHOTO | REUTERS


After nearly two weeks of unrests, a semblance of calm returned to Senegal, following a ruling by the Constitutional Council that reversed President Macky Sall’s controversial decision to postpone elections slated for this month.

But the biggest questions still linger: When will the vote be held? And who will be running?

The presidential elections were originally slated for February 25; But President Sall called them off just hours before campaigns were to kickoff, basing his decision on a dispute over the approved list of presidential candidates.

Protests would break out nationwide as security forces detained scores of the people, including prominent opposition politicians.

Read: Senegal faces widespread unrest over vote delay

A least three people died during the protests, according to Amnesty International.


Sall didn’t announce any date for the election. The National Assembly later approved a bill backing his decision and rescheduling the elections to December 15.

Opponents argued that neither the president nor the National Assembly had the power to change the election date.

Six of the seven-man Constitutional Council, the highest authority on election matters, voted on February 15, to cancel Sall's decision.

It however remains unclear why one of the judges, Cheikh Ndiaye, didn’t sign the document containing the pronouncement.

In the ruling, the Council backed the opposition's stance, declaring both the president’s action and that of the parliament was unconstitutional.

One of the implications of the postponement was that Sall’s term would have been extended by nine months. Yet, as per Constitutional provision, his mandate should come to an end on April 2, 2024. The Council also directed that Macky shoiuld not stay in office beyond this period.

The judges however entrusted the decision on a new date for the voting on unspecified competent authorities.

Read: Senegal constitutional council overturns vote delay

The ruling has been welcomed both locally and internationally, with observers saying it has somehow contributed to restoring Senegal's reputation as a bastion of democracy.

Senegal is one of few countries that has not experienced civil war or military takeover, in a region battling the resurgence of coups and insecurity.

The crisis sparked by the postponement of the election heightened concerns at the international level, prompting an emergency meeting by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Ecowas Chairman and Nigeria's President Bola Ahmad Tinubu announced a trip to Dakar, but it was later postponed with no reason given for the postponement.

US Department of State Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the other hand spoke with President Sall to convey US’ serious concerns about the situation.

“The Secretary urged President Sall to restore Senegal’s electoral calendar and timeline for presidential transition in accordance with Senegal’s constitution. Secretary Blinken also voiced concern about heightened political tensions and the potential for further domestic and regional instability as a result of recent events,” US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Following the Constitutional Council’s ruling, the US Bureau of African Affairs in a post on the social media platform X, a day after the ruling, praised the council’s decision it said would put Senegal “back on track for a timely presidential election”.

France and the European Union have all urged Sall to comply with the decision of the Constitutional Council.

Read: Calls for regional action rise as Senegal crisis escalates

A statement attributed to the Senegalese leader committed him to respecting the ruling.

“President Macky Sall intends to ensure that the decision of the Constitutional Council is fully implemented," it reads in part, noting that the president took "note of this decision, which is part of the normal judicial mechanisms of democracy and the rule of law as enshrined in the Senegal's Constitution".

The statement goes on to say that President Sall "will immediately conduct the necessary consultations for the organisation of the presidential election as soon as possible".

Dialogue is a specific demand of the Constitutional Council.

In an apparent gesture towards this, the government almost immediately started releasing people considered as political prisoners, many of them arrested during the protests sparked by the election postponement.

The authorities cited various grounds for their detention, including "disturbing public order, conspiracy against the authority of the State or belonging to groups qualified as terrorists."

Despite the fresh breath of air occasioned by the ruling of the Constitutional Council, there is still tension in the air, thanks to several unanswered questions.

The ruling followed appeals filed by many opposition politicians, challenging Sall’s decision. Many of these are still pending in court.

Three things hold the key to restoring Senegal on track. Annulling the presidential decree was just one. Releasing opposition candidates from jail and ensuring Sall stick to his constitutionally mandated term are also crucial.

Read: Senegal's Sall promises to hold delayed presidential vote

Of particular interest to the opposition is the list of prisoners being released. One of Sall’s main challengers, Ousmane Sonko, remains behind bars. Report suggest that the government is in talks on possible conditions for his imminent release.

Sonko’s party, Pastef, was dissolved by the authorities, before his candidacy was invalidated by the very Constitutional Council.

Whatever the outcome of those supposed discussions, his supporters expect nothing less than his name on the ballot.

The same is true with supporters of Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, whose party had called for postponement of the elections amid allegations of corruption in the constitutional court following the release of the approved candidate list.

Fire brand opposition politician and presidential hopeful, Khalifa Ababacar Sall, welcomed the Council’s ruling which he said "saves the honour" of Senegal.

But Khalifa, a former mayor of Dakar and a one-time detainee himself, expressed suspicion at the sudden release of prisoners.

"In what context, under what conditions and in what manner is this release effected? What are the real issues and motivations behind them?" he told journalists in Dakar on Friday.

According to the Senegalese Constitution, the election of the President shall be held not more than forty-five days and not less than thirty days before the date of expiry of the term of office of the President.

A major question though remains: When is the appropriate date to hold election in time for Sall to handover before his mandate ends.

First, the parties have to agree on who the competent authority is to decide on the date.

But even if elections are organized before April 2, if the votes go into a second round, which is likely, it becomes impossible to complete the process before April 2.

Some analysts believe that given all these complexities, the ruling of the Constitutional Council isn’t all that unfavourable to President Sall.

When it says the competent authorities should decide on the date, for instance, it again partly refers to the president, who is expected to decide in consultation with the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for organising elections.

But Senegalese have not left the decision entirely in the hands of the president, as much as he would have wanted.

One popular proposal for a way out of the quagmire has been for the votes to be held in May. While it is the most reasonable date in the current circumstance, it also violates the Constitution, as it will take place one month after the expiry of Sall’s term of office.

Every attention is now on the president, in anticipation of announcement of the next date, which will ostensibly decide the destiny of Senegal.

The opposition aren’t taking anything for granted. On Saturday, two days after the ruling, some protesters took the streets in Dakar as though to keep the pressure on the president to act quickly and carefully.

The protesters who marched through the streets in a rare peaceful manner, also called for the release of imprisoned opposition figures.