Senegal crisis offers plenty of lessons to all

Saturday March 02 2024
Senegal protests

Demonstrators protest against the postponement of the February 25 presidential election in Dakar, Senegal on February 9, 2024. PHOTO | REUTERS


Senegal President Macky Sall was this week assuring the public his country will emerge from a constitutional crisis and that he will retire on April 2 as the law says. But there are still unclear issues around elections, especially on who should participate. So everyone is relying on consultations with stakeholders including his critics to put the matter to bed.

“The National Dialogue has called for June 2024 as the new date for presidential elections in Senegal. I want to make it categorically clear that I will step down from office on the 2nd of April, as I have previously made clear,” Sall said on Thursday.

Senegal should have, last week, staged competitive election to replace Macky Sall. Instead, the country will stare at several more months of haggling to decide how to run an election and who to compete in it.

Read: Senegal opposition reject President Sall's dialogue offer

It began after President Sall decided to delay elections from the original February 25 date, arguing there wasn’t consensus on who should run. He had pushed the elections to December.

The postponement sparked an outcry from the opposition and civil society and political actors. Local lobby, Aar Sunu Election and Plateforme des Forces vives de la Nation, described it as an ‘institutional coup.’


Once viewed as a country where the rule of law prevailed, Senegal’s crisis laces it in a region where instability has reigned.  It is still the only francophone West African country without a coup in its independent history.

 “What is happening in Senegal is forcing all of us to re-imagine the future of democracy, or democratic futures,” said Brian Kagoro, Managing Director of Programs at the Open Society Foundations.

“This has adversely impacted in particular those who come from minority communities or who from poor backgrounds and also young people who do not have access to resources or the largesse of the state resources because they are unemployed,” said Kagoro.

Read: Senegal democracy in disarray

Kagoro told The EastAfrican that Senegal’s stability depends on its institutions allowing representative democracy where people decide who leads them and for how long.

“But that representation has increasingly become skewed because those who are able to offer themselves as candidates in elections inexorably become those who have access to money and resources.”

Senegal’s problem has raised a profound question. Is democracy dying in Africa? That depends on what the definition is. Senegal has long been considered a model for democracy in West Africa, given its history of relatively peaceful transitions of power and commitment to democratic principles. Its neighbours like Guinea,Mali and Burkina Faso have often taken to arms to oust elected leaders.

However, since 2021, the country has experienced significant democratic backsliding: from a crackdown on opposition, prosecution of activists and repression of journalists and media outlets to violent responses to protest.

On February 13, the internet was shut down once again, ahead of the subsequently banned Aar Sunu Election protest.

Sall’s decision alarmed opposition groups who accused him of trying to cling to power. He had issued a decree which was endorsed by parliament. Turns out that was illegal, and the Constitutional Council overruled him.

Read: Senegal constitutional council overturns vote delay

“The elongation of constitutional term limits by sitting presidents, such as Senegal’s Sall (attempt), who seek to entrench themselves in office and the refusal of democratically elected political leaders to cede power and conduct elections is another arena where the decline of the rule of law is manifesting,” said Olabisi Akinkugbe, Associate Professor of Law and Viscount Bennett Professor of Law, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University, Canada.

“The repressive and oppressive conduct of the sitting democratically elected president becomes the catalyst for the taking over of power. Often lacking in credibility, the military capitalizes on this as the rationale for its intervention. Between 2020 and 2023, coups in Niger, Gabon, Burkina Faso and Guinea offer examples.”

Citing recent examples of coups in Africa, he said that the motivation for the resurgence of military interventions between 2020 and 2023 is attributable in part to the greedy desires of elected leaders.

“The nature and circumstances of the coups differ from the first generation of coups after many African states attained independence in that more recent coups were precipitated by unpopular and controversial amendments to constitutional term limits, as the cases of Niger, Guinea, and Gabon illustrate,” he said.

Prof Olabisi, who is also the founding editor of argues there is generally a decline in the rule of law across the globe.

The rule of law refers to a durable system of laws, institutions, norms, and community commitment that delivers: accountability, just laws, open government, and accessible justice.

Read: Calls for regional action rise as Senegal crisis escalates

“The stress that threatens democratic regimes in contemporary Africa is not unique to the region. Globally, there is a decline in the rule of law and democracies,” said Prof Olabisi.

 “Democracy and the rule of law are under challenge in the Global North and Global South. Imperial western countries, like the United States and countries in Europe hitherto regarded as the prime examples of stable democratic governance are today confronted with the fragility of their claims and democratic experiences.”

The rise of outright military coups in West Africa, and particularly in Francophone Africa, offers the first case for the decline of the rule of law.

The idea of democracy delivering the goods has not happened; instead nine coups in the Sahel, west and central Africa since 2020 have reshaped the region, creating a strip of military-run states across the continent, now known as a ‘coup belt’.

Between 2020 and 2023, Africa witnessed seven military coups.

As of August 2023, it was reported that of the “486 attempted or successful military coups carried out globally since 1950, Africa accounts for the largest number with 216, of which at least 106 have been successful.”

“Coups dash the dimmest possibility for the practice of the rule of law and democratisation. Coups epitomise the complete failure of the possibility of the nurturing of the rule of law,” said Prof Olabisi.

“While they last, coups trump the ethos of constitutional democracy and portend irreparable damage for the rights of citizens. Coups and the ensuing military governments epitomise unbridled and arbitrary exercise of power.”

The coups are also being blamed on the historical injustices by France and Russia and the West fight for supremacy.

According to the World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index 2024, an impendent portal on data on the rule of law, Senegal ranks 60th out of 142 in the Rule of Law Index.