The weather in Dakar is forecast to be sunny and warm all week. But Senegal is on very thin ice. A country often celebrated for the vibrancy of its political discourse, the energetic political engagement of its civil society, and the liveliness of its democracy is now the site of internet and media outlet shutdowns, tear gassing of protestors, and what many are calling “an institutional coup.”
Senegal had been heading for contentious presidential elections on February 25. The road to election day was difficult, as President Sall flirted with a third term bid before deciding against it, key opposition leaders were disqualified from contesting, and a popular political party was dissolved by state authorities. The turmoil triggered demonstrations in which dozens of protestors were killed. The president’s preferred successor, the competent but decidedly uncharismatic Amadou Ba, was certainly not assured of victory. Then, on February 3, President Sall announced that he was indefinitely postponing the election. His unprecedented act has moved the country from tension to full-blown crisis. On February 5, Senegal’s legislature has since set a December date for the polls, months after President Sall’s constitutional mandate ends on April 2.
Democracies require public trust in governing institutions, and trust requires believing that the rule of law applies to everyone, and that people can hold their leaders accountable at the ballot box if government does not address the population’s most pressing concerns. Polling data shows how deeply mistrust is already embedded in the population, and how worrying the trendlines look for Senegalese democracy. Majorities have little to no confidence in the country’s leaders and governing institutions. The Senegalese people strongly support democratic governance—but the portion of the population that believes it is working well domestically has been declining and now reflects a minority view. In a country where the median age is about eighteen years old, only about a quarter of Senegal’s young adults believe that their government is doing a good job in creating jobs or managing the economy. Senegal’s young people are growing more aggrieved and frustrated without confidence that they can peacefully and democratically affect change.
Did Sall misread the mood in his country? That seems to be the most charitable explanation for his decision. Perhaps he genuinely imagined that postponing elections would calm political tensions and provide time to resolve disputes so that the country would agree on the rules of the road before polling, or that proceeding to elections with so many outstanding grievances regarding candidate eligibility would be too contentious. After all, the political party of his predecessor had pushed for a postponement when its presidential candidate was declared ineligible to run. If so, it was a terrible miscalculation. It’s far too late to convince the population that he cares deeply about a level playing field. Sall’s abrupt decision reads as self-interested, imperious, and dangerously out of touch. Democracy is struggling throughout West Africa. But that doesn’t mean the bar has been lowered for earning the trust of the Senegalese people. Sall risks destroying the country in an effort to orchestrate his preferred electoral outcomes, promising only a pyrrhic victory.