Early this week, Senegalese President Macky Sall finally bowed to mounting civic pressure and uttered the magic words that many in the opposition and even from within his ruling Alliance for the Republic party had been hoping to hear from him his lips: “The 2019 term was my second and last term. My decision, carefully considered… is not to run as a candidate in the upcoming election on February 25, 2024…”
The announcement ends months of speculation about the president’s political ambition, while Sall’s insistence that he had decided not to seek a third term “even though the constitution grants me the right” all but confirms the opposition’s hunch that the president was bent on holding on to power all along. Back in March, Sall, 61, had told French magazine L’Express that “legally speaking, the debate has been settled for a long time.” The president was right about the debate being settled; but it was in fact against his ambition to seek an unprecedented third term in office.
In the meantime, the uncertainty created by his shillyshallying has not been without cost. Two years ago, at least fourteen people were killed after supporters of opposition figure Osumane Sonko protesting what they believed was his politically motivated arrest clashed with security forces. Last month, state clampdown on protests inspired in part by the conviction of Sonko on charges of “corrupting youth” and in part by President Sall’s continued hedging led to multiple deaths. It stands to reason that Sall could have spared his country the deaths and destruction if he had made his disavowal sooner, and his apparent determination to sacrifice Senegal’s much admired political stability on the altar of personal ambition speaks volumes about his desperation.
While belated, the disavowal remains an object lesson in the power of the people and a classic state versus civil society showdown in which the former eventually blinked. In retrospect, it is evident that not only did President Sall intend to ram his way through to an unconstitutional third term, but he was also convinced that the most reliable route to his goal was to intimidate the political opposition by deploying the machinery of the state against its leader Sonko, while cowing the rest of civil society through coercion. If his failure is particularly gratifying, that is because it points to the resolve, resourcefulness, and grit of Senegalese civil society, comprising young people (three-quarters of the West African country’s population of seventeen million are under the age of 35), university students, particularly students of Cheikh Anta Diop University, public intellectuals, market women, sundry artisans, and, one presumes, a cross section of the country’s highly influential Islamic religious elite. After the government tried to cut off access to social media, many Senegalese simply circumvented it by switching to virtual private networks, reminiscent of how Nigerians bypassed a seven-month state ban on Twitter in 2021.
While correlation is not causation, it is nonetheless instructive that attempts to violate strict constitutional provisions regarding presidential terms have failed in African countries with determined political opposition undergirded by a robust civil society. In Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo’s (1999- 2007) infamous third term gambit foundered on the rocks of determined resistance by the political elite, the media, and the rump of Nigerian civil society. At the same time—and less happily—incumbents have succeeded in having their way in countries with a compromised political elite and a relatively weaker civil society. Examples of the latter are Cote d’Ivoire, where President Alassane Quattara more or less bullied his way (at least 85 lives were lost in pre- and post-election violence) to a controversial third term in November 2020; and the Central African Republic (CAR), where July 30 has been set for a referendum on a new constitution that would allow President Faustin-Archange Touadera, 66, to seek a fresh term in 2025. Observers expect Mr. Touadera to have his way.
From this perspective alone, investment in an independent media and a robust civil society is well worth the investment.
The foregoing also suggests that while the triumph of the opposition in Senegal deserves to be celebrated, the specter of the forever president in Africa is by no means behind us. If anything, it is the prevailing pattern, as attested to by the large number of African countries where a single leader has ruled the roost for decades, including those where such lifelong presidents are actively grooming successors who, by some strange coincidence, happen to be their sons.
If the victory of Senegalese civil society marks a resounding rejection of a power grab, it is also—the point bears underscoring—a yearning for good governance and the material improvement many have come to see as its affiliate. Participants in the numerous sporadic protests against President Sall’s machination were eager to emphasize that they were at the same time demonstrating against perceived corruption at every level of government, high unemployment (which was 16.9 percent in 2022 according to the International Organization for Migration), lack of investment in the health care system, and widespread and persistent selective application of justice. From a policy standpoint, it matters that, for the average Senegalese, the quest for popular representation and good governance has to be inseparable from a desire for economic realization and material improvement.
Altogether, Senegalese rejection of President Sall’s attempt to cling to power, coupled with (mostly young) demonstrators’ affirmation of the tenets of representative democracy, reaffirm consistent continent-wide support for, and faith in, democratic values.
Democratic development is all about civic and institutional muscle-building. Accordingly, the West and the global democratic coalition should have no qualms about helping the Senegalese process along, starting with moral and logistical support for next February’s all-important presidential election.
Thanks to those who paid the supreme price, the incumbent’s name will not be on the ballot.