Africa Watch – On thin ice

26th February 2024

Senegalese President Macky Sall said he would fully abide by a court decision that overturned the postponement of the 25 February presidential election to December, pledging to hold consultations to organise the vote as soon as possible. Sall “has taken note” of the council’s decision and request for the election to be held as soon as possible and intends to execute the constitutional council’s decision fully, the presidency said. Opposition leaders, ECOWAS and foreign powers, including the United States and France, urged authorities to comply with the judgement and quickly set a new date for the election.

This year, West Africa is poised to become a focal point for elections, with six countries, including established democracies like Ghana and Senegal, scheduled to hold polls. The surprising deviation from democratic norms by Senegal, with the temporary postponement of its presidential elections after decades of stable democracy, has sent shockwaves through the region. The prevalence of coups in the ECOWAS bloc, particularly among former French colonies or Francophone countries, has become a concerning trend, and President Macky Sall’s unpopular decision to postpone elections adds Senegal to an unfortunate list of West African states grappling with political instability and suppression of civil and political liberties.

For Sall, it does not seem like the end of the road. Agreeing to “hold elections as soon as possible” may be translated as an ambitious move to stave off pressure from the opposition and protesters and to buy time, especially as he has yet to agree to the opposition’s demand to hold elections in the first week of April. Sall’s decision to postpone the elections indefinitely and manipulate parliament to push through the process with questionable legitimacy will have lasting repercussions.

This is not the first time Senegal has had this kind of political crisis. President Abdoulaye Wade attempted to run for a third term in 2012 despite being ineligible and facing significant opposition to his unconstitutional bid for an extended tenure. In contrast to President Sall’s use of his parliamentary majority to push through his agenda in 2024, Wade managed to secure approval from the constitutional court for his controversial decision in 2012. However, his plan was ultimately thwarted at the polls when Macky Sall defeated him.

It could be argued that Wade paved the way for Sall’s presidency. With a clear vision in place, the possibility of a future successor following a similar path is not out of the realm of possibility.

The response from major powers like the United States and France to Senegal’s current issues has been swift, with urgent efforts to avert a potential coup. These countries are pushing Senegal’s authorities to comply with legal judgments and swiftly set a new election date. The unfolding geopolitical dynamics reveal a struggle for influence, particularly as the West faces challenges in West Africa, especially in the Francophone space, where anti-French sentiments are rising.

Russia and China are eyeing the vacuum left by the West’s perceived decline, actively seeking opportunities to establish a foothold in the ECOWAS region, where they have historically been absent. The West’s ability to collaborate with ECOWAS to swiftly address Senegal’s democratic backslide will signal to member states about the resilience of their geopolitical influence in the bloc. As West Africa navigates these challenges, regional and international actors must collaborate to support democratic processes and prevent authoritarian backsliding. The outcome of the upcoming elections in Senegal and other countries will have far-reaching implications for the region’s political future, underscoring the importance of upholding democratic values and institutions.