After 12 years in power, Senegal’s Macky Sall leaves a fragile democracy

Amid the president’s attempt to delay the elections and protests by the opposition, how resilient is Senegal’s democracy?

People watch Senegal's President Macky Sall on TV during a live press conference.
Senegalese President Macky Sall announced he would not seek a third term during a news conference last month that was broadcast on national television [File: Michele Cattani/AFP]

Dakar, Senegal – A year after his 2012 inauguration as Senegal’s fourth president, Macky Sall delivered a compelling speech – half in French, half in English – at Harvard University in the United States.

Sall had won the presidency after a cut-throat election campaign against his mentor and former President Abdoulaye Wade, under whose wing he had served as minister, prime minister, head of the National Assembly and even as Wade’s own campaign director.

Speaking at the fourth Harvard African Development Conference, Sall told a captivated audience about democracy and development challenges in Africa and the need to “lay down the weapons” and to focus on what unites rather than divides Africans.

“Democratic change in Africa, like everywhere, is not an easy exercise,” he said in his keynote address.

“The ideal of … democracy can stay fragile after years of practice,” he warned.

More than decade after his inspirational words at Harvard, questions are being asked about the strength and resilience of Senegal’s democracy as Sall’s 12-year-long tenure draws to a close on April 2 and presidential elections are scheduled for this weekend.

Sall promised a new era of good governance in Senegal with his 2012 presidential victory. He said he would address the consolidation of power in the presidency by fostering a more democratic system while also tackling issues of social justice and equity.

Central to his campaign was a commitment to reduce presidential terms from seven to five years, reversing an increase that Wade had implemented. Wade had also threatened to run for a third – and unconstitutional – term in office.

So history seemed to be repeating itself recently when Sall appeared to be considering a bid for a third term after postponing the presidential election that was due to be held last month, sparking protests throughout the country.

After the Constitutional Court intervened, the presidential election is now set for Sunday.

Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall in 2007
A photo taken on February 12, 2007, shows then-Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, left, with Macky Sall, who was his campaign director at the time [File: Seyllou/AFP]

Development for all or riches for a few?

Other controversies surrounding Sall’s presidency – including financial scandals, a crackdown on civil liberties and a faltering economy – have also overshadowed his legacy and his contribution to Senegal’s development, analysts said.

“Macky Sall’s goal was a ‘Senegal for All’,” said Seydina Mouhamadou Ndiaye, a civil society leader and co-founder of the Collectif des Volontaires du Senegal (Volunteer Collective of Senegal, or CODEVS).

“He understood that Senegal is not just Dakar and contributed to the development outside the capital,” he explained.

Before Sall’s presidency, major infrastructure and development projects were focused on the capital, but he extended such projects to rural areas, Ndiaye said.

Sall’s commitment to infrastructure development involved projects such as a new railway connecting the Dakar metropolitan area and developing the country’s highway system. He secured $7.5bn in funding for an ambitious economic development plan called Emergent Senegal, which was designed to transform the economy by 2035 through investments in agriculture, infrastructure and tourism.

While new road infrastructure significantly improved travel and transport, Sall’s government also focused on reducing power cuts and connecting remote villages to the power grid while also improving their access to healthcare.

Sall advanced national development, but at the same time, there was intense politicisation of the management of state funds and the financing of political parties, Ndiaye added.

With incumbent political parties focused on accessing public funds and appointing individuals to positions based on party affiliation rather than competence, development projects suffered as some officials were more focused on personal gain than good governance, Ndiaye said.

There were scandals too.

In 2019, a BBC investigation revealed that a company owned by Aliou Sall, the president’s brother, received a secret $250,000 payment in 2014 from a businessman who had obtained licences for two significant offshore gas blocks that same year.

Sall denied any awareness of the transaction involving his brother.

Civil society organisations and many citizens have also criticised the government for failing to put in place mechanisms to ensure that the wealth generated in the country’s gas and oil sector reaches its people. According to national forecasts, export revenues are to surpass $1.5bn by 2025, but the oil and gas projects have been delayed for almost a year now.

Controversy also surrounded Sall’s management of COVID-19 funds amid allegations of possible mismanagement and embezzlement highlighted by Senegal’s Court of Auditors.

Second term: Crackdown on civil liberties

Sall’s second term as president after his re-election in 2019 faced challenges on the domestic front, notably with the rise of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.

As a former tax inspector and mayor of Zinguichor, the capital of Senegal’s restive southern region of Casamance, Sonko gained popularity as a politician standing against the system and willing to challenge Sall’s relationship with former colonial power France and with foreign companies operating in extractive industries.

Protests erupted in 2021 after Sonko’s arrest on a rape accusation, and more riots followed when he was accused of libel against a minister in 2023, a charge that subsequently saw him barred from running in the presidential election. Sonko’s supporters have accused the president of hatching a political plot to prevent Sonko from standing in elections.

Among the hundreds of thousands who protested against Sonko’s arrest, many were young people dissatisfied with high unemployment and the rising cost of living.

Anger among the protesters was compounded by the fact that Sall took his time to clarify whether he intended to run for a third term as president – which would have been unconstitutional.

He eventually announced in July that he would not run again, and the size of the protests dwindled despite Sonko’s detention. At least 60 people have been killed in protest violence since 2021, and hundreds of political activists have been jailed and tortured by security forces.

Sall responded by recruiting thousands of new officers into the ranks of Senegal’s militarised gendarmerie – a move seen by some members of the public as preparation for violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protests amid concerns that he might attempt to run for a third term.

“Preventing opposition politicians from participating in elections has contributed to the fissure of Senegal’s democratic record,” said Alexandre Gubert Lette, a civil society leader and executive director of the Teranga Lab, a community engagement organisation focusing on civic duty and the environment.

“It’s a stain on his legacy,” he told Al Jazeera.

Alongside Sonko, Bassirou Diomaye Faye was also detained last year and held in prison. Faye is Sonko’s political ally and presidential candidate for his party.

Both Sonko and Faye were released from prison on Thursday, and despite his time behind bars, Faye is among the favourites of the 19 candidates standing in the presidential election.

Sall has also faced accusations of trying to suppress the media.

In 2022, investigative journalist Pape Ale Niang was arrested and faced criminal charges after reporting on the government’s investigation of Sonko, and Walf TV, a broadcaster that aired critical coverage of Sall, was shut down.

Such events and other cases of media intimidation and suppression saw Senegal drop 55 places – from 49 to 104 – from 2022 to 2023 on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Supporters cheer Senegalese opposition leaders
Supporters cheer opposition leader Ousmane Sonko in Dakar, Senegal [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

Elections delayed, democracy denied

While Senegal was spared the flurry of military coups that have rattled West African countries since 2020, Sall was accused of trying to engineer a constitutional coup d’etat after he postponed the presidential election from February to December.

Sall said the delay was necessary to investigate allegations of corruption among aspiring presidential candidates.

The Constitutional Court ruled, however, that it was not legal to postpone the vote, and the government scheduled it for this month.

More recently, Sall submitted a draft law to parliament allowing for a general amnesty for acts related to political unrest from 2021 to 2024 – a period that includes the violence and chaos caused by his postponement of elections.

Sall said the amnesty was necessary to bring reconciliation to the country.

The legislation, however, absolves all those involved in the political strife, including himself, of any criminal liability, a move that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said opens the door to “impunity” for those involved in the violent repression of protests.

Oumar Sow, one of Sall’s presidential advisers who has been by his side since 2012, told Al Jazeera that delaying the election was a severe blow to Senegalese democracy.

“We need to speak about truth before we speak about reconciliation,” Sow said of the amnesty.

After 12 years in power, Sall leaves Senegal with the challenge of youth unemployment, which is a pressing issue for the nation’s rapidly expanding population, and a feeling among the public that the economy has been badly managed.

In a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under 25, the number of young Senegalese not engaged in employment, education or training reached almost 35 percent in 2019, according to the International Labour Organization.

An Afrobarometer poll conducted in 2022 revealed that almost three-quarters of Senegalese citizens believe the government is mishandling the nation’s finances. The same survey also found a significant shift in public sentiment: 62 percent of respondents said the economic outlook was unfavourable, compared with just 33 percent five years earlier.

About half of the country’s 17 million people live in poverty, according to the United Nations development agency.

Migration also increased during Sall’s presidency with thousands of Senegalese making the dangerous journey to Europe due to dissatisfaction with the economic situation at home.

“So many people are leaving to Europe, and this is because of a lack of work and the injustices in our country and the political scandals,” Abdou Khadar Mbaye, a 25-year-old student, told Al Jazeera.

“A president needs to be there for his people and defend the interests of his people and help young people find jobs and work,” Mbaye said.

Ndiaye stressed that Senegal witnessed development and economic growth under Sall but “human development” stagnated.

“That’s why we are seeing young people risking their lives to take boats to go to Europe or that don’t go to school and are unemployed,” Ndiaye said.

In his speech at Harvard more than a decade ago, Sall spoke of how democracy involved a delicate balance of forces that were susceptible to the challenges and complexities of governance.

Those words now stand as a cautionary tale regarding the fragility of democracy in Senegal amid the unrest and political turmoil surrounding the forthcoming election due to Sall’s own political actions.

Source: Al Jazeera