Senegal sets delayed presidential elections for March 24

President Macky Sall has also dissolved the government and named Sidiki Kaba as the new prime minister.

Senegal protests
Senegalese gendarmes on patrol during demonstrations called by opposition parties in the capital, Dakar, on February 4, 2024, to protest against the postponement of presidential elections [John Wessels/AFP]

Senegal will hold its delayed presidential election on March 24, the government has said, following weeks of political turmoil and violent protests calling for an immediate vote.

The announcement on Wednesday after a cabinet meeting followed a February ruling in which the country’s top court declared that outgoing President Macky Sall’s plans to hold the vote after his term expires on April 2 were unconstitutional.

Sall also dissolved the government on Wednesday, replacing Prime Minister Amadou Ba with Interior Minister Sidiki Kaba. The presidency said that change would help Ba, who is the ruling coalition’s presidential candidate, focus on his electoral campaign.

It is the latest twist in a charged Senegal where Sall’s decision to delay elections originally set for February 25, citing errors in the electoral process, led to violent unrest, and warnings from the country’s international allies that its reputation as one of coup-hit West Africa’s more stable democracies is under threat.

The crisis had prompted an emergency meeting of the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc in an attempt to calm widespread violence.

The Constitutional Council had in February ruled that a proposal from a national dialogue commission for the vote to be held on June 2 was not in line with the constitution.

“The Council’s decision to stand up to the president … is seen as a tribute to Senegalese democracy, and the new election date comes as a relief to many Senegalese who will finally have a say in their country’s future,” Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque reported from the capital, Dakar.

Sall had cited concerns about electoral disputes for his move to delay the vote, but opposition parties said it amounted to an attempted institutional coup.

Opposition presidential candidate Anta Babacar, who was among the majority of the 19 contenders in the race pushing for the vote to be held as soon as possible, welcomed the announcement.

“At the end of the day, the question is why did he postpone it in the first place?” Babacar told Al Jazeera. “He talked about an institutional crisis, [but] today we have the proof that Senegal is in no form of crisis.”

Amnesty law

Parliament on Wednesday additionally approved an amnesty law proposed by Sall in an attempt to ease tensions as he navigates a tense standoff with the opposition.

The law would see hundreds of protesters and opposition members pardoned after they were accused of crimes relating to antigovernment protests in the last three years.

However, opposition members and rights groups warn the policy could also let security forces off the hook for excessive, and at times deadly, use of force against protesters in recent months that has seen dozens killed.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday that the draft law “opens the door to impunity for serious crimes”, and noted that at least 40 people have been killed during violent clashes since March 2021 with no accountability.

According to the opposition and civil society groups, up to 1,000 opposition members, including party leaders and presidential candidates, journalists, and activists were arrested across the country between March 2021 and January 2023, HRW said. Also among them are top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.

Much of the political unrest was triggered by concerns that Sall was trying to silence his opponents and hold onto power past the end of his mandate, allegations he has denied.

“It is a denial of the right to truth, justice and transparency,” Ousmane Diallo of Amnesty International told Al Jazeera. “Saying that an amnesty law will be voted in Senegal after saying for three years that investigations have been going on, the killing of more than 60 people and the detentions of a thousand people, it’s a denial of justice.”

A new round of protests broke in February after Sall announced the plan to postpone the elections.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies