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A New Dawn for Senegal

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A supporter of the coalition of anti-establishment candidates shouts as he holds up a poster with Ousmane Sonko on it during a campaign rally in Dakar. Campaigned jointly under the banner “Diomaye is Sonko”, Sonko’s firm backing of Faye was a decisive factor in his spectacular and somewhat surprising victory in the March 24 election, the writer says. – Picture: John Wessels / AFP / March 10, 2024

By Kim Heller

In an extraordinary change of fortunes, Bassirou Diomaye Faye is set to become Senegal’s new President. Against all odds, democracy won the day in Sunday’s electoral showdown. Over seventy percent of the 7.3 million registered voters cast their vote on Sunday 24 March 2024. This election, the fifth in Senegal since the country achieved independence in 1960, took place under the scrutiny of representatives from the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States as well as the European Union. Sunday’s election was by all accounts free, fair, and peaceful.

The decisive victory for Bassirou Diomaye Faye marks a radical shift for Senegal. It is “out with the old and in with the new”. Faye’s victory could be instrumental in reshaping not only Senegal but West Africa as a whole. Under the sway of a new legion of strong pan-Africanist leaders and political voices, particularly in Burkina Faso and Niger, the region is over-ripe and destined for change.

The outgoing President, Macky Sall, lost no time in congratulating Faye, saying that the victory is “the victory of Senegalese democracy”. While this bodes well for a peaceful transition of power, it is prudent to recall that President Sall not only attempted to delay the election but jailed political leaders, including the highly popular leader of opposition party, Pastef, Ousmane Sonko, and Secretary General, Bassirou Diomaye Faye. Faye was imprisoned for “undermining state security”, while Sonko for a range of matters related to defamation and corruption.

Sonko’s jailing resulted in massive demonstrations and protests across Senegal. So too did the endeavour by the incumbent President, Macky Sall, to delay the election which was widely perceived as a “constitutional coup” to fulfil his ambitions for a third term in office. But in the end the Constitutional Court ruled that the election must proceed.

Both Sonko and Faye were released from prison a mere ten days before the election. They campaigned jointly under the banner “Diomaye is Sonko”. Sonko’s firm backing of Faye was a decisive factor in his spectacular and somewhat surprising victory.

The transition from prisoner to President was captured well by Reuters, “Just a few months ago, the man set to be Senegal’s next president, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, was sitting in a prison cell, a relatively unknown figure outside his opposition party Pastef”.

“Everything changed for him when the party’s firebrand leader, Ousmane Sonko, who was also detained, was charged with insurrection in July and barred from running in elections to succeed President Macky Sall. That cleared the way for Faye to emerge from the shadow of his former boss and eventually from prison, take over the race and on Monday – the day of his 44th birthday – emerge as victor after his opponent conceded defeat.”

For the country’s youth, caught in the despair of endemic unemployment and economic hardship, the forty-four-year-old Faye is a breath of fresh air. The economy, ravaged by high levels of unemployment, and dramatic increases in food and energy prices, is in deep distress. For Senegal’s young population, which constitutes over sixty percent of the total population, joblessness has become the norm. An estimated one out of three young Senegalese are unemployed.

Faye’s strong pan-Africanist posture, and his distaste for the protectionism of former coloniser France and its interference in Senegal’s affairs could see a real shift in power relations. Especially if the new President removes tax exemption for France, replaces the CFA Franc, and puts an end to “the colonial pact” between France and West Africa. This pact has seen the continuation of the see-saw economics of European development and African underdevelopment. If Faye’s election talk of prioritising widespread prosperity for the people of Senegalese, over wholesale protectionism of France, is implemented, it could herald in a new dawn for the West African nation. A move towards greater country and currency sovereignty could play a role in reshaping the future not only of Senegal but of the region as a whole, especially as Niger and Burkina Faso are showing great determination to shake off the colonial yoke of their countries and re-navigate their future trajectories on the axis of economic sovereignty.

Senegal’s natural riches have not served its citizens. The country’s gold has been exported and enjoyed by foreign nations. One of Faye’s immediate tests will be to ensure that the large-scale oil and gas projects which are due to commence later this year are geared towards delivering jobs and other economic benefits to ordinary citizens.

When he took the Presidential reins in 2012, Sall spoke lyrically about his commitment to enhancing good governance, democracy, social justice, and equity in Senegal. But his administration was contaminated by corruption scandals involving Covid-19 funds, economic decline and the violent suppression of opposition and media groups.

Delivering a keynote address at a Harvard African Development conference shortly before he was elected as President of Senegal, Sall said, “Democratic change in Africa, like everywhere, is not an easy exercise.” He warned that the ideal of democracy can stay fragile even after years of practice.

But sometimes practice does not make perfect. In his first address to the nation on Monday evening, Faye said, “By electing me, the Senegalese people have chosen to break with the past.” Faye promised that he would govern with humility. He has set his priorities as fighting poverty, injustice, and corruption. He spoke of renegotiating gas, oil, fishing, and defence projects so that they better serve the Senegalese people. High on his list was judicial independence and job creation, two areas he felt were not adequately prioritised by his predecessor.

The mood of Senegal is electric with excitement and anticipation of a better tomorrow. Foreign markets are expected to be less enthusiastic. In his address, Faye offered some reassurance to investors while clearly articulating the terms of engagement. He said, “I would like to tell the international community, our bilateral and multilateral partners, that Senegal will always hold its place. It will remain a friendly country and a safe and reliable ally for any partner who engages with us in virtuous and respectful co-operation.”

For the youngest elected leader in Africa, Faye has a lot to prove. The fact that he is not a career politician may turn out to be an advantage not a disadvantage. His deep rural-grounded upbringing and orientation may serve him and Senegal well. It is hoped that Faye brings a new fervour of youthful exuberance and fresh ideas to deal with the challenges of Senegal. The massive infrastructure development work done by the Sall administration provides an opportunity for country development, especially if this is twinned with an ethos and practice of prosperity for all.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.