INTELBRIEF

February 15, 2024

IntelBrief: Postponed Elections Trigger Another Wave of Unrest in Senegal

AP Photo/Leo Correa

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Violent clashes between protestors and the police erupted in cities throughout Senegal late last week after President Macky Sall abruptly announced the postponement of upcoming presidential elections.
  • Critics and members of the opposition in Senegal claim the election postponement was President Sall’s way of unconstitutionally extending his term in office and bolstering his chosen successor’s chances in the election.
  • Public frustrations over high youth unemployment and alleged corruption, including the erosion of democratic norms by President Sall, have mounted against the government in recent years, fueling grievances and societal unrest.
  • The political instability in Senegal, coupled with the widespread disillusionment by youth with the government and entrenched elites, heightens the risk of violent extremist or terrorist activity potentially spilling across the border, particularly from neighboring Mali.

Violent clashes between protestors and the police erupted in cities throughout Senegal late last week after Senegalese President Macky Sall abruptly announced the postponement of upcoming presidential elections. The protests, where primarily young demonstrators clashed with Senegalese security forces, resulted in at least three dead and hundreds reportedly arrested across the country, including journalists. Senegal’s eight public universities held a two-day strike earlier this week in protest of the death of a student during demonstrations in the northern city of Saint-Louis. Amidst the mounting unrest, Senegalese authorities cut mobile internet access on Tuesday ahead of a banned silent protest, citing concerns that “hate messages that have already provoked violent demonstrations” were disseminated on social networks. Reports over disproportionate use of force against protestors, as well as the restrictions on civic space, have led the United Nations and France to voice concern over the situation, with the UN calling for an investigation into the deaths of demonstrators. Amidst the unrest, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has sent a diplomatic mission to Senegal to discuss the political situation.

The recent tensions in Senegal began to mount after President Sall announced earlier this month a delay to presidential elections originally scheduled for February 25. The decision followed a dispute between the country’s National Assembly and the Constitutional Court over the exclusion of some opposition candidates from the ballot. One of those barred from running was the controversial, jailed opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, whose sentencing last year for “corrupting youth” sparked violent protests throughout the country. Sonko is deeply popular among Senegal’s youth – many, including some as young as ten years old, were involved in last year’s protests. Sonko’s supporters contend that his conviction and various legal battles have been politically motivated and aimed at tempering his eligibility to run for office, further fueling disillusionment with the government already widespread among the country’s youth. Karim Wade, the son of former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, was also deemed ineligible for the ballot. The Constitutional Court disqualified Wade due to his dual citizenship at the time he formally declared his candidacy, despite the fact he had renounced his French citizenship three days prior to his announcement. The Court’s decision led his party – the Senegalese Democratic Party – to request a postponement of the election, listing concerns with the Court’s decision-making and the elimination of opposition candidates.

The law allowing the election to be postponed until December was ratified by Senegal’s parliament, which some, including members of the opposition, contend occurred under pressure. Opposition lawmakers in the National Assembly unsuccessfully attempted to block the proceedings until security forces intervened and forcibly removed them from the central dais, with several lawmakers reportedly detained. President Sall has promised to step down, with Prime Minister Amadou Ba as his chosen successor, and justified the postponement as necessary to resolve the dispute over the eligibility of candidates. Yet, critics and members of the opposition claim the move was President Sall’s way of extending his term in office, with some denouncing it as a “constitutional coup.” The accusation is particularly salient for a country that has often been considered a bastion of democracy in a region that has experienced a recent string of military coups, including in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

Some analysts have also suggested that President Sall feared Prime Minister Ba was in danger of losing the election. The postponement was a means to buy time for the president’s party and ruling coalition to bolster its electoral chances potentially. According to Wole Ojewale, regional coordinator for Central Africa at the Institute for Security Studies, “[President Sall’s] party is losing momentum. There are indications that they probably want to see how they can rejig, or probably replace their candidate.” Yet, the delayed elections are likely to only further public discontent and unrest, particularly among Senegal’s youth. Public frustrations in Senegal have mounted in recent years over high youth unemployment and accusations of systemic government corruption, including the erosion of democratic norms by President Sall. Since taking office in 2012, President Sall has cracked down on freedom of the press, jailed journalists and political opponents, and amended the country’s constitution to increase presidential term limits. The uncertainty around whether President Sall would run for a third term helped fuel the deadly opposition protests last summer, as many Senegalese were frustrated at what they viewed as a betrayal by the president for reneging on campaign promises to limit presidential terms. Despite announcing he would not run for a third term – a promise that quelled some of the previous unrest – the recent move to postpone the election reignites preexisting grievances. It also provides an important data point for critics of the country’s democratic backsliding.

Senegal, until recently, was heralded as a relatively stable, democratic outlier in the Sahel, a region that has continued to be the epicenter of global terrorist activity. Although the Sahel has lost some attention from policymakers and international media due to the ongoing conflict in Gaza, it continues to be the region most impacted by terrorism. According to the Global Terrorism Index, the Sahel represented 43 percent of global terrorism deaths in 2022, a seven percent increase from the previous year. Terrorist actors in the region have proven adept at exploiting local grievances – such as those mounting in Senegal – for propaganda and recruitment throughout West Africa. Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS) have taken advantage of porous borders, corruption, weak rule of law, government repression, human rights violations, and other multifaceted regional challenges like environmental degradation, climate change, food insecurity, migration, and economic instability. The ability of terrorist groups to capitalize on and amplify these complex and systemic issues hinders efforts to build societal resilience and the necessary conditions to break the cycles of violence. The political instability in Senegal, coupled with the widespread disillusionment by youth with the government and political elites, heightens the risk of violent extremist or terrorist activity potentially spilling across the border, particularly from neighboring Mali. If the political crisis becomes protracted, the risk could potentially increase, further threatening stability in the country and region more broadly.

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