A strong constitutional institution is saving Senegal’s democracy, a law expert says

  • Senegal is expected to hold elections in April after the Constitutional Council rejected President Sall’s push for December.
  • A constitutional lawyer said Senegal has restored its reputation as a beacon of democracy in Africa.
  • Moves by President Macky Sall to delay elections are a huge dent for the ruling party.

Senegal’s legacy as a beacon of democracy in West Africa was rescued to some extent last week when its Constitutional Council failed to back President Macky Sall’s plan to delay presidential elections to 15 December.

The Council’s ruling came after a series of demonstrations, some of them violent, amid internet shutdowns.

On Friday, before he left for the just-ended African Union (AU) Summit, Sall said he would “without delay carry out the consultations necessary to organise the presidential election as soon as possible” in respect of the ruling.

News24 caught up with a leading constitutional lawyer from Senegal, Ibrahima Kane, to learn what the ruling meant for the country.

Improved prospects

There have been indications of trouble in Senegal since last year, with, at one stage, speculation that Sall wanted to run for a third term.

While he later declared he would not run, there was evidence of political persecution of one of his biggest rivals, Ousmane Sonko of the Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF).

Sonko was later jailed for “corrupting youth”, effectively disqualifying him from the race.

In his place, PASTEF has Bassirou Diomaye Faye among about 20 presidential hopefuls seeking to unseat the ruling Democratic Party which instead of Sall will have Amadou Ba the current prime minister seeking election.

Constitutional Council ruling should preclude further interference in the vote by Sall, or on his behalf, because the court “decided that he has nothing else to do but to hand over power in April 2024,” said Kane.

“His term would have finished and he cannot do other things but organise elections properly,” he said.

READ | Senegal president pledges to hold election ‘as soon as possible’

The ruling also vindicated the Constitutional Council itself, which has always been viewed as biased because of its handpicked members.

“In the past people used to have a lot of problems with the Constitutional Council because, by the way of the nomination of its members and the kind of decisions it used to take, it was seen by many as another arm of the executive to control the people.

“The ruling reconciled the Senegalese and the Constitutional Court,” he said, strengthening the country’s social contract.

He also said the ruling rescued Senegal from one man who was bent on derailing what the country stood for.

Sall did not want to find a solution and “by trying to postpone elections, he just wanted to show that he still had the power, and as a president, in the presidential system that we have in Senegal, he wanted to show that he was the one who is in control in one particular issue, which is how to chose our next leader”.

The constitutional court’s ruling shows that Senegal is a constitutional democracy, he said. 

The implications for Macky Sall

In Senegalese culture, Kane said, there’s a saying that “a person is always remembered by what he did last.”

And by trying to twist the constitution and apparently trying to influence the selection of the next president, “Sall has lost the sympathy of the people.”

Sall came into power after his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade tried to force a third term in 2012. Wade’s third-term attempt, worked to Sall’s advantage. However, Kane argues that Sall didn’t learn from that and instead toyed with the idea of a third term himself.

“Those lessons were there for Macky Sall, but all he has done in his presidency as AU chair, pushing for a G20 seat for Africa, going to negotiate in Ukraine: all that gain will be completely lost simply because he wanted to organise his stay unconstitutionally.

“He’s relatively young (62) he would have gone to do many good things after his presidency. What he has already done, will have an impact on the candidate chosen by his coalition because I don’t think Senegalese in their majority will once think of giving their representative majority to a party that helped Macky Sall want to hold on to power,” he said.

Senegal led by example

Kane said Senegal has refused to accept Sall’s attempts to frustrate democracy.

This is at a time when coups and unconstitutional changes of government are making a comeback, particularly in West Africa.

As such, “by refusing that, Senegal has shown the rest of Africa that when the population is united they can really stop any attempt by political leaders to destroy the social fabric and contract.”

Protesters ran from teargas during a march calling

Protesters ran from teargas during a march calling on authorities to respect the election date in Dakar on 16 February 2024.

“Despite the use of power in the last two years, and Sall’s declaration that he would reduce rival political parties to simple elements of the politics, he failed.

“Despite the attempt to capture the judiciary, we protected our system and did things the way that Africa should be proud of the achievements of the people. In so doing we are showing Africa, that there’s a possibility to have our democratic system that should be respected by the people and leaders,” he said.

Senegal readies for polls

The elections in Senegal will be closely watched owing to the pre-election hype and drama that has ensured coming into this year.

For Kane, Senegal’s long history of elections that go as far back as 1848 during the colonial era is rich.

Back then Kane said, the polls were violent and the earliest election violence of the modern day was in 1988, when Wade pretended to have won the election against President Abdou Diouf.

“We had curfews, state of emergency, and so on but that’s all in the past. We have learned a lot, we have a social contract that citizens value.

” I don’t think we will have a violent election,” he said.

Since independence Senegal has funded its elections because “the government always makes sure that the fund exists and is available.”

He said this election was no exception.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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