Understanding the Situation in Senegal: Defend Democracy

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 By: Madi Jobarteh 

Senegal is at the brink of collapse simply because Pres. Macky Sall is hellbent on standing for a third re-election in 2024 claiming that his first term (2012 – 2019) does not count. His surrogates and himself seem to maintain that the term limit began in 2019 following the constitutional referendum he had organized in March 2016. That referendum was meant to reduce the presidential term limit from seven to five years. Hence for him and his surrogates, his second term, 2019 – 2024 should be the first term thereby making him eligible to contest again!

While Macky had intimated that his first term would not count, it is also on record that he had said at other times that he would not seek a third term, i.e., stand in the 2024 presidential elections. Because of his flip flopping on this issue Macky therefore continues to raise a lot of controversy and agitation from the opposition, civil society, and citizens in general who are determined not to allow him to seek a third term.

Thus, the current political crisis in Senegal is primarily the creation of Macky Sall. The situation became utterly complicated when leading opposition figure Ousmane Sonko became embroiled in a rape trial which has now concluded after two years without a conviction on that particular charge. Rather, all of a sudden, an added charge and sentence – ‘corrupting the youth’ was imposed on him for two years in prison. With this sentence Sonko is effectively eliminated in the presidential election.

Those who are familiar with the politics of Senegal and in particular the tactics of Macky himself in how he handles the opposition are not surprised that Sonko could not be found guilty of rape after all. The Sonko scenario fits well with the stories of both former Dakar mayor and charismatic politician Khalifa Sall and of Karim Wade, the son of former Pres. Wade, who are both staunch rivals of Macky Sall.

As he was expected to pose a major challenge to Macky in the 2019 presidential elections, Macky caused Khalifa Sall to be arrested and removed from office only to slam him with corruption charges in 2017. The man could not even take his seat in the parliament which he won! He was eventually sentenced for five years in jail for corruption in 2018. But after less than two years in jail, Macky pardoned him in 2019. Because of his conviction. Khalifa Sall was unable to stand for the 2019 presidential election.

Before Khalifa Sall, there was also the case of Karim Wade who was also arrested and detained in 2013 for corruption. In 2015 he was sentenced to six years but once again after three years in jail he was pardoned by Macky in 2016. Because of that conviction Karim was disqualified to stand for elections in 2019 to challenge Macky Sall. Both Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade maintain that their convictions were politically motivated.

Therefore, the story of Ousmane Sonko for rape cannot be far removed from the cases of Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, both political rivals to Macky. In all these cases, there is always a strong, charismatic, and equally formidable opposition figure who poses a serious challenge to Macky. It is obvious that Macky is once again seeking the liquidation of Sonko so that with a conviction Sonko will not be able to stand in the 2024 elections. Then after the election and having served a few years in jail, he would come to pardon Sonko also as he did for Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade.

As a matter of principle, I had stood with Adji Sarr all throughout the court case and was eagerly hoping her story would stand. But I am hugely disappointed that the prosecutors could not prove their case but rather the court had to come up with a strange charge of ‘corrupting the youth.’ At the end of the day, the trial lends credence to some narratives that claim that Adji was used to frame Sonko in a political power play. This narrative is indeed plausible given that the investigators and prosecutors are unable to prove rape. Either way, what this case proves once more is the intolerable way women are abused and exploited in our society. If the rape was proved or if Adji was manipulated by powerful men in their power play, at the end of the day the young lady is just a victim either way. This unfortunate situation therefore has huge consequences both for herself and for all girls and women.

For the masses of Senegal, they are protesting because, on one hand, they perceived the trial of Sonko as a political strategy to eliminate all opponents to Macky Sall. On the other hand, the people are protesting because of the huge corruption, inefficiency, and impunity of the Sall Government. It must be noted that the emergence of Ousmane Sonko brings a lot of high hopes as he declares his stance against corruption and impunity in Senegal.

Macky Sall gave Senegal and Africa a lot of hope when he won the controversial elections in 2012 thus defeating Abdoulaye Wade. The entire opposition together with the civil society in Senegal united to fight against Wade simply because he also wanted to stand for a third term. When Wade came to power in 2000, he led a number of constitutional and institutional reforms intended to strengthen democracy and good governance in Senegal. But Wade fell out with everyone when he stated that his first term does not count after he initiated a constitutional referendum in 2001. He then attempted to further change the law in 2011 to justify his third term bid leading to the creation of a protest movement on June 23, 2011, otherwise known as M23.  

I was there in the middle of Dakar between December 2011 and January 2012 together with scores of civil society activists from across West Africa protesting at the l’Obelisque against Pres. Wade. We were protesting together with Macky Sall and fellow opposition leaders at the time. Thanks to those protests and massive popular support, Macky was elected in April 2012. Macky’s first term ran from 2012 to 2019. His current second term runs up to February 2024. Therefore, why cannot Macky be upfront to categorically indicate that he will not seek a third term?

At the end of the day, Macky is seeking a third term simply because of the intense corruption and inefficiency of his leadership. His government is notorious for awarding massive contracts in infrastructure, oil and gas to his family members, friends, and political cronies. As typical with such leadership, Macky is not comfortable having someone like Ousmane Sonko succeed him because it is obvious that Sonko is coming with a whole new narrative and a vision that will not spare corrupt officials. Thus, for Macky to keep his loot and escape accountability it is imperative that he succeeds himself. This is the crux of the matter.

For this reason, Macky is therefore endangering not only himself and Senegal but also the Gambia and the entire West Africa subregion and even beyond. Just like Wade, Macky will definitely not succeed even with the conviction of Ousmane Sonko. The entire opposition and the civil society in Senegal will not sit by to witness yet another corrupt leader to derail their democracy. Thus, by pushing with this unholy agenda Macky is risking a military coup or a civil war in Senegal which can only bring severe challenges to an already volatile situation in the subregion.

The issue of presidential terms coupled with corrupt and inefficient leadership are the primary reasons why leaders refuse to step down. This is why there are crises of governance in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea while democracy remains under strain from the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, and Sierra Leone to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana not to mention Nigeria, Togo, or Liberia, among others. It is indeed concerning that while West Africa saw an emergence of democracy since 2000 with the introduction of presidential term limits and peaceful transfer of power yet two decades later, we are witnessing the erosion of these democratic norms and standards across the subregion.

For example, it was only the Gambia and Togo that do not have term limits in their constitutions as well as opposed a presidential term limit for member states as proposed by ECOWAS in 2015. Since assuming power in 2017 Pres. Adama Barrow has refused to bring about constitutional reforms to institutionalize term limits. Just like Wade and Macky Sall, we saw how Pres. Barrow also rejected the 2020 draft constitution simply because he did not want his first term (2017 – 2022) to count. Therefore, what is happening in Senegal must be fully understood and confronted because it represents a huge setback for democracy and good governance in not only Senegal but also particularly in the Gambia and the subregion as a whole.

While events in Senegal are a legitimate matter of concern for Gambians, it is important that Gambians fully understand the history and dynamics in that country so that we can better position ourselves to defend democracy. One may wish to support Sall or Sonko, but it is important that we recognize that it is democracy that is at stake which must be defended. Macky Sall poses a clear danger to democracy in Senegambia. Democracy is what encompasses all aspects of development, security, and the future. Macky Sall must be confronted and stopped from contesting the February 2024 presidential elections for a third term so that a clear message is sent to all those other presidents who are contemplating self-perpetuation in power.

For Senegambia, Our Homeland

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