Senegal’s President uses Political Maneuvering to Mask Authoritarian Tactics

Earlier this year Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, embarked on his second term as president pledging “constructive” dialogue with the opposition.

This followed tense elections in which Sall was accused of preventing some of his main rivals from running.

In principle, political dialogue is essential. But in Senegal it’s often used as a way to manipulate public opinion and provide breathing space for a government under fire for its authoritarian tactics.

Throughout Sall’s tenure it has given cover to multiple encroachments on Senegalese democracy. This includes tampering with the rules of the electoral system, empty promises of dialogue and violations of the rights and freedoms of the opposition and government opponents.

These tactics threaten national cohesion, progress and stability in the country.

Broken Promises

On taking office in 2012, President Sall cast aside a charter of structural reforms for national governance, the National Conferences Charter, that he himself had signed.

He also backtracked on his oft-repeated commitment to reduce his term in office from seven to five years.

Then, despite opposition and in a very short timeframe, in March 2016 he organized a constitutional referendum.

But the proposed changes – which would have led to the balance of power being distributed more evenly, thus streamlining the country’s extremely top-heavy political system – failed to generate a strong consensus. In the end, no serious reforms were ever implemented that would temper the president’s political, legal and institutional supremacy over the executive and judicial power.

Opposition Persecution

As a way to demonstrate his commitment to inclusive government, Sall then launched a national dialogue on May 28 – the day after the referendum. This brought together representatives of the political class, civil society, the private sector, trade unions, and religious and traditional leaders. Some members of the opposition took part in good faith.

The talks led to the quick release, through presidential pardon, of Karim Wade, the son and former minister of ex-President Abdoulaye Wade.

But Wade’s release shouldn’t be interpreted as signaling that the dialogue initiative was effective.

A year earlier, Wade had been sentenced to six years in prison for misappropriation of funds, by a special anti-corruption court. Established in 1981, and revived by Sall in 2012 after a long period of dormancy, the special court has been heavily criticized.

The UN stated that Wade’s imprisonment was arbitrary and the West African States Community Court of Justice found that constitutionally, as a former minister, he should have been brought before the Senegalese High Court of Justice.

Sall, therefore, had no choice but to free Wade. But he also clearly took this opportunity to force Wade – a strong contender in the presidential elections – into exile in Qatar.

Khalifa Sall – then-mayor of Dakar and another leading opposition contender – was then arrested in 2017 for allegedly embezzling US$3 million in public funds. Critics accused Macky Sall of making up the charges to remove him. Khalifa was released on a presidential pardon last month.

Sall’s government has also continued its authoritarian tactics with systematic bans on opposition protests.

Furthermore, Sall’s promise to institutionalize political dialogue failed to materialize: there was just one round of talks during his first term.

Crisis of confidence

Parliamentary elections, held in July 2017, are seen to have contributed to the crisis facing the country. There were accusations of major irregularities. And after the chaotic elections, Sall refused the opposition’s request for a non-partisan Minister of the Interior. The position is meant to be free of party affiliation, as it had been for about 20 years.

Sall then pushed through a reform introducing electoral sponsoring, without consultation. This requires all candidates standing in presidential elections to collect the signatures of at least 1% of the registered voters before being validated. This made it much harder for candidates to run.

Opposition protests were subject to crackdowns and their leaders were arrested.

This new sponsoring law proved to be a boon to the government during the 2019 presidential elections because it limited the number of candidates.

Candidates did not have access to the electoral roll to confirm the validity of their sponsor signatures and thousands of sponsor signatures were invalidated on the false claim that they were not registered to vote. As many as 19 electoral hopefuls had their applications rejected by the Constitutional Council. In the end, only five candidates were able to run.

Today national dialogue is at a standstill, and it’s not surprising given the political maneuvering that undermines it. This presents a worrying future scenario for Senegal.

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast ForWord.The Conversation

Maurice Soudieck Dione, Enseignant-chercheur en sciences politiques, Université Gaston Berger

First appeared in The Conversation.

Photo Credit: Photo : Julien Daniel / OECD