Senegal opposition stronger after vote turmoil: experts

In a bid to retain power, Senegal’s President Macky Sall’s postponement of the February elections has worked in his oppositions favour, many of whom have been strengthened following the chaos. Picture: JOHN WESSELS / AFP

In a bid to retain power, Senegal’s President Macky Sall’s postponement of the February elections has worked in his oppositions favour, many of whom have been strengthened following the chaos. Picture: JOHN WESSELS / AFP

Published Mar 19, 2024


Senegal's anti-establishment figureheads have emerged stronger from a three-year struggle against President Macky Sall's government and the courts after their release from prison ahead of this month's election, analysts say.

Firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and his number two, presidential candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye, can now harness new momentum for the March 24 vote after weeks of crisis.

They walked free on Thursday under an amnesty law proposed by Sall in a bid to defuse weeks of deadly unrest triggered by his postponement of the election initially scheduled for February 25.

The Constitutional Council stepped in, forcing Sall to set the election for March 24, and the Supreme Court on Friday rejected an attempt by disqualified candidates to cancel the date.

The chaos was one of traditionally stable Senegal's worst crises since independence from France in 1960.

"We are witnessing a decisive turning point," said political scientist Maurice Dione, who believes the two men's release so close to polling day has galvanised the anti-establishment opposition.

Sall tried to "reduce the opposition to its most minor expression", but he committed a "serious political error" because Senegal has a strong democratic culture and its institutions "proved their capacity for resilience", he said.

Thousands of jubilant opposition supporters flooded the streets of the capital Dakar on Friday following the releases, a testimony to the enduring popularity of Sonko and Faye despite their jail time.

Faye is now believed to be a frontrunner in the race for the top job.

"In Senegal, politicians who have suffered lots of injustice find themselves strongly backed," Dione added, saying they could exploit a sense of victimhood during the remainder of the campaign.

- Opposition 'strengthened' -

Sonko had been embroiled in a series of legal cases since 2021 that he said were politically motivated and aimed to curtail his bid for the presidency.

The unrest linked to his legal woes has left dozens dead. Hundreds of his supporters were arrested and his party dissolved.

Sonko was jailed in July last year on a string of charges, including provoking insurrection, conspiracy with terrorist groups and endangering state security.

After the Constitutional Council rejected his bid for the top job, he endorsed Faye, who himself had been imprisoned since April 2023 and charged with contempt of court, defamation and acts likely to compromise public peace.

Alassane Beye, a political science researcher at Saint-Louis University, highlighted the "resilience" of Sonko and his followers who managed to "diversify" their options to find a presidential candidate

Sonko and Faye have emerged from prison "in the middle of the election campaign and that strengthens them", especially as the latter was not convicted, according to Gilles Yabi, founder of the West African think-tank Wathi.

As for Sonko, his liberation in such conditions suggests that previous convictions for corrupting a minor and defamation were "a sort of political witch hunt", Yabi added.

A powerful orator capable of drawing huge crowds to his events and extremely popular among young Senegalese, Sonko can now bring his influence to bear on the campaign, said Yabi.

Faye will also be granted time on national television that he had been deprived of while in jail to boost his campaigning.

- 'All for nothing' -

For Seydi Gassama, executive director of Amnesty International Senegal, the pair's release from jail will help soothe tensions ahead of the vote.

The security and defence budgets swelled to "wage war" on Sonko's dissolved PASTEF party, costing human lives, freedoms and economic damage, he added.

"We are delighted that a line has been drawn under this affair," said Elimane Kane, a member of the Aar Sunu Election ("Protect our Election") collective that spearheaded the protests against Sall's postponement.

"But what we went through, the dozens of deaths, the rise of hatred among Senegalese, the trauma... we cannot continue as if that had not happened," he told AFP.

"That's what really hurts: when you realise that all that fuss was for nothing."