Senegal: The seeds of an institutional coup

Photo of Macky Sall, president of Senegal. Screenshot from the YouTube channel of Investir au Pays. Fair use.

This post first appeared in Afriquexxi on February 7, 2024. This edited version is being republished on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.

Without any legal justification and acting unilaterally, President Macky Sall of Senegal halted the electoral process three weeks before the initial round of the presidential elections were scheduled to take place, plunging the country into an unprecedented institutional crisis.

The forthcoming presidential elections in Senegal will stand out from previous ones for two key reasons. First, for the first time in the country’s history, the incumbent president will not figure on the ballot papers. This, in theory, opens up the political landscape and encourages a genuine debate on future choices. Second, the opposition’s main leader, Ousmane Sonko, will also not be a candidate.

However, on February 3, the situation took a dramatic turn when Macky Sall addressed the country and repealed the decree setting the date for the first round of the presidential elections on February 25. He alleged a constitutional crisis between the Constitutional Council, whose two of his seven members face corruption charges, and the National Assembly, which had set up a parliamentary committee to investigate these accusations. Twenty candidates stood for election before the Senegalese citizens. However, two important figures have been excluded from the race. Karim Wade of the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) was disqualified for possessing dual Senegalese and French nationalities, despite a decree, published on January 16, 2014, renouncing his French allegiance. The other, Ousmane Sonko, the leader of the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity Party (PASTEF), has been detained since June 2023, initially placed under house arrest, then transferred to the Sébikhotane prison, with his appeal ultimately dismissed by the Constitutional Council.

The official campaign was scheduled to start on February 4 and last three weeks. But, in fact, it started a long time ago: in March 2021, when Sonko was accused of raping and making death threats to a young woman, Adijj Sarr, and held in the investigative unit of the local police station. This incident sparked widespread debate, touching on issues such as the politicization of public administration, the integrity of the Senegalese judicial system, and concerns over corruption and public fund management. These concerns were already at the core of the local and legislative elections in 2022, which saw the opposition coalition making significant inroads and threatening the foundations of the presidential majority.

A highly politicized administration

Beyond the judiciary, the entire electoral process that led to the proclamation of the final candidates on January 20 has been marred by accusations of obstruction and bias. As early as September 2023, the withdrawal of sponsorship forms, which are required so candidates may be sponsored by a portion of the electorate (between 0.8 and 1 percent of the electoral register), local elected officials, or parliamentarians, sparked controversy. Indeed, the General Directorate of Elections (DGE) refused to issue forms to Ousmane Sonko's representative, arguing that he had been removed from the electoral rolls following his conviction for ‘corruption of youth’ and his indictment for ‘undermining state security.’

Following this refusal, the opposition initiated several legal actions in the courts of Senegal and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to challenge this administrative decision. While the ECOWAS Court of Justice ruled in November 2023 that the Senegalese state did not violate Ousmane Sonko's rights by removing him from the electoral lists and dissolving PASTEF, the verdict of the Senegalese courts was more favourable to the opposition's arguments, after numerous twists and turns.

When the Ziguinchor court (located in Casamance, 450 km from Dakar, the country's capital) challenged Sonko's removal and requested his reinstatement and the issuance of sponsorship forms by the DGE, the latter refused to execute this judgment, arguing that the state would appeal; this despite the fact that in electoral matters, any judicial decision must be implemented immediately, irrespective of appeals by other parties. When the National Autonomous Electoral Commission (CENA) publicly called out the DGE in October 2023, demanding that it provide the sponsorship forms to the PASTEF's representative, all the commissioners were dismissed and replaced by presidential decree. Although the commissioners’ terms had expired since May 2021 and the opposition had long criticized their illegal retention, their dismissal four months before the election only intensified the perception of electoral institutions being brought to heel by the executive.

These episodes concluded on December 15, when the Dakar district court upheld the judgment of the Ziguinchor court. However, despite this turn of events, Sonko's representative was never able to obtain the sponsorship forms. As expected in such a context, this candidacy was rejected, and, even after a final appeal by Sonko's lawyers, the Constitutional Council, in its decision on January 20, justified this exclusion on the grounds of Sonko's final conviction for ‘defamation’ and ‘public insults’, rather than the original argument of his conviction for ‘corruption of youth.’

A judiciary under pressure

During the inauguration in January 2024 of the new courthouse in Rufisque, a suburb of the capital, the former public prosecutor and current first president of the Dakar Court of Appeal, Amady Diouf, condemned ‘the contempt towards judges who should never be mocked or indulged.’ For him, it represents ‘a sign of moral failure and the beginning of a democracy's collapse.’

This speech reflects a discomfort that has been growing for years within the judicial institution, with criticisms primarily focusing on its partiality and subservience to the executive branch. These issues had even led to the resignation of a member of the Higher Judicial Council (CSM) who, as early as 2018, were already denouncing the malfunctioning of the justice system.

The legal cases that resulted in Ousmane Sonko's ineligibility were marked by their political nature, namely the complaint for rape and death threats by Adji Sarr in February 2021, which led to a firm two-year prison sentence for ‘corruption of youth’ in June 2023; and the complaint for defamation and public insults by Minister Mame Mbaye Niang, which ended in a six-month suspended sentence and a fine of FCFA 200 million (approximately USD 330,000).

Alongside these legal proceedings, political demonstrations were heavily suppressed by security forces, resulting in the deaths of at least 56 people between March 2021 and August 2023, according to Amnesty International.

Incarceration has become the norm

The fact that several members of PASTEF have been arrested and detained for ‘calls to insurrection’ after advocating for protests or speaking out against what they perceive as abuses of power only strengthens the perception of bias. Among these are mayors: Djamil Sané of Parcelles Assainies (Dakar), Adama Sarr of Keur Massar-Nord, Mohamed Bilal Diatta of Keur Massar-Sud, and Pape Sow of Sangalkam, along with several other municipal officials.

In April 2023, the national secretary of PASTEF, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, Sonko's replacement candidate, was arrested at his office in the Ministry of Finance for condemning the ‘pauperisation of justice’ in a Facebook post. He was charged with contempt of court. These charges were later intensified when, in July 2023, he and Sonko were accused of ‘undermining state security, calling for insurrection, and criminal association’ following the administrative dissolution of PASTEF.

By September 2023, the committee for the release of political prisoners estimated that over 1,000 individuals had been arrested and imprisoned since March 2021 in the context of the political repression related to these cases. Incarceration has become the norm rather than the exception. This issue is compounded by the judiciary's disregard for legal procedures, as shown by accusation chambers not responding to requests for provisional release (neither affirmatively nor negatively), in violation of the criminal procedure code. Such is the case for Cheikh Oumar Diagne and Abdou Karim Gueye, two activists close to PASTEF, arrested in March 2023 for ‘calling for insurrection, violence against institutions, and undermining state security,’ and since detained in Rebeuss, Dakar's main prison.

Drift towards hyper-presidentialism

Recently, the exclusion of Karim Wade from the presidential candidate list, following an appeal by another candidate, Rose Wardini, regarding his dual French–Senegalese nationality, sparked a new wave of criticism against the Constitutional Council. Denouncing the ‘corruption’ and ‘conflicts of interest’ of two among the seven judges, as well as the leakage of the judgment before the Constitutional Council's public declaration, the PDS (Senegalese Democratic Party) advocated for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry commission on January 31, supported by a portion of the majority deputies.

These twists and turns highlight the manipulation of the judiciary by political actors, starting with the executive, especially during Macky Sall's two terms (he has been in office since 2012). Before Sonko, two other opposition figures, Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall, were barred from the 2019 presidential race following judicial decisions — they were convicted in 2015 and 2018, respectively for ‘illicit enrichment’ and ‘fraud involving public funds.’

But, on February 3, Senegalese hyper-presidentialism reached a new level with Macky Sall's unilateral suspension of the electoral process. Indeed, this decision, made even before the parliamentary commission could hear the members of the Constitutional Council and verify the allegations made by Karim Wade, is more a result of one man and his clan's desire to monopolise power and shield themselves from potential prosecutions than a genuine concern for protecting the institutions.

In many ways, this decision constitutes an institutional coup d'état through its unilateral and unconstitutional nature, which could lead to a crisis with potentially disastrous consequences for the country.

Read our special feature: Senegal, a democratic model up for reinvention.


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