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A New President: What the Election of Bassirou Diomaye Faye Means For Senegal


Sarah Reeves


Background

On March 24th, 2024, Bassirou Diomaye Faye won Senegal’s presidential election with approximately 54 percent of the vote. His win shocked many across the world, as Faye was released from prison only two weeks prior to the election and will be the youngest president Senegal has ever had at only 44 years old. 


Faye is a member of the opposition party, a tax collector, and an anti-establishment figure with no previous government experience. A mere two weeks before the election, Faye was in prison facing charges of spreading false news, defamation, and contempt of court alongside another controversial opposition politician: Ousamne Sonko. Sonko faced charges of provoking insurrection for his role in political protests and was barred from the running due to these criminal convictions which yielded a five-year disqualification by Senegal’s Constitutional Council. Sonko chose Faye to run in his place as the representative for the opposition party; thus, many Senegalese voters see Faye as simply a proxy for Sonko. 


Sonko’s jailing and subsequent disqualification were the result of deadly protests. The first set of these protests occurred between 2021 and early June of 2023. In 2021, Sonko was arrested for a rape accusation and on June 1st of 2023, was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison on charges of “corrupting youth” in a case that many believed to be politically motivated. Both Sonko himself and members of the opposition not only claimed that the rape accusation was fabricated but also that this was an instance of President Sall attempting to silence and remove his political opponents. In March of 2021, Sonko was arrested again during a political demonstration in the capital of Dakar on the way to his court appearance for the rape charge.


In the wake of this demonstration and arrest, opposition members launched five days of protests and riots across Senegal. The arrest seemed to catalyze young Senegalese people to air their grievances with the ruling party. Across cities like Dakar, Medina, Ngor, and Bignona, young people gathered to show their dissatisfaction with the lack of job opportunities, the economic hardships due to the pandemic, and the ways of the former president. Senegalese security forces clashed with protestors in an attempt to stop the demonstrations. Across these five days of protests, 14 citizens died, with 12 of these deaths resulting from gunshots fired by security forces.

 

While there were sporadic protests between the conclusion of these five days and June of 2023, organized protests launched once again following Sonko’s conviction on June 1, 2023. Demonstrations broke out immediately following the news of Sonko’s conviction and continued into the following week, clashing with security forces once more and resulting in the deaths of at least 23 people. The government deployed military forces and blocked both the internet and social media applications in an attempt to prevent further violence. 


Lead-Up to the Election

As a response to the unrest and the disqualification of Sonko, the leading opposition candidate in the election, Senegal’s current president, Macky Sall, attempted to postpone the vote until December 15th via a presidential decree. The vote was originally set to take place on February 25th. Sall asserted that the postponement of the election would uphold its credibility given the turmoil within the country and the disqualification of popular opponents like Soko. However, Senegal’s Constitutional Council struck down President Sall’s decree on February 15th, ruling it “contrary to the constitution." Nevertheless, the decree was successful in postponing the election by one month, as the government acknowledged that there was not sufficient time between the February 15th ruling and the planned date of February 25th for the presidential candidates to effectively campaign. 


Sall’s decree sparked another occurrence of violent political turmoil, as opposition leaders viewed the decree as an unfair attempt by Sall to stay in power. Unhappy with the postponement, young people protested throughout the country, donning t-shirts with phrases like “Protect Our Election” and holding up signs with phrases like “Free Senegal,” “Respect the Election Date,” and “No to a constitutional coup d’Etat.” During these demonstrations, police forces disrupted the protests by using teargas and making hundreds of arrests. At least three people were killed by security forces during this set of protests. 


Following the Constitutional Council’s decision on the illegitimacy of the postponement, President Sall stated that the vote would be held “as soon as possible” in an effort to stop massive protests in the Senegal community.


Faye’s Role in the Election

Bassirou Diomaye Faye entered the political realm only 10 days before he was elected as president. Faye and Sonko met while imprisoned together for their acts of protest against the former regime. When the men were released from jail and the news got out about Sonko’s disqualification, Sonko endorsed Faye as his replacement. The two entered the campaign trail immediately following their release, seeking to merge their names in the minds of voters. Following nearly three years of protests and civil unrest, opposition supporters who were unhappy with the former regime quickly embraced Faye. 


Before this election, Faye was essentially unknown to the Senegalese public. The only other election he had been a part of was the mayoral election in his hometown of Ndiaganiao, which he lost. Thus, the role of president marks his first successful elected position.


Faye’s main opponent, Amadou Ba, was the former government-backed candidate. Ba conceded the race on Monday, March 25th after Faye won with 54.28 percent of the vote. Opposition supporters celebrated the news of Faye’s win triumphantly, dancing in the streets, waving flags, sounding horns, singing, and setting off fireworks. Faye will be the fifth president of Senegal since their independence in 1960. Moreover, once inaugurated, Faye will become the youngest president in Africa.


Looking Toward the Future

The election of Bassirou Diomaye Faye hopes to restore peace, stability, and strength to the formerly conflict-free nation. Faye’s success marks the first time that an opposition leader has won the presidential election in the first round, reflecting a widespread demand for change in Senegal. For many, the government’s response to popular protest, as well as the government’s actions related to the election protests, acted as a deterrent for the re-election of the ruling party and instead encouraged support for the opposition party.


In a speech that followed the news of his successful election, Faye pledged to the Senegalese people to fight against corruption and reform the economy. Throughout his campaign, Faye detailed his idea to establish a new currency and to get rid of the current currency: the CFA franc, which was carried over from the colonial era and backed by the euro. He also stated that he plans to promote national companies to improve Senegal’s control over oil and gas resources and avoid “economic enslavement.” Further, Faye noted that he will strive to improve living conditions and address the country’s unemployment problems. Lastly, from an international perspective, Faye wants to reform the West African regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and move away from their former colonizer: France. 


Though Senegal has undergone political turmoil since 2021, Faye’s presidency promises to be a light at the end of the tunnel. With the support of many young Senegalese people, Faye’s promises for reform have already marked a drastic shift from the repression felt by Senegalese citizens during President Sall’s rule. This transfer of power symbolizes a new chapter in Senegal’s history, and it represents a democratic beacon of hope amidst a region of authoritarian unrest. 



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