Senegal: ‘My work as president is far from over’ – President Sall

By Marwane Ben Yahmed, correspondent in Dakar
Posted on Wednesday, 1 June 2022 11:09

Macky Sall in the gardens of the presidential palace, Dakar, in December 2018. © Senegalese presidency
Macky Sall in the gardens of the presidential palace, Dakar, in December 2018. © Senegalese presidency

The impact of the war in Ukraine, coups d'état in West Africa, relationships with his political opponents... A few weeks ahead of legislative elections and less than two years before the presidential election, the Senegalese head of state talked to us about his record.

Macky Sall is active on all fronts. Senegal’s president, who also holds the presidency of the African Union (AU) until next February, has very little time to rest. Between the preparation and validation of his coalition’s lists for July’s legislative elections and dealing with the consequences of respective crises (Covid-19, war in Ukraine), from local emergencies to burning issues – whether African or international – the presidential agenda is Sisyphean. Every day, from dawn until late into the night, the schedule is chock-a-block, provoking sweating and migraines among his cabinet members and those within his protocol department.

Re-elected in February 2019 with 58% of the vote, “Macky”, as his compatriots call him, intends to strike a blow during the legislative elections. The ultimate electoral test before 2024’s presidential election, this contest has been prepared in detail by the president himself, unlike last January’s local elections, which saw the opposition glean some highly symbolic victories, including in Dakar.

The leader of Benno Bokk Yakaar (BBY) wants a large majority in the Assembly in order to have free rein and demonstrate his political strength. And to work, starting in August, with a prime minister from within his coalition’s ranks.

The Senegalese head of state talked with us at the presidential palace on 12 May, two weeks before the terrible fire at Tivaouane hospital forced him to cut short a trip to Equatorial Guinea, where he was due to preside over an AU summit, and to sack his health minister, Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr.

Sall tried to postpone this interview, citing the imminent arrival of former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan and proposing a casual chat instead. We had to promise him that our meeting would not last too long. As we asked him questions about the AU and Senegal, he got into the game, eager to explain his actions and ambitions. The session ended up lasting more than an hour. And Goodluck Jonathan had to be patient…

You chair the AU until February 2023. While everyone thought your main mission would be the post-Covid recovery, or even the management of a number of specific crises (coups d’état in Mali, Guinea and Burkina, terrorism in the Sahel, the Ethiopian dossier…), the war in Ukraine, full of consequences, has broken out. What are your priorities?

Macky Sall: Unfortunately, they are numerous. In the space of two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a particularly worrying economic situation, which has resulted in a significant drop in African growth, and even, in some cases, in recessions.

Just as we were starting to get our heads above water, the war in Ukraine broke out. As a result, the price of petroleum products has risen sharply, the price of foodstuffs – especially wheat – has increased significantly, the price of fertilisers and seeds has gone up, and so on. All this has a very strong impact on the cost of living, on the purchasing power of Africans.

Furthermore, if we cannot get fertiliser or cereals, famine can occur. Africa, although geographically distant from this conflict, is one of the first victims. That is why we are doing everything possible to ensure that peace returns quickly.

You had a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin on 9 March. What did you say to each other?

We did speak – on my initiative, as chair of the AU. I told him that Africa, which was between a rock and a hard place, wanted a ceasefire in Ukraine. The continent is affected by the consequences of the war itself as well as by the sanctions against Russia. At the time, Vladimir Putin indicated that he was ready to talk with the Ukrainians. But we can see that this is not evident. It is a case of “one step forward, two steps back”.

Following the Russian president’s invitation to visit Moscow, the AU gave me a mandate to call for a cessation of hostilities, as well as the possibility of letting Ukraine and Russia export the grain and raw materials the world needs. After two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation is becoming untenable.

Another cause for concern, which concerns West Africa in particular, are the coups d’état (in Mali, Guinea, Burkina), and these transitions of indeterminate duration, which are multiplying…

All this reflects the deep crisis in these countries. However, coups are not a solution. It is not acceptable. We have tried, within the ECOWAS framework, to support these countries so that their transition periods are short. A transition, by definition, is not meant to last forever. We must be reasonable.

Of course, if African institutions are having difficulties with Guinea, Mali and Burkina, it is because these countries represent geostrategic challenges for both East and West. Competition between the great powers makes it difficult to find solutions.

At the moment, we have excellent relations with Paris. I am convinced that no matter what the regime in place, our relations should not suffer based on the political stripe of our leaders

In Mali, the coup plotters have already been in power for 20 months. We agreed to give them another 16 months. The junta talked about [staying] another twenty-four months. I believe that, taking into account the suffering of the Malian people, we can agree on a deadline of between sixteen and twenty-four months.

For Guinea, ECOWAS will have to take measures. We were quite prepared to collaborate with the new authorities to accompany the transition. The junta’s response was clear: it would be thirty-nine months! This is unthinkable. Burkina Faso seems to be more reasonable in its discussions with the West African organisation [ECOWAS].

What is your take on the French presidential election last April?

The election was very competitive between the outgoing president and the other candidates, who aspired to govern France. As for the rest, I will refrain from commenting on the results.

If the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen had won, would it have changed bilateral relations between Senegal and France?

It all depends on how she would have wanted to conduct the relationship. France needs Africa, and Africa needs France. If the French head of state, whoever he or she may be, considers Africa to be a partner, we will work together. If, on the other hand, he considers Africa not to be a priority, Africans will apply the principle of reciprocity.

At the moment, we have excellent relations with Paris. I am convinced that no matter what the regime in place, our relations should not suffer based on the political stripe of our leaders.

In early December 2021, at your request, the National Assembly reinstated the post of prime minister, a decision you justified by the burden of chairing the AU. Six months later, Senegal still does not have a prime minister. Why is that?

Because, after local elections, we still have a vote: the legislative elections in July. It seemed more logical to me to wait for these results to designate the prime minister, who will hail from the party that wins.

Do you have a particular profile in mind?

Profiles don’t mean much. There is no need to make projections. When the time comes, a competent prime minister will be appointed and he will immediately get down to work.

These legislative elections represent the last major electoral test before the presidential elections of 2024. What do you expect?

A clear victory. It is above all a question of consistency with the choices of the Senegalese people, who re-elected me. We have put in place an extremely demanding economic and social programme, the Plan for an Emerging Senegal, which has produced undeniable results in every respect.

We have reduced the poverty rate by five points and significantly improved all macroeconomic indicators, despite the Covid-19 crisis followed by the war in Ukraine. To protect the population, we have frozen prices so that people can cope with the rising prices of energy, food, etc. This will cost the state nearly 657 billion CFA francs, or nearly 1 billion euros in household support for 2022 alone. Not to mention the increase in civil service salaries, the structural transformation of the economy, the energy transition, the development of infrastructure, etc.

For these policies to continue, the government must have a majority so it doesn’t waste time. Does the opposition want a cohabitation? You know very well that, even in developed countries, this is rarely successful. I cannot imagine such a scenario in Senegal. We are under a presidential regime: we elect a president and then give him a majority to govern. The transition from a seven-year term to a five-year one has changed the order of things, but it does not change anything in substance: Senegal, like Africa, needs stability.

What is your relationship to your political opponents? Some of them, such as Ousmane Sonko or Barthélémy Dias, haven’t spared you much…

Everyone has their own way of dealing with their opponents. I don’t dwell too much on them. The main thing is that, in a democracy, there is a strong opposition. As long as the opposition – however it behaves – is republican, I have no problem with that.

I myself was part of the opposition; I never had an inappropriate word for those in power. This did not prevent me from winning elections. Everyone has their own temperament.

Macky Sall’s political rivals Barthélémy Dias (centre, grey shirt) and Ousmane Sonko (right, blue shirt), in Dakar ©DR

The Senegalese are lost in conjecture about your intentions for the 2024 presidential elections, but also about whether you will be able to seek a new mandate. Yet you have barely said anything on the subject. What do you intend to do?

I will answer this question after the legislative elections. Then it will be time to set the course for 2024. In the meantime, we have work to do, and there is little time to waste.

In March 2021, after the arrest of Ousmane Sonko, violent riots shook Senegal, especially Dakar. How do you explain this sudden and unexpected explosion of anger?

This judicial event was a trigger. We have to put this anger, which was natural, in the context of the time – that of the Covid-19 crisis, the lockdown and all the deprivations endured.

We cannot allow a tool as powerful as social networks to flout all laws, and for fake news to rule the world.

Since then, we have put in place a very important programme, worth 450 billion CFA francs over three years, aimed at creating 65,000 jobs and financing entrepreneurship for young people and women. These jobs have been created, 5,000 teachers have been recruited. In 2012, there were 91,000 workers in the civil service. Today, there are 163,000.

A lot has been done, but it’s not enough because the population is growing very fast and the state cannot take everything on. We must therefore develop entrepreneurship, professional training and, above all, financing so that these companies can prosper and be sources of job creation.

On 3 May, International Press Freedom Day, you announced your intention to fight against the excesses of the internet and to regulate social networks, which you described as “the cancer of modern societies”. What do you mean by this?

Everyone today agrees: the excesses of the internet are no longer acceptable. We cannot, in the name of some freedoms, spend our time undermining citizens’ good repute in total anonymity, creating the conditions for a breakdown in the balance that guarantees the stability of our societies. We cannot allow a tool as powerful as social networks to flout all laws, and for fake news to rule the world.

We must regulate this activity and ensure that the major platforms hosting these networks take responsibility for the content they carry. Many people take advantage of these media: terrorists, delinquents, traffickers of all kinds, cybercriminals… We have to take responsibility.

The balance between freedom and the kind of control that you are calling for is precarious and difficult to strike…

It depends on what we want. We cannot set up an intangible rule around insult, lies and defamation on the grounds that the content is “on the internet”. When you behave in this way in traditional media, such as television or radio, justice applies. So it should also apply on social networks and the law should be respected there. That’s all people are asking for.

What is your relationship with your predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade? You were opponents in 2012. He blamed you for the imprisonment of his son, Karim, and hardly spared you when he returned to Senegal. Yet you have just named Diamniadio Olympic Stadium after him. Does this mean you’ve buried the hatchet?

I have no problem with him. I went up against him, after 18 or 19 years of mentorship, because we had a disagreement.

That happens in politics. I beat him in the presidential elections. He became my opponent, and I naturally accepted that. Today, all that is behind us. Not least because President Wade is now an old man.

He was already an old man in 2012…

Certainly, and even more so today. As a matter of principle, I will not fight an old man. I had to find a name at this stage, and it seemed to me that, to honour his political commitment and his work at the head of Senegal, giving his name to a temple of sport and youth was a good idea. I did what I had to do. Now the rest is just politics.

Macky Sall receiving his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, at the presidential palace in Dakar on October 12, 2019. ©Senegalese presidency

What will the exploitation of gas and oil, discovered four years ago, change for the country in concrete terms?

First, the way Senegal will be perceived on the financial markets. When you are an oil and gas producer, you are taken much more seriously. I have already passed all the framework laws, including the one on the distribution of future revenues, and the one on local content, which is intended to support Senegalese private companies in everything related to oil and gas activities. We have put in place very rigorous supervision mechanisms, notably with the Strategic Orientation Committee for Oil and Gas [COS Petrogaz].

Timber trafficking has taken on unprecedented proportions in Casamance. The Senegalese state couldn’t stand idly by.

This is especially where Senegal can get ahead, not so much thanks to the revenues we will draw from the subsoil, which will certainly be a good thing for our budget, but thanks to all the services that can be developed in the oil and gas environment. That said, we must continue the sometimes difficult discussions with oil companies to defend our strategic interests – which we are doing on good terms with the Mauritanian government [the Grand Tortue Ahmeyim gas field stretches across the maritime border between the two countries] and which is vital.

In southern Senegal, the situation is still unclear. You have been negotiating for years with the rebels of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC). Yet the Senegalese army has just carried out large-scale operations. Can we still believe in peace?

Obviously. We must not confuse everything. For ten years, the prospect of a solution to the conflict was real. However, timber trafficking had reached an unprecedented level, to the point of decimating the Casamance forest. The state could not stand idly by, especially since, in the context of this fight against timber trafficking but also against drug trafficking, a Senegalese ECOWAS detachment positioned in Gambia was taken hostage by rebels. This I could not accept.

The army therefore dismantled all the bases that we had allowed to flourish for too long. We discovered industrial quantities of Indian hemp being cultivated… To those who were not involved in this traffic, we said: “We’ll lay down our arms, we’ll make peace and we’ll reintegrate you”. We are still in that frame of mind. We are not looking for a winner or a loser. I have already said it: Casamance is Senegal. We are reaching out to all MFDC members who have the courage and the will to make peace.

When you leave office, which of your achievements or reforms would you like the Senegalese people to remember?

Many are close to my heart. I created a new city out of nowhere: Diamniadio. The regional express train, the TER, is another reason to be proud because it is a structural project that revolutionises our public transport and projects us towards modernity. There is also everything that has been done in rural areas, which is not often talked about but which has fundamentally changed life in these territories: access to drinking water and electricity, universal health coverage… It is less visible than a bridge or a motorway, but it’s the foundation of our social policy.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the construction of the Centre for Infectious and Tropical Diseases was a great achievement: it’s a “hospital within a hospital” that can cope with any pandemic.

We have also developed modern universities everywhere. From independence up until my election, university residences held a maximum of 5,000 beds. Now we have 30,000. But ask me again when I leave office – my work is far from finished!

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