Senegal: Macky Sall at the crossroads

By Marième Soumaré
Posted on Monday, 18 July 2022 13:14

President Macky Sall in Berlin, 27 January 2020. ©TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP

Senegal’s legislative elections on 31 July, for which the campaign has just begun, will be a new test for the head of state, who is entering the final stretch of his mandate. Macky Sall has to manoeuvre around attacks from the opposition as well as ambitions from within his own camp, not to mention the constantly postponed nomination of a prime minister. 

Suddenly, the whistles fall silent. The chants from the crowd stop. On 8 June in Dakar, in front of thousands of supporters there to support them at the Place de l’Obélisque, Ousmane Sonko and his allies began their rally with a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of the demonstrations.

On the podium, the opposition leader announces: “As long as Macky Sall is in power, Senegal will not be stable. This demonstration is a warning.” Then he adds: “When an order is illegal, you have to disobey.”

A few days later, opposition leaders launched a new call for demonstrations to protest against the invalidation of the titular candidates on their national list for the legislative elections – a list led by Sonko.

They accused Macky Sall of plotting to prevent them from participating. This time, the rally was banned. In the early hours of 17 June, the police surrounded the opponent’s home and prevented him from leaving his house and going to pray. In Dakar, Ziguinchor and Bignona, clashes broke out between demonstrators and the police, leaving at least three dead and eleven injured.

Several opposition leaders were arrested. Sonko accused the head of state of having given in to “panic” and reproached him for his “obsession” with seeking a third term.

Sonko’s team has managed to crystallise the legislative debate around the issue of a third presidential term

Even though Macky Sall promised to speak after the legislative elections – and not before – on his plan for 2024, the question is on everyone’s lips.

“The Sonko team has managed to crystallise the debate around the third term and make it a central theme of the campaign,” said a member of the presidential entourage.

“Voting for us is voting against the third term,” say Sall’s opponents, who hope to impose a cohabitation upon him after the election, despite the fact that their titular candidates have been prohibited from participating.

Their decision to postpone a new demonstration scheduled for 29 June and the release of arrested opponents has however contributed to decreasing the pressure before the election campaign opened on 10 July.

Those close to the president prefer to avoid the subject of the third term. “The debate only distracts us from the main issue, which is winning,” says Aminata Touré, head of the list of Benno Bokk Yakaar [BBY, the presidential coalition]. “And if we don’t win, the question will no longer be an issue.”

Betrayals and defeats forgotten

To maintain a comfortable majority in the Assembly, BBY relies on a formula with several equations: start in close ranks, emphasise presidential achievements, mobilise the electorate of the diaspora and place more young people on its lists – the last lesson learned from the local elections in January where several unknown figures, from the new generation, ousted powerful chiefs even in their own polling stations.

Macky Sall has been working on his coalition’s unity for months, as evidenced by the meeting of the national executive secretariat of l’Alliance pour la république – APR – (the Alliance for the Republic, the presidential party) on 2 February.

Senegal was following the rhythm of the African Cup of Nations matches and dreaming of seeing the Lions of Teranga win the trophy for the first time in their history.

That evening, the team led by Aliou Cissé faced Burkina Faso in the semi-finals. Surprisingly, this was the day the president chose to call an emergency meeting of his party’s executives. The meeting was set for 5 pm at RPA headquarters in the Mermoz district of Dakar. Can we really call it a meeting? While whistles and horns were already blasting in the capital’s streets, Macky Sall had mainly come to deliver a message to his team, the day after local election results had come in.

Among the assembled were some of his ministers, who had lost to the opposition, but also dissident candidates, who had defied the nomination choices.

Macky Sall delivered a speech that lasted about fifteen minutes. The scene, says one of the participants, was “surreal”. The president warmly congratulated all those present and thanked them for their participation.

Forgotten were the betrayals and defeats. “Local elections have never been part of his calculations,” says this observer. “He has always looked further ahead, towards the legislative and presidential elections. He had no intention of putting distance between himself and those who could serve him.” The watchword had been given: unity.

Anti-government demonstration on the Place de l’Obélisque, Dakar, 8 June 2022. ©Stefan Kleinowitz/Anadolu Agency via AFP

“We have to mobilise our forces, not let them scatter,” explains a cadre from the majority. “Authorising parallel lists allowed us to evaluate the weight of each party. To let the machine do its work is also to encourage renewal and to let the ambitious ones reveal themselves”.

“The local elections were a bit freestyle,” says Aminata Touré. “It was a fairly communitarian election, with a strong emotional charge that made arbitration difficult. Which made us lose some cities.”

In Dakar, Thies or Kaolack, the majority definitely took some punches. But the national issue of these legislative elections forced the majority to “return to more orthodoxy”, she says.

Sidelined from her duties as head of the Conseil économique, social et environnemental – CESE – (Economic, Social and Environmental Council) in November 2020, the former prime minister is making a comeback in politics as head of BBY’s national list.

“She is the marketing image of the coalition. She is an important political force, a founding member of the APR … And then, she has the head of state’s confidence. She can lead the troops to victory,” says a member of the presidential team.

Ambitions…

Like Aminata Touré, other members of the coalition who had been set aside during the last reshuffle have recently reappeared on the scene. Amadou Ba, the former minister of finance and foreign affairs, who was once considered for the prime minister’s post, vacant since December, Aly Ngouille Ndiaye, the former interior minister, or Abdoulaye Baldé, who had led a dissident list in Ziguinchor and lost to Ousmane Sonko: all have been entered on the national list.

The party’s heavyweights all know that the coalition’s failure in legislative elections would slow down their own political rise

As opposed to the local elections, the president was personally involved in this legislative election, which he knows is decisive. He had to hold lengthy talks with his allies within the (very) broad presidential coalition, but also within his own party where ambitions are intensifying.

“For the legislative elections, the struggle that arose within the party apparatus complicated matters. The party heavyweights fought to place their relatives,” says a source close to the president. “They all know that the failure of the coalition in the legislative elections would slow down their own political rise.”

Are these difficult negotiations responsible for the interior ministry’s invalidation of BBY’s alternates list? These lists were submitted on 8 May by the entire political class, and while they were being formulated gave rise to an unprecedented cacophony, suggesting a certain disorganisation on the part of the parties.

… and mistakes

The mistakes made by opposition alliance Yewwi Askan Wi-Wallu have much more serious consequences, since its titular candidates, first and foremost Ousmane Sonko, will not be able to run.

Aminata Touré nevertheless dismisses accusations of a conspiracy: “They were badly organised, it does not mean that we want to block certain candidates. This is the game of democracy: turbulent, sometimes disorganised, but we have not found a better system.”

Despite these problems, the head of BBY’s list is pleased to have gotten through this election’s first stage: “Such a large coalition is complicated, but it works! The most important thing is that we were able to manage the seismic shocks.”

On 26 May, the president was forced, however, to separate from one of his ministers, who had been in the hot seat for weeks. Defeated in Dakar and in his own town of Yoff in January, Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr lost his post at the health ministry after yet another scandal in the hospital sector: a fire in the maternity hospital in Tivaouane, which took the lives of eleven infants.

He was removed from the government, but this “apériste” has nevertheless kept his place on the national list. “The lists were composed before the tragedy. For us, this is a good thing,” says a source close to Sall. “This means that we could not tamper with them”.

Trust deficit

The deficit of confidence facing Macky Sall is growing, however, as the political climate deteriorates. Were the riots of March 2021 that followed the arrest of Ousmane Sonko only the early signs of a deeper crisis?

To appease the anger of a hungry, idle and disillusioned youth, the president did not hesitate to break out the big guns: on 10 May, he announced a programme providing financial allowances to more than 500,000 households. This unprecedented measure, financed to the tune of 43.4 billion CFA francs (€66.1 million) by the World Bank, should make it possible to provide no less than 80,000 CFA francs to the poorest families – by way of comparison, the minimum wage is 58,900 CFA francs (€89.95).

Subjected to soaring oil prices on the world markets since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Senegal has not been spared the increase in fuel and food prices. On 4 June, the government announced a national increase in the price of a litre of premium fuel, which rose from 775 to 890 CFA francs (€1.35).

Crucial choice

Macky Sall had just returned from Russia, where, in his capacity as the current chairman of the African Union (AU), he met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Accompanied by the chairperson of the organising committee, Moussa Faki Mahamat, he pleaded the African cause to avoid a food crisis that threatens the entire continent.

Draped in the respectability of his position as head of the AU, Sall cannot however forget that it is precisely this function that pushed him to reintroduce the post of prime minister that he himself had removed in 2019.

At least, this is the reason he gave in December 2021, when he had the law passed in an emergency procedure. Seven months later, still president of the AU, the Senegalese head of state does not have a prime minister. Even within his entourage, the issue is divisive. For some, it was essential to wait for the end of the legislative process to appoint a head of government from the majority. And this is all the more true as a reshuffle on the eve of legislative elections would have risked increasing the frustrations of the president’s allies.

On the contrary, others believe that a prime minister should have been chosen much earlier. “Since the March 2021 riots, the public’s confidence has eroded,” says a former minister who has distanced himself from the majority. “By choosing a popular prime minister, Macky Sall could have regained some of this capital.”

Many are waiting impatiently to see who he will choose. A technocrat or a politician? A dolphin or a firewall? “In 2023, we will already be on the campaign trail. This is the year where everything is going to come into play,” predicts a source close to Sall. “These legislative elections close out the presidential term. They will be an opportunity to confirm the BBY’s leadership in order to best address what’s up next. We must not make a casting error.”

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