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Senegal: Macky Sall and Ousmane Sonko in a political face-off

By Mehdi Ba
Posted on Friday, 12 March 2021 12:11

A pro-Sonko protester during clashes with the police on 4 March 2021 in Dakar. © Leo Correa / AP / SIPA

Is Senegal heading towards a political landscape without opposition? Macky Sall and Ousmane Sonko have each addressed separately, on national television, the events that disrupted the country for several days.

The duel between the two men, which was previously hushed up and essentially confined to the last two electoral campaigns – legislative in 2017 and presidential in 2019 – is now being held in the open.

On the evening of 8 March, Ousmane Sonko, president of the Pastef-Les Patriotes party, and Macky Sall, the head of state since 2012 and founder of the Alliance pour la République (APR), took turns on national television to address, each in his own way, the unrest that rocked the capital and several major cities in early March.

The two men have one thing in common: the need to proceed cautiously on the subject that ignited the fire. Just recently released from a long police custody on bail, Sonko is forbidden from speaking about the case against him – an accusation of rape made by a young employee from a massage parlour that he frequents – which is the reason for this unprecedented chaos. It weighs heavily on him and is likely to nip in the bud a promising political career. As for Sall, his status as head of state prohibits him from weighing in publicly on a case that is before the courts.

Before addressing the delayed “clash” between the two men over the Sonko affair, a little background information.

On the one hand, there is 59-year-old Sall, who has been the president of Senegal since April 2012 (re-elected in 2019 for 5 years). He is at the head of a government coalition that has become so powerful that it has bled the opposition dry.

Oppositionist troublemaker

And on the other, there is 46-year-old oppositionist troublemaker Sonko, who entered politics in 2014 after having previously worked as a tax inspector. He is seen as one of the last surviving members of the opposition, and thus, as a tangible force against Sall. On 26 February, his parliamentary immunity was lifted by his peers, which now exposes him to the wrath of the law.

On 8 March, having just been released from a long period of police custody that led to riots and crackdown operations in Dakar not seen since the stormy 2012 presidential campaign, Sonko called a press conference at his party’s headquarters.

This was a risky exercise, as he is forbidden from expressing himself publicly about the case against him; one of the conditions for his release on bail. He therefore circumvented the obstacle and delivered his long speech – in Wolof and then in French – a copious political indictment against the head of state.

He called for the “immediate and unconditional release of Macky Sall’s political prisoners,” which he believed to be “more than a hundred, kidnapped in the country,” using, he said, “fascist methods.” He added: “Senegal has never experienced a political crisis like this one,” and called for an – unlikely – referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding the 10 or so victims of the clashes that occurred in recent days, which he likens to “crimes against humanity.”

For an hour, despite breaching one of the conditions of his bail which could result in a long prison sentence, Sonko delivered many blows against his main political opponent, going so far as to deliver an ultimatum. “Macky Sall, having betrayed the Senegalese people and broken his oath, is no longer fit to lead the people of Senegal. He has not been legitimate since the beginning of his second term. If we were in different circumstances, the people would have marched on the palace and taken Macky Sall out by force. But I strongly advise against it.”

The tone of Sall’s speech, aired moments later, is radically different. “I invite calm and serenity. […] Altogether, let’s keep our animosity to ourselves and avoid confrontation, which only makes things worse,” said the head of state, who has not been confronted with such an explosive situation since the beginning of his first term. As for the bone of contention that triggered the riots, Sall said that “regarding the judicial aspect of this crisis, let justice run its course.” He also listed a few measures that he hoped would calm the spirits of the Senegalese youth, including easing the curfew in the regions of Dakar and Thiès.

An unconstitutional third term?

Sall vs. Sonko: two opposing styles in a face-off that now seems to be the main issue of the 2024 presidential election. However, the scenario that is taking shape suggests, in view of recent events, a tense pre-campaign.

Firstly, because many observers and protagonists of the Senegalese political scene believe that Sall, although not officially announced yet, is intending to run for a third presidential term. If he does indeed decide to run again, the reactions that would be provoked by this unconstitutional third term, in a country tired of the “wax waxeet” (“I said it, I dedicate myself to it”), are already foreseeable.

Secondly, because if the rape case against Sonko results in a conviction, he would be automatically disqualified from running for president. Here again, it is not difficult to anticipate the likely consequences.

In 2016, we counted “42 members or sympathisers of the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS, the opposition) who have been imprisoned since 2012, from grassroots activists to the highest officials.” Since then, this figure has only increased as members or sympathisers of other parties have been arrested as well.

Today, between the political tenors firmly loyal to the President (Aïssata Tall Sall, Modou Diagne Fada, Idrissa Seck …) and those unable to run in an election (Karim Wade, Khalifa Sall, and perhaps tomorrow Sonko), the risk that Sall will run unopposed in the 2024 presidential election is very high. This scenario was foreshadowed in the 2019 election. Only four candidates faced the incumbent president (of which only two could hope to threaten him), as the other 28 had had their candidacy rejected by the Constitutional Council.

Until Sall decides whether to run for a third term or designate someone to run in his place, his political camp will have to, until then, ponder this verse by Pierre Corneille, from The Cid: “To conquer without peril, one triumphs without glory.”

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