Senegal Elects New President

After months of social unrest, the youngest leader in the West African state’s history will take office pledging a progressive program

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

Bassirou Diomaye Faye, 44, has been elected as the president of the West African state of Senegal.

Just one week prior to the elections, Faye along with Ousmane Sonko, who were leaders in the now disbanded African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF), were imprisoned on what their supporters say were trumped-up criminal charges.

PASTEF, also known as the Patriots of Senegal, were banned during 2023 after mass demonstrations demanded that national elections be held in a timely fashion. Incumbent President Macky Sall had postponed elections until December which was unacceptable to the opposition parties and coalitions.

Sall was forbidden from standing again after serving two terms. Speculation during 2023 was that Sall would attempt to alter the constitution so he could run for president again.

These fears fueled the calls for immediate elections. Ousmane Sonko, the founder of PASTEF, and Faye, the secretary general, were both arrested and prosecuted. Sonko was convicted of sexual assault, which he vehemently denied, while Faye was sentenced for supposedly spreading false information.

A Supreme Court decision rejected the decision to postpone national elections. Both Sonko and Faye were released just prior to the voting. Although the final results were not due for release until the end of March, the overwhelming returns were in favor of Faye, who ran as an independent candidate. Sonko, due to his conviction, was disqualified from seeking public office.

Nonetheless, Sonko fully endorsed Faye and hailed the outcome of the elections. Other opposition figures as well as President Sall have congratulated Faye and wished him well in the role as head-of-state.

Promises Made by President-elect

Mass jubilation erupted throughout the capital of Dakar as results poured in from various regions of the country. The population of Senegal is largely youthful with the median age being 19.

Youth are concerned about the economic and political future of the country. Unemployment is very high while many young people view the state apparatus as oblivious to their aspirations.

PASTEF had gained tremendous support from young people in the country. Consequently, the arrest, prosecution and banning of its leaders prompted outrage..

The program of PASTEF consisted of pledges to end Senegalese involvement in the French-dominated CFA Franc Zone. The party proposed a new monetary system which would move away from the former colonial power in Paris.

In addition, the PASTEF emphasized the need to enhance economic and political cooperation among other African states in Western region and beyond. These aspects of the party program are in line with the burgeoning anti-French sentiment sweeping the West Africa region.

Several states in West Africa have experienced military coups over the last four years which have emphasized the need for a new dispensation regarding their relations with French imperialism. In Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, the new military-dominated governments have formed an Alliance of Sahel States committed to joint security and economic cooperation.

Mali and Niger have ordered the removal of French military and diplomatic presence in these countries. Burkina Faso has strong support among the masses for greater military cooperation with the Russian Federation. Guinea-Conakry and Gabon, two other states which have experienced military coups since 2021, have not taken an anti-French position. All of these states are rich in natural resources including diamonds, gold, uranium, petroleum, bauxite, iron ore, among other minerals and metals. If these states combined their development projects within the region and beyond, there would be a substantial shift in the economic development trajectory.

With specific reference to Senegal, the PASTEF has been built over the last ten years on the basis of seeking change utilizing electoral politics. Senegal, which gained its independence in 1960, has never had a military seizure of power. This fact makes it unique among several other West African states such as Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, etc. However, there has been much criticism of the character of governance and the economic policies which stem from the neo-colonial attachments to Paris.

The PASTEF program says of the objectives of the party that:

“PASTEF advocates the need to find new ways of economic and social development because for more than 50 years, regardless of the governments in place, public policies have followed the same patterns, with the same strong dependence-submission to outsiders. These schemes have largely proven their ineffectiveness, even their harmful nature, and it will take political courage to break with and invent new economic and social governance. To achieve this, we need to make a systemic break, which differs from a simple operation of change of leader by the mechanism of alternation: what is needed in Senegal is rather a real alternative.”

These aspects of the PASTEF founding documents have led many to believe that it is a left-wing and Pan-Africanist grouping. There has been for many decades an undercurrent of progressive politics in Senegal. The founding party of the first President Leopold Sedar Senghor described itself as socialist even though its ideology did not emphasize the importance of class struggle and the primacy of the working class and peasantry within any transformative process in Africa.

The Lebanese-based television network, Al Mayadeen, described Faye as “pro Pan-Africanism” emphasizing:

“In a historic turn of events, Bassirou Diomaye Faye is set to become Senegal’s youngest president after winning the election in the first round of voting. This victory marks a significant shift in Senegalese politics, as it’s the first time an opposition candidate has achieved such a feat, in the first round of voting, since the country gained independence from France in 1960….

“Faye, who was recently released from prison only 10 days before the Senegalese elections, has pledged to pursue left-wing Pan-Africanism and plans to renegotiate gas and oil contracts as Senegal prepares to tap into new reserves. According to El Hadji Mamadou Mbaye, a political science lecturer and researcher at the University of Saint-Louis, ‘People are hungry for change when you see what is happening in this country in terms of corruption, non-respect of the law.’”

There is no question over the issue that people in Senegal and other African states want fundamental change within society. However, such a radical and revolutionary shift in domestic and foreign policy will require a frontal attack on the world imperialist system. France, the United States and Britain with their continuing strategic interests in Africa and Asia, have no intentions of surrendering their influence to the indigenous peoples of these geo-political regions. Consequently, the potential for ongoing instability remains a major factor for African Union (AU) member-states.

Senegalese Presidential Elections Emerged from Social Unrest

There have been large-scale mass demonstrations and street violence in Senegal since June 2023. When Sonko was arrested and charged less than a year ago, youth-led demonstrations erupted while boycotts and strikes gained the support of millions of people in the country.

Earlier in 2024, there were also demonstrations demanding the immediate scheduling of elections which did take place during mid-March. It is highly unlikely that absent of these protest actions an election would have been set so soon.

Reuters news agency reported on the unrest from June-August 2023 noting:

“Sonko was detained last week following a scuffle with security forces stationed outside his home in Dakar. It is not clear if Sonko will remain in jail or when a trial will begin. ‘He will spend his first night in prison,’ said his lawyer, Bamba Cisse. Fears of more riots prompted the managers of TotalEnergies petrol stations across Senegal to begin a 72-hour strike from Tuesday because of the political and social crisis. TotalEnergies acknowledged the planned strike in a statement and, saying it would communicate on any ensuing disruptions and seek to minimize impact. Violent riots erupted across Senegal in June and at least 16 people were killed after Sonko was handed a separate two-year prison sentence for immoral behavior towards people younger than 21. At the time, he called for protesters to take to the streets. Petrol stations have often been vandalized in the process, with French and other Western brands appearing particularly targeted. Protesters blocked the highway into Dakar on Monday with burnt tires and trucks, snarling traffic even before the judge’s ruling and the interior minister’s statement.”

Senegal’s new leaders have gained widespread goodwill among the majority of the 17 million people living in the country. The task of building a just and equal society based upon an end to dependency and corruption will not be easy. However, this work is imperative in order to bring about the sweeping changes desired by the masses of people.

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