Democracy in West Africa: Why Senegal’s election crisis matters

With multiple military coups in the region, signs that the presidential election in Senegal is back on track are being greeted with cautious optimism by some

Explainer
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On 6 March 2024, the Constitutional Council in Senegal issued a judgement that came as a huge relief to elected politicians and civil society campaigners right across West Africa.

It ruled that the election to choose a successor to the incumbent head of state Macky Sall must be held before the end of his term on 2 April. Even more significantly, the president immediately complied, abandoning plans to postpone the contest until June and announcing that the first-round vote would be on 24 March.

This was a critical victory for the institutions and rules that underpin Senegalese democracy. And it was welcome news for ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, which has been struggling to defend the principles of multiparty politics and elected government after several military coups in the region.

This article looks at how Senegal’s presidential election crisis unfolded – and why it is seen as a test for ECOWAS, whose reputation for defending democracy has become tarnished in the eyes of many young, urban and disillusioned West Africans. 

National turning point

For decades, Senegal has been admired as a cornerstone of democratic stability in West Africa and is respected across the continent for the solidity of its governing institutions. 

Senegal’s Constitutional Council – in reality a court of senior judges – emerges all the stronger for having rejected President Sall’s bid to delay the election.

And now its Constitutional Council – in reality a court of senior judges – emerges all the stronger for having rejected President Sall’s bid to delay the election by months in the apparent hope of rescuing a government campaign that looked headed for defeat. 

Moreover, the council has resisted political pressure to reconsider the cases of excluded would-be candidates who had failed the qualification criteria.

At times in the past the court was accused of being weak and vulnerable to government pressure. But this year it has proved itself to an unbendable defender of constitutional democratic principles.

The confirmation of an election date that still meets the constitutional deadline marked a crucial step towards the resolution of an extended crisis that has shaken Senegal’s political culture to its foundations.

The past three years have been scarred by political tension, repeated and often lethal confrontations between protesters supporting the charismatic opponent Ousmane Sonko and the security forces, and the shrinkage of civil liberties, with hundreds of mostly young demonstrators thrown into jail.

For much of that time, Sall appeared determined to stand for a third term of office, exploiting claimed flexibility in term limit rules. His most charismatic challenger, Sonko, who has a huge youth following, was embroiled in legal controversies and was often detained. 

Then in July 2023, the president announced that he would not, after all, seek a further term. The febrile mood calmed as the political class focused on gearing up to campaign for the first round of the election, which was set for 25 February 2024.

A high turnout was on the cards. Expectations mounted that an opposition challenger would triumph over Sall’s rather staid chosen successor candidate, the now former prime minister, Amadou Ba. 

Then suddenly, on 3 February, Sall stopped the clock on the election countdown.

The president claimed the delay was necessary, to allow time for a parliamentary inquiry into allegations against the Constitutional Council – which regulates elections – after it had rejected the planned candidacy of Karim Wade, standard-bearer of the Parti démocratique sénégalais (PDS – Senegalese Democratic Party).

Two days later an opportunistic alliance of government and PDS parliamentarians passed a measure to delay the first-round vote by more than nine months and thus keep Sall in power until a successor was chosen.

Widely seen as a ploy to avert a probable opposition triumph, the postponement provoked the fury of political challengers, civil society and even some hitherto loyal Sall allies. 

Thirteen opposition candidates asked the Constitutional Council to block Sall’s move. 

Three youths died when protesters clashed with security forces on the streets of the capital Dakar, and a former prime minister was briefly taken into detention. When opponents tried to organise a silent protest march, this was banned on the grounds that it would disrupt the traffic.

The country was poised on the verge of renewed confrontation and crisis. Consternation grew among Senegal’s international partners. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned that Sall was putting Senegal on a path to dictatorship.

Then came the 6 March judgement that the election must be held before the presidential term ends on 2 April – and Sall’s reluctant decision to comply. 

Many are hoping that this will prove to be a key moment in preserving Senegal’s democratic system and in defending democracy across West Africa more widely.

Many are hoping that this will prove to be a key moment in preserving Senegal’s democratic system and in defending democracy across West Africa more widely, at a moment when it is under real threat. 

Regional significance 

This national turning point for Senegal has bolstered efforts by the ECOWAS bloc to sustain the culture of multiparty politics across the region. However, that broader endeavour faces some daunting challenges.

West Africa has seen six military coups in three years – in Guinea, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, with both Mali and Burkina each suffering two putsches.

Guinea’s military ruler, General Mamady Doumbouya, is promising to organize elections by the end of this year. 

But attempts by ECOWAS to nudge the juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger into agreeing credible timetables for restoring electoral democracy have failed miserably. Diplomacy, sanctions and military threats have all proved ineffective.

The putschists in the three Sahel nations have become more pugnacious, denouncing security partnerships with France, the European Union and the United Nations. They have shunned ECOWAS invitations to cooperate in the fight against the jihadist armed groups that are active across much of the Sahel and now are seeking to withdraw from the 15-member bloc altogether.

All this is eroding the capacity of ECOWAS to entrench adherence to the principles it set out in its 2001 Protocol on Good Governance and Democracy – a political code of conduct that marked it out from many of the other regional groupings in Africa.

Under African Union rules, any country where the military seize power is suspended from full AU membership. However, ECOWAS has gone further than the continent’s other regional blocs in formally setting out civilian multiparty democratic goverance as the official norm.

ECOWAS’ capacity to enforce compliance with its own standards is eroded by accusations of double standards.

Yet ECOWAS’ capacity to actually enforce compliance with its own standards is eroded by accusations of double standards. 

It loudly condemns soldiers who seize power but often fails to act firmly against incumbent civilian leaders who tweak constitutions or electoral rules to prolong their hold on power – in so-called ‘constitutional coups’ – or who manipulate the judicial system to intimidate or disqualify opponents. 

Back in the 1990s, much of West Africa was swept by a wave of democratization, with student groups, trade unionists, civil society and a fresh generation of opposition politicians in the vanguard.

But the reformers and modernizers of two or three decades ago are the governing establishment of today, their standing often frayed by the compromises of wielding power and the influence of hangers-on and vested interests.

Youth-led disenchantment

Many young West Africans see ECOWAS as a complacent club of incumbent heads of state – one that is too reluctant to challenge those of their number who bend the rules or crack down on civil liberties.

There have been recent successes, such as the peaceful and democratic handover of power in Liberia in late 2023. If Ghana’s presidential contest at the end of the year happens calmly and in credible conditions, that will provide some reassurance.

Yet the core principles of democracy have for some time been undermined or put at risk in several countries in the region.

Article second half

In Benin, two leading opposition presidential contenders arrested in the run-up to the 2021 election remain in jail and parliamentary election rules have just been revised to make it harder for the opposition to win seats. 

In Guinea, press freedoms are under pressure, some key opposition figures have retreated abroad while the incumbent military leadership dominates the scene in the run up to the promised elections. 

An ECOWAS move to agree a region-wide limit of just two presidential terms was blocked a few years ago by a small minority of member states.

Officials at the ECOWAS Commission, and some politicians, recognize the need to strengthen the bloc’s common rules to tackle these shortcomings and more effectively deter an incumbent president from eroding at least the core principles of democracy. They are working on draft rule changes.

However, change has been slow in coming; the new principles have not yet been adopted and it remains unclear how they would be enforced even once in place.

Among the West African public, especially urban youth, disillusion with the conventional civilian political class spreads ever wider.

In the meantime, among the West African public, especially urban youth, disillusion with the conventional civilian political class spreads ever wider.

In last year’s Nigerian presidential election Peter Obi, the opposition contender with probably the widest support among educated young people, topped the poll in Abuja, the capital, and Lagos, the largest city, despite only coming third in the overall vote. 

When Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara ran for a third term in 2020, after the sudden death of his preferred succession candidate, he himself openly admitted that this would damage his personal reputation.

In Benin, once noted for the vigour of its democratic culture, turnout in the 2019 legislative elections halved by comparison with previous contests, after the government redrafted election rules to prevent opposition parties taking part.

West Africans’ faith in democracy is not lost. But they can lose trust in nominally democratic systems when these are effectively captured by incumbent elites – and that can create conditions in which soldiers find it easier to seize power. 

In September 2021 crowds flooded on to the streets of the Guinean capital Conakry to celebrate, after the military overthrew President Alpha Condé, who had manipulated a constitutional referendum and subsequent election to secure a third term.

So, a lot rides on events in Senegal. 

The country does have a track record of conducting elections that are free, fair and efficient. 

The Constitutional Council has defended fundamental principles of democracy in firmly insisting on the legally required time frame for the polls, and resisting political pressure to reconsider excluded would-be presidential candidates.

And what happens in Senegal will be watched right across the region.

This is a potentially crucial moment for any hope of restoring West Africans’ faith both in the power of the ballot box and in the institutions that should protect their right to choose.