The people’s coup

Incoming Senegalese president Bassirou Diomaye Faye is as much outgoing President Macky Sall’s creation as he is Ousmane Sonko’s.

Dakar, 2019. Image credit Vincent Tremeau for the World Bank via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

Senegal has long been considered the jewel of electoral democracy in West Africa, an example of steady exchange of power and no military coups. However, on March 24 the people executed a coup of sorts against the establishment.

The election of Bassirou Diomaye Faye resembles a coup in many ways. For one, he is unknown, has no experience governing, and was a political prisoner barely two weeks before the elections. Until we hear voices on the radio or see faces on the television announcing the suspension of constitutions, soldiers who emerge as heads of government after coups are also unknown. Narratives about them begin to filter out when they are already in power and the public seeks to understand the nature, quality, and antecedents of the one with ultimate decision-making authority. The next few months will be spent creating a compelling narrative around Senegal’s new president. Until that happens, this is what is known: Faye is as much outgoing President Macky Sall’s creation as he is Ousmane Sonko’s. If Sall had not decimated political opposition during his 12 years as president and alienated the public, the results of the 2024 presidential election might have been different. By underestimating the value of vibrant opposition in a democracy and refusing to plan for a healthy political transition for Senegal, Sall helped make Faye, a tax inspector, president.

We also know from Faye’s campaign posters which bore his face and Sonko’s and their campaign slogan, “Diomaye is Sonko,” that without the endorsement of Sonko, a leftist populist some consider Senegal’s Trump, Faye would not be president. In the rejection of Sall and what he has come to represent, the attitude of voters in the run-up to the elections, where candidates barely had 10 days to campaign, was “we will ask questions later.” President Faye will have considerable powers of appointment. He has already appointed Sonko, who was the Mayor of Ziguinchor, as his Prime Minister. In Senegal, the Prime Minister is the head of government, responsible for appointing the cabinet in consultation with the President. Can we expect a Putin-Medvedev tandemocracy or the Kenyatta-Ruto variety? The questions that typically follow a coup are tumbling out now.

Two, like with recent coups across West Africa in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Niger, many Senegalese are euphoric about the overthrow of a president, albeit one whose tenure has ended. “No president can spend one day over his term in office,” Sall had said in 2012 when he mobilized against then-president Abdoulaye Wade whom he had served with for eight years as minister, prime minister, and president of the National Assembly, yet he forgot that truth of Senegalese politics. Once he was sworn in as president, Sall steadily consolidated power by crippling political opposition and breaking precedents with the roles of prime minister, president of the national assembly, and the constitutional court all in a bid to succeed where Wade failed in 2012: secure a third term in office. It was a plan he executed with ruthless efficiency—engaging lawfare to neutralize first Khalifa Sall, Mayor of Dakar, then Karim Wade, son to Wade, who he perceived as threats. However, when he turned his sights on Sonko, the presidential candidate for African Patriots of Senegal for Labour, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) who came third in the 2019 presidential elections, the people said enough.

It is no mean feat for the opposition to win an election where the outgoing president wants to stay and is determined to maintain control over the next president or keep power in his party. Days before the presidential elections on March 24, Sall said in an interview with the BBC: “If I wanted to stay, I would simply be a candidate. In Africa, everyone can have five terms if they wanted. If it had been my decision, no one would have stopped me, except the Senegalese people.” Africa is indeed littered with examples of rulers with five or more terms in office but it is debatable if this reality reflects the will of the people. By voting in Faye, who is unprecedented as the first opposition candidate in Senegal to win a presidential election in the first round (54 percent), the youngest at 44, and arguably the first populist, the people were unequivocally ousting the elite status quo that many of the other 18 presidential candidates represent. 

Three, President Faye’s election as the fifth president since Senegal gained independence from France, is a deviation from the model of political technocrats as President. Unlike Leopold Senghor, Abdou Diouf, Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall and like most coup plotters, Faye has not been part of political governance as a member of parliament, prime minister, president of the national assembly or minister as the others have. Senegal’s choice aligns with the growing mistrust of experts that has resulted in reality TV stars and comedians being voted into power in other parts of the world.  

Four, the economic, social, and political climate before a coup is always ripe with frustration, and protests have roiled Senegal since March 2021 when Sonko, who many believed would contest the 2024 presidential elections, was arrested on allegations of rape. The people recognized Sall’s well-thumbed script; besides, in December 2020, months after he signed a law abolishing the position of prime minister, Sall suggested he might run for a third term. Three years later in July 2023, Sall finally conceded that he would not seek re-election. The subsequent announcement on the eve of the scheduled February 25 elections that the poll would be postponed by 10 months was unacceptable and protests broke out at home and abroad, on streets and social media. By attempting to delay the elections Sall was mirroring the delays with military transition to democracy timetables in Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. 

Finally, as with coups, the novelty of who has emerged as President and Prime Minister means the immediate future of Senegal is uncertain and difficult to predict. Senegal has one of the fastest-growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa, but that means nothing to young, unemployed Senegalese and the 75 percent polled by Afrobarometer in 2023 who believe their government is mishandling the economy. 

Key challenges are high unemployment and curbing corruption and state capture, particularly in Senegal’s new oil and gas economy, where production is slated to start this year. The people want their natural resource wealth to benefit the wider population and create jobs—and not face capture by elites as is the case in Nigeria and Angola. However, if President Faye delivers on campaign promises to review vital contracts in oil, fishing, and defense, as well as petroleum regulation, this will disrupt plans and mobilize opposition against him faster than he might expect. Global events, rising insecurity across Africa, and instability in West Africa call for high diplomacy and shifting alliances, particularly as more FrancAfrique countries cut ties with France and look to Russia and China for arms and loans. Both President Faye and Prime Minister Sonko have no exposure to foreign affairs and will need a sound and trusted foreign minister.  

Coups, as unpopular as they are with advocates for democracy, are typically an answer to an underlying need for a hard reset which is why citizens of countries where they happen, shortsighted or not, welcome them. Democracy, or more accurately electoral democracy, has been unduly burdened with delivering economic growth and prosperity when the correlation between democracy and economic development is increasingly contested. In Why Bother With Elections, Adam Przeworski, confirms that there is a small difference in favor of autocracies in the average rates of growth of the total national income. Nigeria, for example, has seen a decline in economic prosperity despite experiencing the longest stretch of uninterrupted electoral democracy since 1999.

This reality will not relieve President Faye of the expectations of the people who deliberately voted for an outsider and a novice, like voters did in the United States of America in 2016 and might do again in November. Hopefully, the execution of a peaceful coup through the ballot will give the people of Senegal lasting satisfaction of upsetting the status quo, a rare feat. Across Africa where coups are on the rise, there is a message in President Faye’s emergence that defenders of democracy should heed: electoral democracies require healthy, viable opposition.

Further Reading

Sanctioning the regime in Senegal

After defying the state apparatus in March 2021, Senegalese voters sent a strong message of disobedience and sanction via their ballots in January 2022 and signaling their readiness for another regime change in 2024.

Beware of martyrs

The Senegalese state’s quest to crush the opposition has caused massive unrest throughout the country. A regime that blows on the embers fans the flames.