Diomaye’s first weeks

The challenge for the new Senegalese government is how to translate promises into policy.

Image credit Anna Wood © 2024.

I landed in Dakar for a short trip a couple of days before Korité (Eid Al Fitr), the celebration marking the end of Ramadan. As I joined in with the final ndogu, the small meal to break the fast, footage of the first ferry linking Dakar and Ziguinchor in the southern Casamance region was being broadcast on the news. The route linking the opposition leader Ousmane Sonko’s hometown and the capital had been suspended since the summer of 2023 due to heightened political unrest. Its resumption was symbolic of the West African country moving on after a highly turbulent election which saw the relatively unknown Bassirou Diomaye Faye elected as the fifth President of the Republic in the first round.

The first days of my trip were marked by debate and scrutiny over the new government. The handover of power (passation de service) took place the day I arrived and gave rise to questions about whether seven ministers from Ziguinchor appointed to the new government were Sonko’s kin. Debate during the Korité lunch of grilled chicken and vermicelli bounced back and forth between generations over their vote; an overwhelmingly youthful vote brought in this new government. Following the Eid prayer at the Grand Mosque in Dakar, various ministers gave short TV interviews prompting those watching around me to quickly Google them to find out who they were. Televised images of the new President helping an elderly imam to stand during the prayer went viral. That first week rumours already circulated about the reduction in the cost of basic staples, the prices of which have nearly doubled in recent years. It was rumored that the cost of bread would be reduced on May 10, but this was quickly denied as fake news

The front page of L’Obsesrvateur newspaper, No. 6157, 12 April 2024
Page four of L’Obsesrvateur newspaper, No. 6157, 12 April 2024

Diomaye’s ascension to the presidency was rapid; just 10 days before, he was in prison. He attracted a groundswell of support following a chaotic series of events. Former President Macky Sall announced the postponement of the election on the eve of the campaign in February, which gave rise to widespread and violent protests like those witnessed intermittently since 2021. But this proved one step too far and when the “sept sages” (seven wise men and women) of the constitutional council took a stand, Sall backed down. He passed an amnesty law releasing the opposition (and, controversially, covering his own back), elections were hastily organized and finally, peacefully, took place on March 26 just before Sall’s mandate expired. 

It was during this period that the slogan “Diomaye mooy Sonko” (Diomaye is Sonko) was widely shared, and written on the walls of the city. Since Sonko was disqualified over a defamation conviction, Diomaye had been put forward in his place. (While Diomaye had been in prison, he was yet to be charged and therefore eligible to run as a candidate). The slogan was aimed at shifting support from the influential and popular(ist) opposition figure to this relatively unknown ally. As he came to address the population his every move was scrutinized as people came to learn about this young man (at 44, the youngest president in Senegalese history) now in charge of the country. 

First impressions of Diomaye are strong. As I went about asking about the new government in the small informal settlement in Grand Dakar where I have conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork, people first described him as “yaru,” (Wolof for polite, well-educated, and well-raised) before further commenting on his calm and composed demeanor (téye, dal). This is an image that Diomaye has cultivated for himself, describing his approach to government as one of humility. It contrasts with Sonko, who, in many eyes, has come to be associated with the unrest (xeex ak xuloo) of previous months and years. As I asked about the new government, many recounted the day in 2023 when stray tear gas canisters landed in their homes.

Conversation moved to focus on his rural roots in Ndiaganiao and former work as a tax inspector. One of his first moves as President was to order audits of the oil, gas, and mining sectors as part of an anti-corruption and Senegal/Africa-centered agenda. Another move that animated these early impressions was his move to ban the duplication of posts (accumuler de fonctions). It will no longer be possible to be a minister, a deputy, and mayor at the same time, taking home three salaries. 

A time of calm and relief is palpable after protracted pre-electoral unrest. It is also a time of grace for the new government to organize its ministries, agendas, and plans. The Senegalese will be watching closely as this young government moves to translate promises made in opposition to policies of real government. Diomaye has been elected with a mandate of creating jobs for the youth and reducing the cost of living. It will be no small feat to meet the hope brought about by this change in government.

Further Reading