Senegalese President Macky Sall's decision to postpone elections and extend his own term in office is sending shockwaves through the country, with deadly protests reported since Sunday this week. Now, the country's allies fear a constitutional crisis that could bring down one of the most stable countries in a volatile region.
One person, a student, was confirmed dead on Saturday in the northern city of Saint-Louis as protests spread across the country each day. The victim reportedly died from injuries sustained during clashes with security forces.
Videos shared on social media, some of which we were able to verify, also showed property being damaged as protesters clashed with police. Protests are common in Senegal, especially after the authorities tried to undercut the presidential ambitions of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.
But the latest is over the postponement of elections originally scheduled for February 25.
Sall blamed his controversial decision on a dispute between the country's parliament and the Constitutional Council, sparked by the disqualification of some candidates.
The council's rejection of the candidates, including prominent contenders, led to allegations of corruption, which the president said could taint the results of the elections if they went ahead as planned.
The opposition says he acted outside his powers. Sall also had his term extended by parliament until the next leaders were elected. The opposition says this is a 'constitutional coup'.
International condemnation of the president's move has poured in, from the US and the European Union to regional blocs such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).
Ecowas was the first to speak out, and understandably so. It expressed concern about the development but stopped short of calling out Sall.
On Thursday it also convened an emergency summit of member states' foreign ministers to discuss the crisis in Senegal and other member states under military rule and facing sanctions.
By Friday, no clear decision had emerged from the meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Ecowas Commission President Dr Allieu Omar Touray was quoted as saying that the council of ministers would not discuss the constitutionality of Sall's decision, which could lead to a decision on whether to take action against the country.
"We have to determine the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of an action before any decision to take or impose sanctions," said Dr Touray.
The West African bloc has in the last three years come under pressure to reign in on its members for unconstitutional behaviours, which have been blamed for the resurgence of military takeovers in the region.
Senegal is part of a small group of stable democracies in a region known for political unrest and upheaval. It is one of the very few countries that have not experienced either a coup or civil war.
However, analysts and the international community have warned that this action by President Sall’s administration jeopardises the status quo.
African Union Commission chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called on Senegal to resolve its “political dispute through consultation, understanding and dialogue”.
Perhaps the strongest words of criticism came from the United States.
The State Department’s Spokesperson Matthew Miller, said that the move runs contrary to the country’s “strong” democratic tradition. It also bemoaned the response of the authorities to the aftermath of the development.
“We are particularly alarmed by reports of security forces removing by force parliamentarians who opposed a bill to delay the election, resulting in a National Assembly vote that cannot be considered legitimate given the condition under which it took place,” he said.
Human Rights Watch said Senegal is at risk of losing its credentials as “a beacon of democracy in the region.”
“Authorities need to act to prevent violence, rein in abusive security forces, and end their assault on opposition and media. They should respect freedom of speech, expression and assembly, and restore internet, putting Senegal back on its democratic course,” the watchdog said in a statement.
Despite having an enviable record of relatively peaceful power transitions since independence, Senegal hasn’t really been spared by tensions around elections. In fact, its democracy has been characterised by tensions almost always. Only that the circumstances surrounding the current crisis are starkly different in many ways.
For instance, this is the first time ever that an election has been postponed in the country. But it is not the first time an attempt for such has been made. President Sall himself was at the forefront of challenging his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade’s attempt to do a similar thing.
Sall succeeded Wade in 2012, after defeating him in a hotly contested election that brought many opposition parties together in a second round of voting to root out Wade who had insisted on serving for three terms.
Many of those who rallied behind Sall subsequently parted ways with him, amid allegations of corruption and authoritarianism.
One of them, renowned cultural and music superstar, Youssou Ndour, for the first time in a long time openly criticised Sall.
Ndour served briefly in the administration of Sall as minister responsible for Tourism, until he was removed almost a year into office.
He was fundamental in campaigns to elect Sall in 2012.
"I'm worried about the situation in the country. Unequivocally, I do not agree with the postponement of the presidential election. Our democratic appointments are binding on all of us and the sovereign people will be the final judge! The situation in Senegal worries me even more because there is too much animosity in this country and it is not the US. This is not Senegal. To that end, I appeal to all goodwill to work to appease this country. Our compatriots don't deserve this," the Grammy Award winner posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Official campaigns for these elections were slated for this Sunday, although the various presidential hopefuls had already kicked the ball rolling.
Out of a whopping 79 Presidential hopefuls who submitted their names, only 20 were approved.
The most prominent among those who had their candidacy rejected are Karim Wade and Ousmane Sonko.
Sonko, who is currently in jail, is widely considered the leading contender against the ruling candidate. He was disqualified on the basis of his conviction last year in relation to a defamation case brought against him by a government official. That was interpreted as one of Sall’s first plots to eliminate a serious challenger to his ambition.
Sonko is especially popular among the youths who have been at the forefront of efforts to deter Sall from prolonging his stay in power. Many of the protests staged in Senegal in the last several years have been led by these youths.
Karim, on the other hand, was disqualified on the basis that he holds dual French and Senegalese citizenship. Karim, whose mother is French, is the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade. He currently resides in Qatar as part of a deal that saw him released after three years in prison for graft in 2016.
Karim’s party had called for a postponement of the vote to investigate alleged corruption within the Constitutional Council, specifically pointing at two of the judges who reviewed the candidates’ list.
Last week, the parliament voted to open an inquiry into the matter, a move supported by some members of the ruling party’s bench.
According to Senegalese law, only parliament and the Constitutional Council can change an election date already decreed, under specific conditions.
The parliament on Monday set December 15 as the new date for the elections. This effectively extends Sall’s tenure by nine months.
Having served his maximum two terms, he was expected to step down on April 2, after the swearing-in of his successor.
During the debate, lawmakers fought in the House, leading to security forces storming in and removing some opposition MPs to pave the way for the vote.
Protesters gathered outside chanting and burning tires.
Mobile internet access was temporarily restricted after the authorities claimed protesters were using it to spread hate.
While critics see this as just an act to legitimise the desire of the president, the move has been rejected by the opposition, some of whom are calling for widespread protests to “defend democracy.”
At least five opposition parties have taken actions or vowed to challenge the move both through the Constitutional Council and the Courts.