Senegal’s Elites Wanted to Trash Democracy. Voters Didn’t.

Tomorrow, Senegal votes in an election that French-backed president Macky Sall repeatedly delayed. The fact that the election is going ahead is a victory for young and poor Senegalese, whose protests resisted elites’ democratic backsliding.

Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye and opposition leader Ousmane Sonko cheer during their final campaign rally in Mbour, Senegal, on March 22, 2024. (John Wessels / AFP via Getty Images)

Last Thursday night, cheers bellowed across Senegal’s capital Dakar. A few blocks from where I stood in the city’s posh Plateau district, Ousmane Sonko and Bassirou Diomaye Faye left the prison they had been held in for months. Since 2017, Sonko has led a powerful opposition movement that has railed against current president Macky Sall and the status quo he represents. Since Sonko is unable to run himself, Faye will represent his party in the presidential election. The jubilation that swept through this metropolis reveals much about the limits and possibilities of democracy not only in Senegal, or even West Africa, but across the world.

In recent years, people have gotten used to hearing about democratic backsliding. Senegal’s neighbors and fellow former French colonies Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have epitomized this worrying trend. Within this so-called junta belt, many citizens rallied behind military coups that toppled democratically elected leaders widely seen as French puppets or self-serving elites. Beyond these countries, voters have seemed to lose faith in postcolonial democracies from Nigeria to Pakistan. This is to say nothing of the poor state of democracy in Europe and North America. Taken together, these stories make it seem that voters across the world have given up on the democratic process. Instead, citizens have placed their faith in generals and strongmen. The people, it seems, have left democracy behind.

Senegal challenges this narrative. Over the past few weeks, it has become clear that it is the country’s rulers, and not its voters, who have lost faith in the democratic process. The Senegalese people pushed back, just as they have for decades. In doing so, they breathed new life into the country’s political system in a way that should inspire anyone hoping to defend and revitalize democracy.

Avoiding the Vote

Senegal has been gripped in a political crisis for weeks. On February 3, President Sall suspended the election originally scheduled for February 25. Sall’s party then violently pushed a bill through the National Assembly that scheduled a new election on December 15, which would have allowed him to remain in power long after the official end of his term at the beginning of next month. Sall and his followers took this unprecedented step as it became increasingly clear that Sonko’s party had a serious chance of winning. If this happened, many in Sall’s camp feared that they could all go to jail on charges of corruption or human rights abuses. To protect themselves, Sall and his followers plunged their country into the unknown.

What does Sonko represent? Vague policy platforms and grandiose promises of revolutionary change make it hard to know. At its core however, Sonko and his party the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity (PASTEF) combine populist economic policies, anti-colonial rhetoric, and attacks on Senegal’s political elite. PASTEF leaders have demanded monetary sovereignty, a renegotiation of extractive contracts with foreign entities, and an end to French political intervention. Millions of younger voters, particularly in poor urban areas like Dakar’s oft-maligned suburbs, have found new hope in these positions. When Sall upended the planned election, these dreams seemed more imperiled than ever.

Protesters, activists, and journalists across Senegal immediately condemned the election postponement as nothing short of a “constitutional coup.” Clashes between protesters and police exploded across the country, leading to at least three deaths. Meanwhile opposition parties and civil society groups demanded the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest court, intervene. And intervene it did. The court overturned two separate efforts by Sall’s government to hold elections after his term ends. Thanks to these moves, the election is scheduled for this Sunday. For now at least, Sall has failed to destroy his country’s democracy.

Fed Up

I have spent the last ten years researching and writing about Dakar. I have come to love this city’s beautiful blend of frenetic energy and secure calm. Yet after Sall postponed the elections, my phone filled up with stressful messages from friends in Dakar — and frightening images circulating online. I went to Senegal last week with an unfamiliar level of anxiety about what I would find. To my delight, I returned to the familiar sights and sounds of a Senegalese campaign season. Busses draped with candidates faces blasted raucous campaign songs. Political arguments on sidewalks and television sets filled the air. These sensations have long been so common in this country that many people call politics Senegal’s national sport. But do these facts really mean democracy is working here?

Macky Sall has revealed a systemic rot within the country’s ruling class. As the historian Mamadou Diouf argues, Sall has violently degraded the country’s democratic institutions. He has shut down the country’s prestigious University Cheikh Anta Diop, cracked down on journalists, and given a green light to violent attacks against protesters. He ruled out running for an unconstitutional third term only after massive and deadly protests last summer. All is not well in Senegal.

These crises did not come out of nowhere. Observers often present Senegal as one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Sadly, this rosy claim masks a much darker history. In a recent book on democracy in France’s former African colonies, the economist Ndongo Samba Sylla and journalist Fanny Pigeaud deem Senegal, like other former French colonies in Africa, an “imperial democracy.” All of Senegal’s leaders since it became independent in 1960 have maintained close ties to the country’s former ruler. Like many of their counterparts across francophone Africa, Senegal’s political class has long defended a system that largely serves French economic and political interests as well as those of a small cadre of local elites. Potential spoils from the country’s emerging oil markets have only made this corrupt dynamic worse. Even when elections are held, winners rarely help the people who voted them into power.

But alongside this neocolonial past there also stands another history, one built by Senegalese people trying to transform their country’s political system. Young people in particular have spent decades arguing that democracy means more than just voting. In the 1980s, young Dakar residents responded to government austerity by forming their own community sanitation programs. In the early 2010s, young rappers and journalists formed the powerful “Y’en a Marre” movement. Meaning “Fed Up” in French, this group mobilized hundreds of thousands of young people before and after the 2012 election. Like their counterparts across Africa, these activists have shown that democracy is not just about elections. True democracies give all their members the ability to shape their country’s fate.

We Need Elections, but Real Democracy, Too

To be sure, people in Senegal have doubts about electoral change. Many have tired of fighting year after year, only to see costs rise and jobs decline. Like millions of people across the world, many voters in Senegal feel elections alone cannot truly transform their lives.

This pessimism, however, has not stopped people from defending the country’s democracy over the past few weeks. The friends, colleagues and strangers I spoke with in Dakar are divided about Sonko, his movement, and even the possibility of structural change. They recognize that no single election can solve the country’s problems. Despite these divisions and doubts, no one I spoke with rejected the democratic process outright. In my conversations, one phrase came up time and again: “Don’t touch my democracy.” Flawed as elections are, they still have a sacred place in Senegal.

As it stands, the vote is finally scheduled for Sunday. Some of my friends are confident it will proceed. Others believe nothing is guaranteed in Macky Sall’s Senegal. Even if the vote goes ahead, that will not be the end of this story. Elections alone do not make democracy. Yet without them, it stands no chance at all.

As noisy as Dakar became last Thursday, I expect this Sunday will be even louder. Whether that noise will reflect hopes, fury, or despair is the question. Millions of Senegalese people clearly want a democracy. Will the country’s ruling class let them have one? The consequences matter not only for voters in Dakar’s poor suburbs or the country’s wealthy politicians. What happens in Senegal matters for anyone trying to reinvent, or at least defend, the very belief in democracy.