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ANALYSIS: The Success of Senegal Presidential Election and the Role of ECOWAS

Premium Times Nigeria 2024/4/12

ECOWAS hopes the presidential election in Senegal will be the breaking point from a troubled past in West Africa.

Members ECOWAS election observation mission, led by Ibrahim Gambari
Members ECOWAS election observation mission, led by Ibrahim Gambari

When the head of the ECOWAS mission to Senegal, Ambassador Ibrahim Gambari, visited President Macky Sall in his residence the day after the nation’s voters cast their ballots for the youngest President-elect in the country’s history, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, he met a president resigned to his fate, even eager to leave office.

“If it were possible for him to hand over immediately, I think he would have done so,” Mr Gambari, a professor, said after the visit.

Macky Sall had for three years fought a gallant opposition led by the irrepressible Ousmane Sonko, who accused him of planning to run for a third time, against the nation’s constitution.

Mr Sall denied the charge, but as the election date, initially slated for 25 February, drew near, his actions were dubious at best. He shifted the date, locked up leaders of the opposition, and clamped down heavily on rioting youth who promised to make the country ungovernable unless he stopped his underhand tactics.

In the end, the Constitutional Court, and even the nation’s legislature (which had been in his pockets) made two crucial rulings that impacted the election: that the president may not shift the elections to a date later than 2 April when he was supposed to leave office, and that through an amnesty programme, all opposition leaders, many of whom have spent one year in prison, be released from jail.

These decisions, which President Sall was forced to obey against his wish, calmed tensions and ensured that the Presidential elections were held in an atmosphere devoid of rancour.

 New President, Faye and outgoing President, Macky Sall
New President, Faye and outgoing President, Macky Sall

“All the problems with the election began in 2021 and ended with the amnesty given on 6 March,” said Ambassador Gambari, who led a 130-man ECOWAS observer group to witness the elections. “The election was smooth and fair and done under a very peaceful atmosphere.”

The peaceful nature of the election became apparent when the Ecowas delegation posted to all 14 of the nation’s regions, the largest international observer group to cover the polls, began to post in their reports. Apparently, in every polling station, officials arrived before 7 am, the polls started promptly at 8 am, and the ballots and other election materials were available and in such quantity that the immediate problem after the polls was how to destroy the remaining ballots.

The electoral officials, the security officers, who were mainly posted to the polling stations’ gates, and the experienced voters who came to line up early and stayed calm and peaceful throughout the exercise, knew their roles. This was, after all, the region’s most resilient democracy, one of only two nations in West Africa that had never experienced military rule since its independence in 1960.

Although, mainly because of President Sall’s shenanigans, the parties had only ten days to hold rallies and galvanize their constituents, and all that in the month of Ramadan, which, as the mullahs pointed out, was no season for boisterous campaigns and stormy vitriol, the opposition held its own against a ruling candidate, and presidential favourite, Amadou Ba, who was believed to have the experience and the age to rule over this African giant. He was at least 20 years older and a former prime minister, but those were not the credentials that mattered to most Senegalese who just wanted change. As Senegal’s President-elect Bassirou Diomaye Faye put it starkly, the choice was “between continuity and rupture.”

The people chose a rupture with the past, a past they had found poorly incapable of providing the kind of jobs they needed to stop their youth from fleeing to Europe and dying at sea on open boats, a past that had seemed to kowtow to foreign rather than nationalist interests; a past that was riddled with corruption and intolerable of opposition.

Macky Sall, whose administration succeeded in luring in a sizable amount of foreign companies and had made the provision of critical infrastructure a priority, however, ensured that his antics overshadowed his achievements during the period leading to the elections and thus guaranteed that he would hardly ever get even the modest credit he deserved.

It was thus different from the closely run contest the world had envisaged. Analysts thought the elections would certainly be pushed into a second round of voting as the constitution stipulates that there should be a run-off if no candidate wins a majority of 50 per cent of the votes on the first ballot.

But by the next day, which was incidentally, his birthday as he turned 44, Diomaye Faye had already opened up such a lead in the poll results that were posted in real-time on television and radio, especially in the western part of the country, which had the most votes, that other candidates, including his chief rival, Mr Amadou Ba threw in the towel and wished him success in his imminent leadership of the country.

In a statement, Mr Ba said that “in view of the trends in the results of the presidential election,” he had called Mr Faye “to congratulate him on his victory pending the official proclamation.”

President Ball himself, whose party lost at the polls, posted his congratulations on his X page. “I salute the smooth running of the presidential election of 24 March, 2024 and congratulate the winner, Mr. Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who the trends show as the winner. It is the victory of Senegalese democracy,” he said.

Mr Faye’s victory was primarily attributed to the people’s love for his colleague and friend, the radical opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was banned from participating in the elections and jailed on charges of defamation and fomenting insurrection. Released just ten days to the polls, the campaign slogan for his party, the now dissolved PASTEF, The African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity, was “Ousmane mooy Diomaye”, meaning “Ousmane is Diomaye” in Wolof, irrevocably linking the fate of both men.

On Good Friday, the nation’s Constitutional Council confirmed the presidential election victory of Diomaye Faye, and his inauguration as Senegal’s fifth president and Africa’s youngest democratically elected leader is holding today (2 April 2024).

As the world congratulates the new president, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security Abdel-Fatau Musah, it feels gratifying that things turned out as well as they did. He credited the people and strong institutions of Senegal for the victory of democracy but also spoke of ECOWAS’ unyielding efforts to ensure democracy was not truncated in that most promising nation.

“Dating back to 2021, when troubles started with rumours of disqualifications, we were in constant touch, monitoring the situation and intervening quietly and when necessary to encourage civil dialogue and calm the waters,” he said.

Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES in Dakar, Senegal, the commissioner laid down a long process of intervention that required deft diplomacy and subtle pressures to push the government of President Sall in the direction of a peaceful handover.

He said ECOWAS sent in mediators like the council of elders, which included former presidents, to sit with President Macky Sall and other stakeholders; a fact-finding mission of electoral and constitutional experts to Senegal in November to monitor the rising incidence of violence, ascertain the level of preparedness of the nation’s electoral body, and shortcomings that required the regional body to intervene and correct the deficiencies.

Mr Musah said ECOWAS also deployed a long-term observer mission that arrived two weeks before the election to prepare the grounds for the massive short-term observer mission and give feedback on any red flags, collaborating with the African Union and other international observer missions and meeting with candidates, civil society groups and president Macky Sall himself.

“Our meeting with the president showed how advanced democracy is in Senegal. This is what we have to encourage. The maturity and democratic culture of the Senegalese people is commendable. The professionalism of the electoral bodies and the Republican nature of the security forces showed the long gestation of democracy here. The cumulative effect of all these will reflect positively on the region and point the way for others to follow.”

The above analysis resonates with the position of the head of the ECOWAS observation mission, Mr Gambari, who, at the commencement of his assignment, described Senegal’s presidential election as holding a special significance for the consolidation of democracy in the region.

It certainly sets the bar for Ghana’s presidential election to be held later this year and the overall character of elections in the whole region, which has been less than salutary.

ECOWAS, which the fragile democracy in the region beleaguered, hopes that the Presidential election in Senegal will be the breaking point from a troubled past.

President Diomaye Faye could change the region’s political landscape for good.

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