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Citizen activism proving to be empowering force behind Senegal’s hard-fought drive for democracy

Citizen activism proving to be empowering force behind Senegal’s hard-fought drive for democracy
Bassirou Diomaye Faye, Senegal’s president (right), greets Malick Diaw, president of Mali’s transitional council, during Faye’s inauguration ceremony in Diamniadio, Senegal. 2 April 2024. (Photo: Annika Hammerschlag/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Senegal’s people stood up to protect their democracy rather than wait for the military or external help.

After three tumultuous years, Senegal’s presidential elections in March saw Bassirou Diomaye Faye elected to lead the country. The political crisis was linked to uncertainty about whether former president Macky Sall would contest for a third term, due to varying interpretations of the two-term limit stipulated in the constitution.

Sall’s decision to postpone the polls, initially scheduled for February, deepened political tensions. The resulting clashes and protests led to 16 deaths in June last year and three in February this year, threatening the country’s stability and its image as the beacon of democracy in West Africa.

At the time, many Senegalese were losing trust in their democracy, as has been the trend globally. According to Afrobarometer, although 84% of Senegalese preferred democracy to other forms of government, only 48% were satisfied with how democracy works in their country in 2022 — down from 64% in 2014. Indeed, more than half believed Senegal was less democratic than five years before. Only 24% of Senegalese expect the country to be more democratic in five years.

As a shining example in West Africa, a collapse of Senegal’s democracy would not only have been catastrophic for democracy in the region but also for peace and stability. West Africa is going through a turbulent period, with several military takeovers and deteriorating security crises. Since 2020, there have been six successful coups — in Niger, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone have had attempted coups.

The rise in abuse by leaders in the region who, despite public outcry, amended their constitutions and contested controversial third terms, has also undermined governance. Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire are examples of this.

Senegal’s citizens demonstrated resilience in the midst of uncertainty, and their defence of democracy was commendable. Mass protests and demonstrations by civil society, opposition parties, women, youth, organised labour and academia contributed to Sall’s decision to abandon any intention of a third term. Protests against postponing the election perhaps influenced the Constitutional Council’s decision to uphold the law and rule against the president’s actions.

Citizen activism

This brings to the fore the importance and power of citizens to safeguard their constitution and democracy. Senegalese did not wait for the military to intervene or cry for external help. Instead, a civilian uprising forced the relevant authorities to do the right thing. This provides a useful lesson for other countries in the region, especially where similar constitutional abuses are happening.

A new study by the African Futures and Innovation programme at the Institute for Security Studies shows that better governance through improved security, strong government capacity and more inclusion can lead to sustained development in Senegal. By 2043, better governance can increase the country’s GDP by $558 or 8.4% over the Current Path forecast, or business-as-usual scenario.

Likewise, improved governance can lift an extra 1.1 million Senegalese out of extreme poverty by 2043. Achieving this will involve broad reforms that address the government’s trust deficit and strengthen the country’s institutions.

This must start with the new government working to reignite confidence in the nation’s democracy. While Senegal has relatively strong institutions and a seemingly apolitical army, further governance reforms can strengthen its democracy.

Democracy and transparency

Events leading up to the elections reveal weak checks and balances, particularly legislative and judiciary checks on the executive. This was evident in Sall’s decision to postpone the elections, which was affirmed by the National Assembly. It also confirms Afrobarometer findings that in 2022, 57% of Senegalese believed their president would always ignore the law courts. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance confirms that legislative and judicial checks on the executive have declined over the years.

Turning this around requires constitutional and institutional reforms to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and legislature. That will help improve checks and balances, and curb abuse by the executive. Also, the president’s power to set an election date based on the proposal of the electoral administration should be abolished. Election dates — and not just the period during which polls must be held — should be entrenched in the constitution to avoid postponements.

The role of the Interior Ministry in the electoral process should also be reduced. The power given to the ministry and the minister to dissolve parties can be abused to target opposition parties. More powers should be devolved to the National Autonomous Electoral Commission to handle the elections and oversee the administration of electoral processes.

Beyond these measures, the new government must strengthen and resource anti-corruption institutions to fight corruption. It also needs to create an environment that will enable the media and civil society organisations to thrive and protect the country’s enduring democracy. DM

Enoch Randy Aikins, Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

First published by ISS Today.

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