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Senegal’s Democratic Backsliding Is a Threat to African Democracy

A constitutional coup in a country that has long been a beacon for freedom would encourage authoritarians across the continent.

By , a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Protesters attend a rally backing the Senegalese opposition in Dakar, on June 8.
Protesters attend a rally backing the Senegalese opposition in Dakar, on June 8.
Protesters attend a rally backing the Senegalese opposition in Dakar, on June 8. SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images

On June 23, residents across multiple Senegalese cities endured a cacophony of banging pots, honking horns, and shrill whistles. The noise signified widespread anger about the disqualification of key opposition leaders, such as Ousmane Sonko and Barthélémy Dias, from contesting the July 31 legislative elections.

By removing the threat posed by Sonko and Dias, Senegalese President Macky Sall has a greater chance of maintaining a legislative majority under his Benno Bokk Yakaar (“United in Hope” or BBY) ruling coalition, which currently holds 75 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. In turn, a legislative majority would embolden Sall to pursue a controversial third term in the 2024 presidential contests. Despite high levels of citizen disapproval, such constitutional coups have become increasingly common in West Africa, including by President Alassane Ouattara of the Ivory Coast in 2020 and by then-President Alpha Condé in Guinea in 2021. A similar move in Senegal would massively tarnish the country’s long-standing democratic credentials.

Senegal relies on a parallel voting system for electing representatives to its 165-member National Assembly. Specifically, 112 of these seats are allocated based on plurality, first-past-the-post voting. (These include 15 seats earmarked for the Senegalese diaspora.) Another 53 seats are allocated based on a proportional distribution formula whereby citizens vote for national lists of candidates and seats are allocated to the parties according to the share of votes received.

On June 23, residents across multiple Senegalese cities endured a cacophony of banging pots, honking horns, and shrill whistles. The noise signified widespread anger about the disqualification of key opposition leaders, such as Ousmane Sonko and Barthélémy Dias, from contesting the July 31 legislative elections.

By removing the threat posed by Sonko and Dias, Senegalese President Macky Sall has a greater chance of maintaining a legislative majority under his Benno Bokk Yakaar (“United in Hope” or BBY) ruling coalition, which currently holds 75 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. In turn, a legislative majority would embolden Sall to pursue a controversial third term in the 2024 presidential contests. Despite high levels of citizen disapproval, such constitutional coups have become increasingly common in West Africa, including by President Alassane Ouattara of the Ivory Coast in 2020 and by then-President Alpha Condé in Guinea in 2021. A similar move in Senegal would massively tarnish the country’s long-standing democratic credentials.

Senegal relies on a parallel voting system for electing representatives to its 165-member National Assembly. Specifically, 112 of these seats are allocated based on plurality, first-past-the-post voting. (These include 15 seats earmarked for the Senegalese diaspora.) Another 53 seats are allocated based on a proportional distribution formula whereby citizens vote for national lists of candidates and seats are allocated to the parties according to the share of votes received.

Macky Sall has repeatedly interfered in the judiciary to disqualify viable candidates who could challenge him for the presidency.

The disqualification decision concerned the proportionally allocated seats; the interior minister, who is appointed by the president, rejected the primary list of candidates for the opposition coalition, known as Yewwi Askan Wi (“Free the People” or YAW). Sonko and Dias were at the head of the primary list. The invalidation of YAW’s list was based on a minor issue, which was that one of their candidates appeared to be on both the primary and substitute lists. An appeal of the decision proved unsuccessful, meaning that YAW will now contest the elections with its substitute candidates, who have less recognition among voters.

In the wake of the decision and failed appeal, YAW and other opposition parties have held more than a month of protests and rallies, during which they have vowed to ensure that Sall does not get a majority and have encouraged citizens to still turn out and vote. At stake are suspicions that with another legislative majority, Sall will manipulate a constitutional referendum passed in 2016 to argue—just like Ouattara—that the new constitution essentially resets the clock on his tenure.

His refusal to dispel such speculations only further fuels doubts about his intentions. The outcome of the legislative elections will also determine which party gains the position of prime minister, a post that Sall got rid of in 2019 but which he has promised to restore after the elections.


Senegal’s current polarized environment follows deadly anti-government protests in 2021 and massive opposition gains in the country’s January 2022 local elections, when almost all major cities were won by YAW and its partners. Sall and the BBY’s increasingly declining popularity is due to several factors.

First, there is a consistent pattern of closing the space for public debate and scrutiny. For instance, a press code law passed in 2017 and signed in 2021 has created an environment of self-censorship among journalists in a country long known for its vibrant media. Moreover, Sall has repeatedly interfered in the judiciary to disqualify viable candidates who could challenge him for the presidency, including his predecessor’s son, Karim Wade, in 2015, and the former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall (no relation to Macky Sall) in 2018.

Second, there is a perception among voters that corruption has grown under his tenure. The BBC uncovered in 2019 that Aliou Sall, the president’s brother, received improper payments in a natural gas deal when he was head of the state-run savings fund. Although Aliou Sall resigned his position, the Senegalese authorities declined to hold an independent investigation of the claims, and the BBY retained him as a mayoral candidate in the 2022 local elections. Sall’s brother-in-law, Transport Minister Mansour Faye, also was accused of corruption during his time as mayor of the city of Saint-Louis but has not faced any serious consequences. These dynamics confirm for segments of the population that the president is selectively targeting the opposition for malfeasance while ignoring the questionable activities of his own allies.

Third, Senegalese are worried about human and economic security. In the southern Senegalese region of Casamance—Sonko’s stronghold—separatist fighting that had long been dormant reignited due to a military offensive ordered by Sall to flush out the rebels, creating high levels of insecurity and displacing more than 2,000 residents who have fled to neighboring Gambia. Rising food and fuel prices, which were already high before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but have since skyrocketed, are generating widespread discontent with the cost of living.

Most significantly, the anti-French attitudes now popular in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and elsewhere in West Africa also resonate among Senegal’s youth. Such sentiment is driven by a resurgence in Pan-Africanist discourse and advocacy that frames long-standing poverty and inequality on the continent as the by-product of a corrupt alliance between African leaders and neocolonial powers. This is a sentiment that opposition leaders have mobilized effectively.

For instance, in protests during March 2021 over the arrest of Sonko, franchises of four key French businesses in Dakar—including the Auchan supermarket chain, TotalEnergies gas stations, the Orange telecommunications group, and the Eiffage firm that manages tolls on the Diamniadio highway—were looted or destroyed. One interpretation is that the companies symbolize for the urban poor the dominance of the former colonial power in the country’s economy at the perceived expense of small-scale Senegalese enterprises.

Although unclear how widespread such views are, they have been amplified by certain civil society leaders, including Guy Marius Sagna, the vocal leader for the Front for a Popular Anti-Imperialist and Pan-African Revolution. Sagna is now the technical advisor at Dakar City Hall for Dias, who is also the mayor of the capital city. Dias recently promised to implement a campaign renaming the city’s streets from those that symbolize French colonization to those that are more indigenous. This decision follows the popularity of a similar street renaming initiative this year spearheaded by Sonko in the southern city of Ziguinchor, where he is mayor.

The symbolism of the anti-colonial zeitgeist has been apparent in the recent anti-Sall protests, such as those on June 8 when French flags burned in Dakar’s Place de l’Indépendance. Some of Sall’s recent policy positions, including supporting France’s military operations and upholding sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States against the Malian junta, further undermined his legitimacy with the urban youth. Because Russia has opportunistically promoted the same Pan-Africanist discourse, Sall has had to tread a fine line vis-à-vis the Ukraine war.

Indeed, while he initially signed a letter condemning Russia’s invasion in his capacity as African Union chairperson, Senegal ultimately abstained in the March 2 United Nations General Assembly resolution denouncing Russia. Although Sall’s government justified this decision as a natural continuation of Senegal’s policy on nonalignment, pragmatic concerns about the public’s opinion on the matter as well as the potential economic fallout from choosing sides were likely the real motivations for the abstention.

Sall’s role as AU chairman provides him with a respectable external image, and he has been visible at several international gatherings with world leaders, including the recent G-7 summit, as well as actively lobbying for free passage of grain and fertilizer shipments from the Black Sea region to avoid growing food insecurity in Africa. Moreover, in the wake of several military coups in West Africa over the last year, he remains one of the few credible partners in the region for the United States and the European Union. In fact, Senegal was one of only three countries—along with Kenya and Nigeria—visited in 2021 by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who identified Sall as “a strong leader for democracy.”

Senegal has been on the brink of democratic erosion before.

The Senegalese government hired a public relations company in early 2022 to reinforce his diplomatic stature in the United States and promote “President Macky Sall’s exceptional efforts and the government’s ambitious program.” Through the annual Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security, Sall also remains a pivotal partner for EU security concerns in the region, including migration, refugees, and fragility in the Sahel.

Senegal has been on the brink of democratic erosion before. In a twist of déjà vu, Sall partnered with civil society groups to mobilize large-scale protests a decade ago against then-President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid to run for a third term, receiving widespread support from the international community. Yet, the geopolitical context is remarkably different today, with recent EU interest in Senegal’s natural gas reserves, concerns about the spread of Sahelian insurgency to the littoral states on the Gulf of Guinea, and anxieties about Russia’s growing infiltration of Francophone West Africa, all taking on outsized importance for Senegal’s traditional Western allies. Collectively, these dynamics could alter the degree to which the United States and EU will be compelled to push the Senegalese leader to uphold democratic practices.

Interference in the judiciary, deterioration of civil liberties, and constitutional manipulation appear less jarring than outright election rigging or a military takeover, thereby making Senegal’s regression seemingly less egregious than that of many of its neighbors.

Yet, precisely for these reasons, the outcome on July 31 and the way in which Sall navigates the next 24 months of his presidency will be a litmus test for the credibility of the United States, European Union, and other Western partners—and whether they can avoid becoming enablers of democratic backsliding in an increasingly authoritarian region.

Danielle Resnick is a David M. Rubenstein fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution. Twitter: @D_E_Resnick

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