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President Macky Sall rules out third-term re-election bid, spelling relief for tense Senegal

President Macky Sall’s decision not to seek a third term as Senegal’s head of state has thrown open the country’s presidential election, ending widespread speculation over his political future that helped fuel deadly protests last month.

Text by:David RICH

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Video by:Sam BRADPIECE

Rumours that Macky Sall would try to extend his more than a decade-long rule have stoked unrest in the West African country, shaking its reputation as a bastion of stability in an otherwise turbulent region. 

Prior to the president’s speech, top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko had called for fresh demonstrations if Sall were to announce a re-election bid in February of next year. 

The 61-year-old leader had previously remained coy about his ambitions, stoking tensions over whether he would use a constitutional revision to bypass the country’s two-term limit. 

In a speech carried live on his official Facebook page on Monday, he maintained that Senegal’s constitution would have allowed his candidacy despite having already been elected to a second term in 2019. 

“Even if I have the right, I felt that my duty is not to contribute to destroying what I have built for this country,” the president said as he ruled out running for a third term – to the dismay of his most ardent supporters.  

Sall asked his government to everything possible to organise a transparent election in February 2024. He offered no indication of who might step into his shoes and carry the party’s colours in the upcoming campaign. 

“I know that this decision will come as a surprise to all those who have a friendship with me,” he added. “Senegal is more than just me, it’s full of people capable of taking Senegal to the next level.” 

‘Break with the past’ 

Sall’s momentous decision bucks the continent’s trend of entrenched strongmen leaders using constitutional changes as an excuse to reset their mandate and extend their hold on power. It was praised by neighbouring leaders, the African Union and former colonial power France, whose foreign ministry hailed it as “proof” of the solidity of Senegalese democracy.

The president’s surprise move comes 11 years after he defeated his predecessor and former mentor Abdoulaye Wade, whose own decision to seek a controversial third term in office had sparked violent street protests.  

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First elected in April 2012, Sall rose to power promising a radical “break with the past”, focused on social justice, structural reforms and development projects. 

Flagship reforms included the introduction of the bourse familiale, a family allowance paid to some 300,000 low-income people that was recently increased amid an inflation crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine. 

Sall oversaw a series of major infrastructure projects, including a new airport and town built on the outskirts of Dakar, as well as highways, express trains, a national stadium and a road link to neighbouring Mali. 

The country’s economy has grown steadily during his time in office, with annual GDP surging from $17 billion to $27 billion over the past ten years, though unemployment has remained stubbornly high at over 22%, affecting young people in particular. 

Meanwhile, Sall won plaudits for his proactive diplomacy on the international stage, championing the cancellation of African debt, the strengthening of the fight against terrorism and the rejection of military coups in a region rattled by a spate of army putsches.

As head of the African Union last year, he spearheaded efforts to broker the Black Sea grain deal that has allowed critical shipments of Ukrainian grain to reach African countries despite the Russian invasion.  

He also enjoyed success in bringing calm to Senegal’s separatist-troubled southern region of Casamance, and played a key part in forcing out dictator Yahya Jammeh in neighbouring Gambia in 2017. 

‘It’s a relief’ 

Midway through his first term in office, Sall pushed through a reform of the constitution that reduced Senegal’s seven-year presidential terms to just five years.  

While the new text upheld a two-term limit on presidential mandates, Sall’s supporters soon argued that his first term under the old constitution should not be counted – setting the stage for the bitter dispute that has festered in recent months. 

As recently as this past weekend, Sall was heard saying that the country’s Constitutional Council would allow for his candidacy, fuelling speculation he would announce his third-term bid. 

Sonko, Sall’s chief opponent, had called for the president to bow out of the 2024 election publicly, accusing the government of bringing court cases against the opposition in an effort to sideline the competition. 

The tension boiled over last month over a court case in which Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted of corrupting youth in a sentence that could jeopardise his election hopes next year. The government said at least 16 people died in the unrest, while the opposition put the figure at 19. 

Sall’s critics have long accused the president of drifting towards authoritarian rule by jailing or exiling his opponents. In recent months, rights monitors including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders had warned of a “restrictions of liberties” in the West African nation.

“The question of Sall’s possible third term only added to the climate of uncertainty that has gripped Senegal,” said Alioune Tine, founder of Afrikajom Center, a local think-human rights watchdog.

“Article 27 of the Constitution couldn’t be any clearer, stating that ‘no-one can serve more than two consecutive terms’, whereas Macky Sall argued the contrary,” Tine added. “It’s a relief that he has ultimately changed his mind.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

France 24

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