Celebrations unlikely to last long in Macky Sall’s Senegal

As the West African nation celebrates its AFCON victory, political instability is looming on the horizon.

Senegal's President Macky Sall and coach Aliou Cisse hold the AFCON trophy during a ceremony at the Dakar airport after the national football team's return
Senegal's President Macky Sall, left, and coach Aliou Cisse, right, hold the AFCON trophy during a ceremony after the national football team arrived back at the airport in Dakar, Senegal, February 7, 2022 [File: Sylvain Cherkaoui/AP Photo]

Senegal erupted into celebration on Sunday night after its football team defeated Egypt and won the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). A day later, hundreds of thousands of ecstatic fans treated the newly crowned champions to a hero’s welcome in Dakar, blowing vuvuzelas, chanting slogans and dancing in the capital’s streets.

President Macky Sall was among those greeting the team at the airport. As joyful scenes from the celebrations filled TV screens in Senegal and across the world, it appeared as if all was well in the West African country.

But for many in Senegal, the AFCON victory was nothing but a brief distraction from the serious problems that have long occupied their minds: democratic backsliding, gradual shrinking of civil liberties, and systemic corruption.

Indeed, in 2020, Freedom House downgraded Senegal from “free” to “partially free” in its annual freedom index. The United States-based research institute said the country’s status declined because “the 2019 presidential election was marred by the exclusion of two major opposition figures who had been convicted in politically fraught corruption cases”.

And the situation has been getting worse since then.

Democratic backsliding and systemic corruption

Senegal has been a flawed but stable democracy since it gained its independence from France in 1960. In a region plagued by military coups, civil wars and ethnic conflicts, it has repeatedly secured peaceful transitions of power, and has thus been considered an “exception”.

In 2012, when incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade decided to run for a third term against the provisions of Senegal’s 2001 constitution, questions were raised about the future of the country’s relatively young democracy. However, the leader of the opposition Alliance for the Republic (APR) party, Macky Sall, removed Wade from office by gaining more than 65 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election and ensured the continuation of the Senegalese exception.

Sall’s democratic victory against Wade, his political godfather, led many to believe that Senegal’s democratic system is finally reaching full maturity. There were hopes that Sall would use his position as president to strengthen the country’s stance against power grabs and fortify the democratic system’s checks and balances.

However, since the 2019 presidential election, which saw him secure a second term with 58 percent of the vote, Sall has been focusing only on self-aggrandisement.

In the run-up to the election, he paved the way for the imprisonment of potential presidential candidates on what many – including international institutions like Freedom House – believed to be politically motivated charges. And only a week after the start of his second term, he introduced highly controversial constitutional reforms, which included abolishing the post of prime minister and further consolidating power in the hands of the president.

In March last year, protests erupted across the country in response to the arrest of opposition leader and Sall’s main political rival, Ousmane Sonko, for alleged rape. Security forces fired tear gas and, in some cases, live bullets to disperse the protests and rounded up dozens of people. At least 14 people lost their lives in the violence and many others were injured. While the protests were mainly about Sonko, they were also a reaction to the widespread fears that democratic spaces in the country are shrinking under Sall’s rule.

And Sall all but proved these fears right a few months later. In June 2021, the National Assembly, dominated by Sall’s loyalists, passed two “counterterror laws” which civil society organisations and rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, warned could “punish political speech and peaceful protest as ‘terrorist acts,’ target union leaders, and dangerously expand police surveillance power”.

Corruption is also a growing problem under Sall’s rule. Senegal has always been a neo-patrimonial state where the use of state resources for political legitimation is the norm.

But under Sall’s rule, especially during his second term, corruption appears to have become much more widespread and systemic than ever before.

A vast majority (75 percent) of Senegalese respondents who participated in an Afro Barometer survey in January 2021, for example, said they believed corruption had increased in their country in 2020 (compared with just 44 percent in a similar survey conducted in 2017). Meanwhile, 77 percent said they believed they would face reprisal or other consequences if they reported acts of corruption to authorities.

Moreover, after being stable for five years, Senegal’s score in the Global Corruption Perceptions Index dropped by two points in 2021. In December 2021, meanwhile, global anti-corruption group Transparency International called for investigations into “suspicious” deals for two major oil blocks off the coast of Senegal.

A BBC investigation had previously revealed that President Sall’s brother, Aliou Sall, had received secret payments from foreign companies involved in the deals. The president and his brother denied the accusations, but Senegalese authorities continue to ignore the calls for an independent investigation into the claims.

The end of the Senegalese exception?

Senegal’s constitution allows only two five-year presidential terms. Sall’s second term will come to an end in 2024. But he has not ruled out seeking a third term following a constitutional referendum in 2016 that could be used to reset the clock on his term of office. Similar constitutional devices were used by Guinea’s overthrown President Alpha Conde and Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast to run again despite violent protests in both countries.

The Senegalese public, frustrated by the democratic backslide and growing corruption, however, already sent a message to the president. The governing party, APR, lost the capital Dakar and the important cities of Ziguinchor and Thies in last month’s local elections. Now, many expect a repeat of this scenario in the legislative elections scheduled for mid-2022.

The Senegalese people clearly had enough of dodgy constitutional interpretations, political witch-hunts, power grabs, and systemic corruption in the past few years. They are worried about democratic backsliding under President Sall’s rule and do not want to see him on the ballot once again in 2024.

The president should listen to people, change his path, and give up his ambitions for a third term.

If he refuses to listen, the nation currently united in celebration of its AFCON victory may soon need to come together once again to mourn the demise of the “Senegalese exception”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.