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Will Senegal's delayed vote further destabilize West Africa?

February 10, 2024

The postponement of Senegal's presidential election could have major consequences for the entire region.

Senegalese demonstrators shout slogans after they were pushed back by riot police
Protesters took to the streets in response to the postponement of the presidential election Image: Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS

Senegal was due to elect a new head of state on February 25. The incumbent president, Macky Sall, was not on the ballot: after two terms in office, he is no longer eligible to stand.

However, on February 3, just one day before the start of the election campaign, Sall announced that the vote would be delayed. The parliament has since voted by a majority to approve the rescheduling of the election for December 15, but some members of the opposition have lodged a complaint with the Constitutional Council.

Protesters took to the streets in response to the announcement. Police used tear gas against the demonstrators, and the internet was shut down for at least 36 hours.

Cheikh Ndiaye, 37, is an actor in Yarakh, near the capital, Dakar. One week on, he's still in shock.

"As a young person, you want the president to hold elections and then go," he said. Now, though, Sall is clinging to power, at least for the time being. Ndiaye said the delay was a big disappointment, especially for young people — which is significant, in a country where the average age of the population is 19.

A man in a bright pink and purple T-shirt, arms folded, stands in front of a wall covered in graffiti.
The political crisis could encourage young people to leave the country, said actor Cheikh NdiayeImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

"Even people who have no desire to emigrate to Europe, when they see this situation, they start to think differently. I hate to say it, but this sort of thing encourages young people to leave the country," he said.

Country at a standstill

Samira Daoud, who heads the West and Central Africa office of the human rights group Amnesty International, said the reasons behind migrationcan be either economic or political. "And economic reasons are often determined by political reasons and by the political context," she added.

One of the unforeseen consequences of postponing the election could end up being another surge in emigration, which would have repercussions not just for Senegal but also for Europe. The West African coastal state has a population of more than 18 million.

Until now, Senegal was seen as a stable democracy in a region that has experienced six coups since August 2020. This stability has always been important for foreign investment, said Ibrahima Kane, a lawyer and analyst at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

Senegal's young artists take on political crises

"Everything we have gained, economically and otherwise, is thanks to our image abroad," said Kane. "Senegal is not wealthy; it has few natural resources. Even the gas and oil reserves they're talking about — everyone knows there's not much there."

Instead, he said, Senegal's great advantage has been its democratic system. Now, that will be lost, with Kane predicting that "the soft power Senegal had will disappear."

Instability in West Africa

Investors are inclined to hold back before an election — and that situation may now continue for almost a whole year.

Foreign direct investment in Senegal had increased in recent years. According to the World Investment Report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, it reached $2.23 billion (€2.07 billion) in 2022, a significant increase on $1.85 billion in 2021. Investment is regarded as key to industrializing the country and creating jobs. Every year, around 200,000 young people enter Senegal's job market.

But it's not only the economy that's likely to suffer. Observers fear the political repercussions of postponing the election could be devastating. Senegal shares a border with Mali. Terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the "Islamic State" group are active there, as well as in the nearby Sahel states of Burkina Faso and Niger. Neighboring countries further south have been dealing with the problem for a long time already, but until now, Senegal has been something of an exception. Kane is skeptical that this will remain the case.

Headshot of Ibrahima Kane, wearing a checked shirt
Analyst Ibrahima Kane said the image of Senegal as a stable democracy is crucial to attracting foreign investmentImage: Katrin Gänsler/DW

"Over the past two or three years, there have been many cases of terrorist sleeper cells based in Senegal, which have been brought to trial," he said. "This shows that the country is not immune to such things." The concern is that Islamist groups may exploit the current domestic political crisis.

ECOWAS weakened by regional instability

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has also been affected. On January 28, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, all of which are now ruled by military juntas following recent coups, announced that they were withdrawing from the bloc. This makes Senegal all the more important, said Philipp Goldberg, head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Peace and Security Competence Center Sub-Saharan Africa, in Dakar. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation is affiliated with Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party.

"Senegal is a very important member state, not only for ECOWAS, but also for multilateral engagement generally," said Goldberg. He pointed out that the country was the largest African contributor of troops to the UN stabilization mission in Mali, which ended last year after disagreements with the military government. "There has been significant political engagement here with regional issues."

TV screen grab of Senegalese president Macky Sall standing at a podium beside the Senegalese flag
Incumbent president Macky Sall announcing the postponement of the Senegalese electionImage: RTS/Reuters

According to Goldberg, ECOWAS is worried Senegal could become another a destabilizing factor. The organization, which previously had 15 member states, is increasingly losing credibility. It has been strongly critical of military coups, and earlier this week it urged Senegal to stick to the election schedule. However, Goldberg said ECOWAS formulated its statements in a very diplomatic, vague, and friendly way.

"They essentially congratulated Macky Sall for respecting his country's constitution and not seeking a third term," he said. "I think that shows very clearly just how nervous the region is."

This article was originally written in German.