President Macky Sall seeks to contain protests in Senegal by announcing amnesty

Macky Sall, Senegal's President,

Tensions in Senegal show no signs of abating after President Macky Sall announced on Feb. 5 that he would postpone presidential elections until next December, sparking a wave of protests that have since forced him to partially revise the measure.

Senegal’s Constitutional Court had also ruled against moving the elections-originally scheduled for Feb. 25-to Dec. 15, asking the president to respect the terms of office and thus organize electoral procedures by April 2, when he will leave office.

Sall had to accept the court’s verdict, pledging his commitment to leave the presidency by the predetermined dates, but without giving a new date for the elections and advocating the need for a national dialogue suitable for pacifying the country. The elections, Sall added, will be held by the start of the rainy season, which begins next July, although the Constitutional Court had explicitly called for them to be held by April 2.

At the same time, Sall announced that he plans to submit to parliament a bill for a general amnesty that could facilitate the release of all those who have been arrested since 2021 in the course of anti-government protests, in an attempt to appease the ire of opposition forces and mitigate the accusations from many quarters regarding his attempt to prevent the participation of opponents in the elections.

Macky Sall has undoubtedly imprinted an authoritarian turn on Senegal, tarnishing that image of a democratic country that had been slowly built over time, leading to a climate of conflict that has been exacerbated in more recent times by the March 3, 2021 arrest of opponent Ousmane Sonko, candidate of the Senegal African Patriots for Labor, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party in the 2019 presidential election. The arrest, on a serious rape charge, had come after Sonko denounced an ongoing government attempt to discredit him and prevent him from playing his role in opposition, prompting a heated parliamentary debate that led to the lifting of his immunity. Freed provisionally in May 2021, Sonko was acquitted of the rape charge but still sentenced to two years in prison for “corruption of youth,” seeing himself barred from running in the 2024 elections. His supporters did not give up, and officially declared him the PASTEF’s candidate in the presidential elections, leading to a new phase of political conflict that resulted in Sonko’s re-arrest in July 2023 and the dissolution of PASTEF by government order.

The past seven months have thus been marked by growing protests, leading last December to a Supreme Court ruling restoring Sonko’s eligibility to run in the next elections and then on Feb. 5 to Sall’s abrupt decision to postpone them, provoking a serious institutional crisis and generating intense protests across the country.

Opposition forces first accused President Sall of wanting to procrastinate his stay at the head of the government and then, after the latter’s partial openings to a revision of its positions, of wanting to favor a transition process driven in the direction of exponents expressed by the current executive, penalizing the main acronyms of the local political opposition.

At the same time, in the utter confusion and uncertainty of the moment, there is also no shortage of more drastic perceptions within the forces hostile to the president, fearing a possible intervention by the military as part of a crisis dynamic that could lead the country toward a substantial coup. Such perceptions, moreover, are further fueled by the vagueness of President Sall’s proposals, which, while on the one hand open to dialogue with the proposal of an amnesty, continue to give no clear indication of when the next elections will be held, providing a rather vague time frame-that beginning of the rainy season-and without specifying how and to what extent the hoped-for process of national dialogue can and should be functional in organizing the elections themselves.

Sixteen of the nineteen potential candidates for the upcoming presidential elections have already made it known that they are unwilling to participate in the dialogue, as have numerous civil society organizations, and the risk of a new spiral of political crisis seems to be concretely on the horizon.

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