As the dust settles on Senegal’s tumultuous presidential elections, relatively few people are celebrating. On March 1, 2019, five days after Senegalese cast their votes, the country’s national electoral commission, CENA, announced the re-election of incumbent Macky Sall in a context of tense social relations. Sall received 58.27 percent of the total vote while the runners-up, Idrissa Seck and Ousmane Sonko, received 20.50 and 15.67 percent, respectively. Seck and Sonko have rejected the results but decided not to file a recourse with Senegal’s Constitutional Court.

After Senegalese cast their votes on February 24, contradictory results coming out of the different camps led to days of uncertainty until the Constitutional Council announced the election of Sall in the first round. Transparency in electoral processes is a common challenge in African elections. Even more challenging is the establishment of an independent, impartial electoral agency with a clear mandate and an efficient system for managing the electoral process. The 2019 Senegalese presidential election was no exception—even though the reliability of the electoral code itself has not been contested. In his opponents’ view, President Sall’s victory was staged and therefore not deserved. In their opinion, Sall would have been easily defeated in a second round had his government not “highjacked” the popular will.”1Idrissa Seck in his first speech after his defeat.

Business as usual: folks gambling and crowds cheering

Two strong features of the Senegalese democratic model were reaffirmed in this election. First, the regulatory power of the Sufi brotherhoods and the moral authority of their leaders. Religious leaders’ calls for calm following the disputed results may well have prevented post-election violence.

Senegal prides itself on its long history of electoral democracy dating back to 1848. The first political parties were formed in 1914; formal pluralism was established in 1974 and consolidated into a multiparty constitutional system in 1981. Senegal has experienced three democratic transfers of power since 1960, including two transfers from ruling to opposition party in 2000 and 2012. This long history of representative politics has always involved religious leaders and customary chiefs, clergymen, and Sufi sheikhs as grands électeurs (influential public figures), even though their influence has been on the decline since 2007.

Second, strong foreign political and economic interests, namely French, continue to interfere with the outcome of the democratic process. The French media was particularly biased in their coverage of the election campaign. They demonized the most progressive candidate, Ousmane Soko, labeling him a Salafist for advocating African sovereignty and a break with colonial arrangements.

There were two noteworthy innovations in the 2019 election, namely the parrainage—a screening system that reduced the number of presidential candidates to five—and the presence of the Senegalese Church as an election observer.

Like many other leaders in Francophone Africa, Macky Sall’s attachment to entrenched structures bolsters neo-colonial dynamics by subordinating Senegal to French hegemonic interests. These dynamics take place in the context of a pervasive displacement of an unequal global system at the national level which enables a system of “accumulation by dispossession.”

The extraverted tendencies of Sall’s government seem to have intensified since the discovery of vast amounts of oil and gas in recent years. The fast speed and lack of transparency with which the government granted offshore permits to a BP/Kosmos partnership, Cairn Energy, and Woodside Petroleum, as well as exploration rights to French Total, does not bode well for the future of natural resource governance and accountability. Sall’s approach to resource governance replicates a common characteristic of Africa’s oil-rich countries in which the resource windfall rarely benefits the people.

Despite being the world’s seventh fastest growing economy in 2018, Senegal ranks in the worst deciles in the Human Development Index (HDI). The most important sectors of the Senegalese economy are owned or managed by French companies, including telecommunications (Orange), banks (BICIS, SGBS, Credit Agricole), highways (Eiffage), the Port of Dakar (Bolloré), and even supermarkets (Auchan and soon Carrefour). This configuration dates back to colonial times.

Increasingly, civil society movements and young Senegalese activists, some of whom had been instrumental in Sall’s first election in 2012, are turning against him. Their stock-in-trade dislike for Senegal’s neo-colonial condition has become the marker of a generation bereft of colonial memory.

In the weeks before the 2019 presidential election, President Sall had been busy inaugurating a string of infrastructure projects. These include a bridge across the Gambian river, the Dakar Regional Express Train project which connects Dakar to the new city of Diamniadio, an arena for wrestling—the most popular sport in Senegal—as well as the Museum of Black Civilisations. Infrastructure development seems to be a new fetish that will materialize the rhetoric of “Emerging Senegal,” a neoliberal grand plan to propel the West African nation into middle-income status by 2035.

According to his political opponents, Sall’s policies reflect a poor assessment of Senegal’s priorities. He is accused of prioritizing physical infrastructure over human development, high growth rates over uplifting the poor, fat commissions—rarely accounted for—over beneficiation and the sustainable exploitation of the country’s natural resources.

Sall reneged on one of his most important 2012 campaign promises, namely to tackle corruption and go after public servants who have embezzled funds. Notably, the two most prominent figures who ended up being jailed on corruption charges were none other than his main political rivals Khalifa Sall, the former Mayor of Dakar, and Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade. For this reason, his anti-corruption campaign reeked of a witch-hunt.

An election about decolonization

Perhaps the most defining issue of the election was the debate about decolonization, a first in the history of postcolonial Senegal. The quest for liberation from sixty years of stagnant politics, of which Sall has become a strong symbol, was particularly powerful. It is a quest for decolonization from French tutelage and from a model of extractive economy that is bound to deprive the country of the proceeds of the exploitation of its newly-found resources. More crucially, it a quest for decolonization from the CFA franc regime as the most enduring symbol of the neo-colonial politics and economics of francophone Africa.

The decolonization debate is partly credited to forty-four-year-old Ousmane Sonko, a charismatic whistle-blower and former inspector at the Senegalese Treasury who was sacked from the civil service for exposing high-profile cases of fiscal fraud and for accusing the president and his brother of corruption linked to an oil company.

Sonko, the leader of the political party PASTEF—“determination” in Wolof—is at the vanguard of a movement that rejects a neocolonial political system within which an incumbent can promise change from his very own administration. His pan-African and sovereignist discourse has won over people across urban and rural Senegal while resonating strongly with the Senegalese diaspora—an important political constituency.

Sonko’s discourse reflects the tangible anxiety among confident, self-aware youth and middle-class Senegalese who understand the tremendously damaging effects of antiquated, poor policy choices regarding the management of the country’s resources. The new contest is no longer just among traditional political parties but between “the system”—an extraverted political system inherited from the one-party state of the 1960s—and its antidote: a decolonized, transparent politics.

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    Idrissa Seck in his first speech after his defeat.