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Bassirou Diomaye Faye: Senegal’s radical leader offers left-wing pan-Africanism. Will he deliver?

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Sheriff Jnr

By Sheriff Bojang Jr

The Africa Report

Senegal’s president-elect Bassirou Diomaye Faye ran a radical campaign that inspired the youth and gave hope to anyone who cares about left-wing pan-Africanism. But once in power, can he fulfill the radical changes and politics he promised?

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At 44, Bassirou Diomaye Faye will be Africa’s youngest elected president when he officially takes over the presidency from Macky Sall on 2 April. Until 14 March, when Faye and his firebrand mentor Ousmane Sonko, were released from prison – 10 days before Senegal’s 24 March polls – most people outside Senegal may have not recognised Faye’s name.

But since that first night of freedom, the former tax inspector and farmer from rural Senegal hit the presidential campaign trail – shoulder-to-shoulder with Sonko – promising to break with the status quo.

Faye and Sonko became friends more than a decade ago when they worked as tax inspectors; they became closer 10 years ago, in 2014, due to the political ideologies and disgruntlement they shared. They were distrustful of Senegal’s political class and wanted to challenge it.

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Faye joined Patriotes Africains du Sénégal pour le Travail, l’éthique et la Fraternité (Pastef), a political movement founded by Sonko and banned by Sall in July 2023 after Pastef organised street protests.

During his short campaign, the anti-establishment message and radical left-wing pan- Africanism galvanised voters, mainly youth, who felt left out by the establishment. The message fired up a population that has been battling economic hardships.

Faye’s campaign made radical proposals, including leaving the CFA currency arrangement and renegotiating terms with foreign energy companies once in office.

Doubt sets in

Mark Bohlund, a senior credit research analyst at emerging market research group REDD Intelligence, says he expects Faye to row back on some of those promises, warning that the risks are “definitely” higher than the potential rewards.

Senegal, emerging as Africa’s fastest-growing economy thanks to exciting opportunities from oil and gas discoveries, enjoys a thriving private sector. Two oil and gas projects are expected to increase growth from 8.0% in 2023 to 10.5% in 2024, the highest growth rate in Africa, according to the World Bank.

“The oil companies still control the faucets of oil and gas production and are in less urgent needs of funds than the government at the moment and are thus likely to come out winning in any stand-off,” Bohlund tells The Africa Report.

“Uncertainty about economic policy is likely to remain in the near term, keeping Eurobond yields elevated. I still see a high likelihood that new parliamentary elections will be called to increase the new president’s policy leeway. I still expect Senegal to market a new Eurobond in the second half of the year,” he adds.

Resource nationalism?

Faye’s campaign promise to renegotiate terms with foreign energy companies is a divisive issue in and outside Senegal, with some linking it to resource nationalism.

“For a continent where multinational corporations have benefitted immensely from natural resource endowments, resource nationalism may seem very attractive, especially among young people,” Baba Sillah, a Liberian expert on globalisation, political governance and natural resource management, tells The Africa Report.

“Many may feel that to maximise the benefits from natural resources for citizens, governments need to exert more control over resources.”

In Senegal, he says, resource nationalism will mean state ownership over the oil and gas sector or at least that the government will exert greater influence over decisions in the sector. He says such a policy action will certainly brew populist support among people who see the state from a nationalist perspective.

He also warns that Pastef’s policy stance could threaten the country’s concession commitments, clash with the dominant neoliberal free market private ownership view and may undermine its international business reputation.

“There may be a 50-50 chance of economic nationalism working development wonders or driving them into the uncomfortable zone of being labelled an authoritarian populist state,” Sillah says.

Senegalese social justice activist Hawa Ba says it might be difficult to successfully renegotiate terms with foreign energy companies, “considering the binding clauses in these contracts and the risks to pay high prices when you revoke a contract especially as our governments negotiate very bad deals with multinationals that use cutting edge law firms.”

Ba adds: “Senegal has already experienced a similar damaging experience with Arcelor Mittal in the past. I believe there is a strong desire to revisit these contracts but I’m not sure about the room to manoeuvre for President Faye.”

For Nathaniel Powell, Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica, a Faye presidency “could face the trap of many African radicals in power: either abandon your promises and adjust to international norms, or make a radical break and get punished, by international capital and/or parts of the ruling classes à la [Thomas] Sankara.”

He says Faye and Sonko are more likely to “adjust” than “break”, in part because they are both technocrats and more closely tied to the ruling classes than one would think from their rhetoric.

“Whether they are is an open question, but their political platform is more ‘radical’ than any other winning political party in West Africa for decades,” Powell says.

Scary or realistic?

The firebrand politics – characterised by speaking truth to power, leading street protests and anti-French rhetoric – triggered the ‘rebel’ label hanging over Pastef’s neck.

Critics warned Senegalese voters against voting for Faye, portraying him and Sonko as scary, dangerous and risky for Senegal.

“I think this is a narrative that the outgoing regime has framed on Pastef and that will not gain traction among the masses,” says Ba. “The more they attempted to depict Sonko and his party as evils, the greater the wave of sympathy and support sparked across Senegalese of all backgrounds and ages. Senegalese people are strongly allergic to

injustice and unfairness and history has demonstrated that they always side with the weakest.”

Alex Vines, the head of the Africa Programme at the Chatham House in London, says Faye’s election is a watershed moment, and describes him as pragmatic and less fiery, privately.

“He will seek to diversify Senegalese foreign policy – ensuring that bilateral relations with Paris are not predominant,” Vines tells The Africa Report.

Inspiration for African youth

Experts say Faye’s victory will inspire youth across Africa. Already there is a prevailing fervor among young people who eagerly want a generational transition in leadership.

“Many have grown weary of old political leaders (the old guards) whom they see as being out of touch with contemporary socio-economic realities,” Sillah says.

Up to 70% of South Sahara’s population is under the age of 30, and for Joseph Asunka, the CEO of the Pan-African research network Afrobarometer, the future of the continent rests in the hands of its dynamic youth.

 “The old guard must make way; we are tired of them. Congratulations! Senegal for setting the pace. We need presidents that reflect the continent’s demographics,” Asunka says.

Across social media, Faye’s victory has been celebrated by youth across Africa, many of them inspired by his age and story.

“As a Sierra Leonean, I am green with envy. A 44-year-old democratically-elected president? Wow! A free and fair election? Wow wow wow,” Vicky Remoe, Sierra Leonean digital and communications strategist, tweeted.

“Senegal free at last as 44-year-old Faye is billed to become president. Senegal is free from the hangover of the past and heading towards the future. This is what we wished for in Nigeria, and we will continue to do so, repeatedly, unceasingly,” Nigerian activist Adamu Garba wrote on X.

Moses Wangokho of Uganda said: “Bad news: Uganda’s prayers are always answered elsewhere. Good news: L’Afrique en marche (Africa is on the move).”

Immediate priorities

Senegal is on the verge of a growth spurt as the offshore oil and gas projects come online within six months. Faye’s election may be a concern for investors who would have preferred a ‘continuity’ candidate. At his maiden media engagement on Monday night, Faye assured donors and partners that Senegal remains a “reliable partner in a win-win cooperation”.

Faye will be under a lot of pressure to meet the expectations of the youth who put him in power and now need employment opportunities, quality education and general improvement of livelihood.

Ba says she expects “a young government comprised of individuals who are fairly new in politics and management of public affairs; a government of fresh blood who have an immense opportunity to overhaul a predatory system deeply entrenched in the administration but will face strong resistance.”

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