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From village to prison to Africa’s youngest elected president

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How did Bassirou Diomaye Faye, age 44, go from obscurity to a resounding win in Senegal’s presidential election? At the family homestead, one relative explained, “This family is not new to ruling.”

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By Ruth Maclean
Reporting from Ndiaganiao, a small town
where the president-elect of Senegal was raised

The first election that Bassirou Diomaye Faye ever won was the one that just made him the president-elect of Senegal.

Before his victory in the election last Sunday, 10 days after he was released from jail, Mr Faye had only ever run for mayor of his hometown, Ndiaganiao — a small settlement on a sandy track, crisscrossed by horse carts carrying women and their wares to the market. He lost that election, in 2022, to the ruling party’s candidate.

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Few in Senegal know the remarkable journey of the 44-year-old tax inspector who rode a wave of youth discontent to become — once inaugurated — Africa’s youngest elected president. Provisional results officially released on Tuesday showed he won with 54 percent of the vote.

But through interviews with family and friends in Ndiaganiao and the outlying village where he was raised, a picture emerged of a studious, loyal, curious and sometimes stubborn man, rooted in Senegalese traditions and his Islamic faith, with a deep understanding of the predicament facing his country’s legion of frustrated youth.

“He didn’t come from nowhere,” Diomaye Faye, the uncle after whom he is named, said in an interview at the president-elect’s family home, a tidy, modest compound that hosted a huge, impromptu party on Sunday night. He added, “This family is not new to ruling.”

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Mr Faye’s forefather, a hunter, was the founder of their village centuries ago. His grandfather was the village chief and one of the African soldiers conscripted by France to fight in World War I before he was badly wounded in battle. Returning home, his grandfather fought for the establishment of the first high school in Ndiaganiao — a struggle that was such a threat to colonial-era administrators that it landed him in jail.

“Bassirou grew up in an environment where people fight for other people’s rights,” the elder Diomaye Faye said of his nephew.

It was standing up for his political ally that got Mr Faye jailed. He was imprisoned last April over a Facebook post criticising the government for its prosecution of Ousmane Sonko, Senegal’s foremost opposition politician.

Mr Sonko was barred from running for president after he was convicted of defamation and of corrupting a minor (he had been accused of rape but was acquitted on those charges). So Mr Sonko named Mr Faye his proxy.

At the time, Mr Faye was imprisoned in a tiny cell where he slept, ate, showered and exercised with three other prisoners. He spent 10 months in that jail cell, from which he started his bid for the presidency.

When Mr Faye and Mr Sonko were released two weeks ago — 10 days before a presidential election that the incumbent, Macky Sall, had tried and failed to cancel — almost everyone in the West African country knew Mr Sonko’s name.

But few knew Mr Faye’s. The two men immediately hit the campaign trail together, trying to change that. The goal appeared to be to make their names synonymous, and it may have worked: On election day, many young people said they were “voting for Sonko”.

Mr Faye describes himself as someone who normally doesn’t talk very much. But when he got out of jail and realised how much support he and Mr Sonko had, he wanted to thank everyone personally, he said.

“When I saw the number of people coming out, I just wanted to give all of them a hug,” he said in a long interview with Senepeople, a local media outlet, last week, “and say sorry for all the trouble you had to face.”

In many ways, Mr Faye comes across as a typical young Senegalese man, passionate on Facebook, often seen wearing wireless earbuds and seeming more comfortable in a traditional caftan than in the tailored Western-style suits favoured by his predecessor, Mr Sall.

Until his time was swallowed up by politics, he was a keen soccer player, according to his childhood friend, Mor Sarr. He played most recently on a team of tax inspectors in the capital, Dakar. Like many young people in soccer-mad Senegal, Mr Faye is a fan of the Spanish team Real Madrid, Mr Sarr said.

Bassirou Diomaye Faye grew up in a house occupied by more than ten adults and a gaggle of children he ran around with, according to his uncle. But he could often be found reading — a favourite, according to Mr Sarr, was Dale Carnegie, the American author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

“He’s young in years, but not in his intelligence and behaviour,” said Mr Faye’s father, Samba Ndiagne Faye, 92, also a former village chief, sitting in the cool of his curtained living room with some of the village elders. Both he and his father went into politics, both of them in the ruling party.

Samba Ndiagne Faye, the president-elect’s father, said he told his son to always be honest, humble and not driven by money. “That was in him, but I encouraged it,” he said.

Samba Ndiagne Faye was often away from home because of his political activities, an absence that deeply affected the newly elected president.

“He hated politics,” said Mr Sarr, who said he grew up with Mr Faye, shared a room with him at university in Dakar and introduced him to his first wife.

Rumours that Mr Faye is “an Ibadou (Masa’Allah)” — local parlance for a fundamentalist Muslim — are false and politically motivated, Mr Faye’s family and friends said.

“He’s religious, yes, but less religious than me,” Mr Sarr said, laughing. “I don’t dance. He dances. I don’t listen to music. He does.”

Mr Faye has two wives. Polygamy is common in Senegal, including among his ethnic group, the Serere.

“Being married to two wives is a sign of responsibility,” said his elder brother, Ibrahima Faye. “He’s very proud of being polygamous, and he doesn’t hide it.”

He has four children with his first wife, one of whom is named Ousmane, after Mr Sonko. He married his second wife, who lives and works in France, early last year. The couple saw each other only once between their wedding and Mr Faye’s arrest. The next time they were together, it was on the campaign trail, Mr Sarr said.

Mr Faye and Mr Sonko have emphasised Senegal’s sovereignty from France, its former colonial ruler, and the need to replace the France-backed currency. The uncle compared his nephew’s political agenda to the American Federalist leaders’ quest for independence from Britain.

“The battles that they are fighting right now are the battles that Madison, John Jay and Hamilton fought,” he said.

Before the election, Mr Faye declared his assets, an unusual move for a politician in West Africa. The list included a house in Dakar — built on land that was given to him by the government as part of a programme allocating land to civil servants. It also included a field a few miles from Ndiaganiao where the president-elect grows fruit and vegetables to sell.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr Sarr kicked at the cracked earth surrounding Mr. Faye’s orchard of papaya trees, which have suffered since he went to jail.

“Not enough water,” he said.

Mr Faye had been planning on leaving his job as a tax inspector to focus on politics and agriculture, Mr Sarr said. But that was back when hardly anyone knew who he was.

The Senegalese are learning who Mr Faye is fast.

Nineteen-year-old Baye Laye Ndiaye stood taking selfies in the Faye compound on Tuesday morning. Mr Ndiaye, who travels the country hawking mobile phones, had asked for directions to the house just to see where his new president came from.

Last year, Mr Ndiaye was one of around 1,000 people jailed in connection with protests that followed Mr Sonko’s arrest. He said he had been walking down the street wearing a plastic bracelet with the word Pastef on it, the name of the opposition party founded by Mr Sonko. That was enough to get him locked up for three months.

He was delighted to find that Mr Faye’s roots were humble, not so different from his own.

“Senegal needs presidents who have this kind of background,” he said, looking around at the peeling paint and the cracked tiles. “Diomaye knows the suffering people are facing.”

Ruth Maclean is the West Africa bureau chief for The Times, covering 25 countries including Nigeria, Congo, the countries in the Sahel region as well as Central Africa. More about Ruth Maclean

© 2024 The New York Times Company

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