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Populism and the rule of law

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By Dr Yoro Dia

After 104 “intellectuals” signed a petition inviting President Macky Sall to “come to his senses”, a prominent Senegalese executive launched a “one million signatures” petition drive in response, because for him there are a “million reasons to continue” with Macky Sall. In a democracy, everyone has the right to an opinion. However, making accusations without any nuance or relativism – – as did the President’s supporter as well as the 104 intellectuals – amounts to intellectual fedayeenism – militant support for a position. This does not advance the debate and confirms the necessity of prudence and distance that was recommended by Max Weber to scholars who venture into politics.

In his classic The Politician and The Scientist, Max Weber wisely tells us that by “taking a political position, one ceases to be a scholar”. This is why the well-known sociologist adds: “As soon as the society of scientists start discussing peace and war, they become non-scientific political associations.”

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The lack of scientific rigor is flagrant when the 104 focus only on consequences, forgetting that the cause of the court case against the leader of the opposition, Ousmane Sonko, was his decision to evade justice using the crowds and the street as a bulwark against arrest.

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The petition of 104 intellectuals denouncing the “decline of the rule of law” and “human rights violations” is a political stance. A partisan position taken. If these intellectuals had been somewhat concerned with “axiological neutrality”, they could certainly have denounced what they think is the decline of the rule of law. But they would not have deliberately ignored the excesses by Sonko, who publicly threatened death to a democratically elected President of the Republic, insulted generals and threatened magistrates and said “don’t give a damn about the institutions” and the law whose respect guarantees the survival of democratic institutions, according to Cicero.

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Justice, the only State service that bears the name of a virtue, is a sacred institution. Contrary to what the activist Alioune Tine says, the State does not “shirk” because a Minister has filed a complaint against the leader of the opposition. It is the opposite. The prosecution of political conflicts is a criterion of the rule of law. Moreover, the verdict of the court is a proof of the independence of this justice that the opposition and its supporters in society accuse of wrongdoings. Justice has clearly shown throughout the proceedings that the timetable of justice is not that of politics.

In India, the largest democracy in the world, the leader of the opposition has just been sentenced for having defamed the Prime Minister. In the United States, Donald Trump, now an opponent, will also respond to justice. Why would Senegal be the exception where the leader of the opposition would be above the law? In a state governed by the rule of law, the state is subject to the rule of law, as is the opposition.

If the 104 make the same mistake as Martin Heidegger by supporting a small group that uses the rules of democracy to fight it from within in order to destroy it, then the State of Senegal will not make the same mistake as the Weimar Republic which, through legalism and weakness, allowed the Nazis to use the weaknesses of democracy to infiltrate and destroy it.

The country of Senghor will not fall into the hands of a small group that advocates violence and therefore is at odds with our democratic culture and tradition based on dialogue. Our democracy has gone from the debate of distinguished scholars – Léopold Senghor, Abdoulaye Wade and Cheikh Anta Diop – to the abusers of the internet. The legal battle that we experience is more worthy of our democratic standard and rank than the political tug of war in the streets, which is an anachronistic reminder of past eras. It is a page that should have been closed by the cycle of reforms that began in 2000.

Sonko and the Mayor of Dakar have each acknowledged in videos previously that that the possibility of a candidacy of Macky Sall for the Presidency is more a political problem than a question of law. They admitted that the Constitution legally allows it. Then they changed their minds. They have the right to do that. One can change one’s opinion in a democracy. As my professor at Sciences Po, Gerard Grunberg, said: “there are only relative solutions, never definitive solutions”, unlike religion which “provides simple and definitive answers to complex questions”.

“Apathy is the enemy of democracy,” said Tocqueville. The interpretation conflict of our constitution between constitutionalists, politicians and even ordinary Senegalese is proof of our democratic vitality because democratic hubbub is one of the biggest differences between democracy and dictatorship. Every Senegalese has the right to interpret the constitution. But only the Constitutional Council is empowered to decide the debate. Not the President or the leader of the opposition or professors of law. Policies and politics are not above the law and they must not be below it.

Therefore, the Minister of Tourism has the right to file a complaint for defamation against the leader of the opposition who accused him of embezzlement. This question will be decided by a judge. Similarly, the legality of a third-term candidacy – if it were to arise – can only be decided by the Constitutional Council or at the ballot box (by the people).

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“Power must remain with the people” became the slogan of the opposition. At least on this point there is consensus. The people only decide in elections, and between them everyone can claim to be their own spokesperson. Preventing Macky Sall from running for President is a political objective of the opposition and a certain segment of civil society. Threatening to burn the country down is a means of terror.

While waiting for the Constitutional Council to decide the law, the battleground that remains has become the one that Sonko called in his letter the “international community”. But this battle is already lost as evidenced by the progress towards a third compact with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is very demanding with respect to governance. It is important to note the large presence in Dakar of the French media, which is no longer welcome in many countries of the sub-region. For the 2024 presidential election, national sentiment will take precedence over international opinion as was the case in 2000 when the Senegalese elected Abdoulaye Wade, who was not the choice of the International Community.

Senegal is the most effective bulwark against terrorism in west Africa and Western power are well aware of this. We are the pillar of democracy and we intend to remain so.

In the 90s, Senegal was in a ring of fire because of permanent tension with neighbours. Today, thanks to good-neighbour diplomacy, we are experiencing peace. This new policy is symbolised by the Rosso Bridge which connects the two banks of the Senegal River, as well as the Farafenni Bridge over the Gambia River. The example of the European Union, where the economy has been substituted for war as a means of regulating relations between states, shows that democratic nations do not wage war on each other. Besides, countries that do business rarely choose war.

President Sall is taking the same approach throughout the region. Sharing resources with Mauritania, supporting the democratization of The Gambia and Guinea Bissau – these actions are building regional peace. As chair of the African Union, he spearheaded Africa’s integration into the G20.

By building bridges, the President has moved our country from a ring of fire to one of peace and soon-to-be prosperity.

Dr Yoro Dia, a political scientist, is minister spokesperson of the Presidency of the Republic of Senegal.

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