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President Sall should stop risking Senegal’s stability

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Oftentimes you hear people say Senegal is a bastion of peace, stability and democracy. While unlike The Gambia and all its other neighbours the country has never been subjected to a military coup d’etat or martial rule since it got its independence in 1960, it has not been at peace. Since 1982, the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) separatist forces in the southern part of the country have been waging a war that has left hundreds of thousands of people displaced, many thousands killed and swathes of the region’s fertile lands littered with deadly mines. 

These troubles have been largely concentrated in the restive south, but now political violence leading to deaths, destruction of public and private property and imperiling the security and the stability of the Senegalese state have become a daily occurrence in many towns across the country including in the very heart of the capital Dakar.

Political tensions in Senegal have risen by many notches since President Macky Sall’s Benno Bokk Yakaar alliance had its parliamentary majority reduced to one seat in National Assembly elections in July. President Sall is a dictator but only in name. Since he grabbed the reins of power, he has engaged in every underhanded tactic to neutralise his political opponents and eventually imprisoning them, sending them into exile or simply getting the courts to ban them from contesting against him.

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His current headache is Ziguinchor mayor and former parliamentarian Ousmane Sonko, leader of the opposition African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity, or Pastef-Patriotes in French. He has been charged with rape by a massage parlour masseuse and was later disqualified to contest as a member of parliament. Now he is being sued by President Sall’s tourism minister for defamation and faces the possibility of being barred from contesting next year’s presidential election. Sonko like many watchers of Senegalese politics claim these are all Machiavellian acts orchestrated by President Sall and his agents to prevent him from running in the election.

This past Thursday while Sonko and his supporters were going to court for the defamation charge, he was brutalised and tear-gassed leaving him and the people around him injured. One of his lawyers had to be evacuated to France for treatment. Sonko himself cannot be taken abroad for treatment because the authorities seized his passport. His supporters said the attack was an assassination attempt and they believed he could have been poisoned.

It is fair to say that President Macky Sall is putting his country’s stability at risk. He can instantly lower the tension by coming out and make a public declaration that he will respect the constitution and will not see a third term. And that his agents in the security forces and in the judiciary will be law-abiding and act according to the dictates of the rule of law and allow Senegalese people exercise their civic and political rights.

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Macky Sall should remember that he himself rose to power in 2012 on the back of nationwide protests against then-president Abdoulaye Wade’s attempt to run for a third term, which is barred by the constitution.  Indeed as Ousmane Sonko argued, it is up to President Sall to de-escalate the situation. “The constitution clearly states that no one can serve more than two consecutive terms,” Sonko said. “It’s not up to Macky Sall to decide, it’s up to the constitution. Every time Senegal has come close to catching fire, it’s been over efforts to eliminate candidates and to validate a president’s third term,” he said. Let us hope Macky Sall comes to his senses before Senegal burns.

The stakes are high for Senegal. The government has forecast 10% economic growth in 2023 as liquefied natural gas from the US$4.8 billion Greater Tortue Ahmeyim field is due to start production.  

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