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Senegal election: a victory for democracy may not be a win for the West

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By Josh Schlicht

Nearly two months of political crisis were brought to a close last week as a new president-elect was finally announced in Senegal. The streets of Dakar erupted in jubilation as opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye emerged victorious with over 54 per cent of the vote. Faye has been sworn in as the country’s youngest ever leader.

The 44-year-old’s victory served as a cathartic moment for millions of Senegalese whose months of protest were marked by tear gas, beatings, and extrajudicial killings. Democracy, put to the ultimate test, has narrowly prevailed in one of West Africa’s few stable republics.

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The pivotal election, which rejected the party of President Macky Sall, was only made possible by a series of last-minute court decisions that overturned the incumbent’s illegitimate election postponement.

Just weeks ago, Faye, a former tax inspector, was among several members of the leftwing pan-Africanist Pastef opposition Party incarcerated on dubious charges. Ousmane Sonko, the face of Pastef who was formally convicted and banned from the competition, selected Faye to run in his stead. Despite never holding political office, Faye generated great excitement as he conducted his run from confinement. After immense public pressure, both men were released by the courts on 14 March, paving the way for a presidency with Faye at the helm, and Sonko close in support.

The young political-prisoner-turned-president is now set to govern one of Africa’s most promising, albeit distressed, nations. Internationally, the election result has been heralded as a great success. Presidents Biden and Macron, along with many other western leaders, congratulated Faye who presents a lively alternative to the undemocratic and increasingly Russia-friendly Sall.

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Yet, despite the democratic symbolism Faye represents, western nations may find him to be anything but amicable. His platform is explicitly populist, vehemently opposed to perceived western neo-colonialism, and promises to bring multinational corporations to heel. This business-adverse attitude was immediately recognised by global financial markets as Senegal’s dollar bonds dipped to their lowest level in five months upon Faye’s victory.

National corporations and investors are particularly concerned with Faye’s promises to renegotiate Senegal’s oil and gas deals, which could redirect billions into state coffers. British Energy magnate, BP, is among those with the greatest at stake, as the company is hedging its bets on a £3.8 billion natural gas mega-project off Senegal’s coast. Even in the corporate-friendly environment of Faye’s predecessor, BP had difficulties with Senegalese officials as a separate major offshore project was cancelled in 2023. If the new President pursues his promised hard line, BP could be forced out of the nation entirely.

Conflicts may also manifest in the political realm if Senegal’s new leadership rejects David Cameron’s proposed UK-Senegal defence-cooperation agreement. As the UK pivots to enhancing its global ties, the loss of major business deals and a potential defence partnership would present serious setbacks.

Senegal’s new leadership is also likely to pose challenges to Europe, as Faye’s party has called for an end to France’s “blood-sucking of its ex-colonies” and demanded that its former coloniser “leave Senegal alone”. This development adds pressure to France’s faltering global position, which has been significantly weakened following a string of West African Coups.

In the last few years, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have ejected French forces, diplomats, and corporations from the region, inspiring further anti-French protests in ten former colonies. Sensing a potential for a powerful new partner in the revolt against France, Niger’s unelected Leader promptly extended an offer for Faye to join his “Alliance of the Sahel”.

If Faye forges ahead with the “Alliance of the Sahel”, a strengthened relationship with Russia and China is also likely to form. Originally enlisting Russia’s Wagner Group to assist in their regional battle against Islamist insurgents, the Sahel States have now cemented far-reaching deals with Putin for nuclear power plants, military bases, and grain shipments.

The exodus of France has also permitted China to significantly increase its presence in the region. Late last year, China’s main defence contractor, Norinco, opened a sales office in Dakar with the goal of providing the volatile region to Senegal’s east with guns, drones, and even fighter jets. If they expand operations where they are based, Norinco could overtake western companies as Senegal’s main military supplier.

At this juncture, it is unclear if Faye will partner with Putin and Xi in the same manner as the desperate and isolated leaders of the post-coup Sahel. Faye has no insurgency to quell or civil war to win, as Senegal’s crisis is instead one of mass unemployment, emigration, and internal corruption. However, given Faye’s anti-French posturing and his expressed desire for new alliances, forging deeper ties with Russia and China is certainly a distinct possibility.

Faye’s populist rhetoric is certainly concerning for the West, however, there are signs he will moderate. In a recent statement, Faye announced he has moved away from the radical option to create a new currency, and will instead “reform” the Euro-pegged CFA Franc. His anti-French stances are also complicated by his personal life, as one of his two wives currently resides full-time in France.

Additional signs of promise appeared in Faye’s victory speech in which he endorsed the UK-backed West African economic bloc Ecowas. Despite earlier calls for complete sovereignty, his rhetoric has settled around “rebalancing” foreign partnerships along the lines of mutual respect. Any of his more ambitious reforms may also be tempered given that his party currently lacks a majority in the nation’s parliament.

As one of the youngest leaders on the youngest continent, Faye represents a hopeful vision of change in a nation burdened by mass youth unemployment and emigration. Free of political baggage and with a resounding mandate behind him, Faye is well-positioned to transform his young nation into a land of opportunity and prosperity. It’s no surprise his calls to rebalance foreign deals have resonated deeply with a Senegalese public that has witnessed the corrupt enrichment of his predecessor’s family at the expense of the Senegalese people. Faye’s intended new path for Senegal is one he claims is based on transparency, democracy, and national self-determination, values that would command praise in any British election cycle.

However, if Faye leans completely into the austere anti-western policies of his undemocratic neighbors, his term could ruin decades of external partnerships, isolate his struggling nation, and provide Putin with yet another influential ally in West Africa. Although Democracy has triumphed, the verdict is still out on what Faye’s Senegal will look like for the West.

Josh Schlicht is a writer and graduate student of International Political Economy at King’s College, London.  

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