West Africa: What Senegal's Postponed Election Means for West Africa

10 February 2024

The postponement of the presidential election in Senegal is a crisis for the country. It will also have major consequences for the whole region, some of which cannot yet be foreseen.

Senegal was due to elect a new head of state on February 25. The incumbent president, Macky Sall, was not on the ballot: After two terms in office, he is no longer eligible to stand. However, last Saturday, just one day before the start of the election campaign, he announced a postponement of the vote. The parliament has since voted by a majority to approve the rescheduling of the election for December 15, but some members of the opposition have lodged a complaint with the Constitutional Council.

Protesters took to the streets in response to the announcement. Police used tear gas against the demonstrators, and the internet was shut down for at least 36 hours.

37-year-old Cheikh Ndiaye is an actor in the coastal city of Yarakh. One week on, he is still shocked. "As a young person, you want the president to hold elections and then go," he says. Now, though, Sall is clinging to power, at least for the time being. Ndiaye says this is a big disappointment, especially for young people -- which is significant, in a country where the average age of the population is 19.

"Even people who have no desire to emigrate to Europe, when they see this situation, they start to think differently. I hate to say it, but this sort of thing encourages young people to leave the country," comments Ndiaye.

Country at a standstill

Migration is a complex issue. Samira Daoud, who heads the West and Central Africa office of the human rights organization Amnesty International, explains that the reasons behind it can be either economic or political: "And economic reasons are often determined by political reasons and by the political context."

One of the unforeseen consequences of postponing the election could therefore be another surge in emigration, which would have repercussions not just for Senegal itself, but also for Europe. The West African coastal state has a population of more than 18 million.

Until now, Senegal was seen as a stable democracy in a region that has experienced six coups since August 2020. This stability has always been important for foreign investment, says Ibrahima Kane, a lawyer and analyst at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

"Everything we have gained, economically and otherwise, is thanks to our image abroad," says Kane. "Senegal is not wealthy; it has few natural resources. Even the gas and oil reserves they're talking about -- everyone knows there's not much there."

Instead, he says, Senegal's great advantage has been its democratic system. Now, that will be lost. "The soft power Senegal had will disappear," Kane predicts.

Instability in West Africa

Investors are inclined to hold back before an election -- and that situation may now continue for almost a whole year. Foreign direct investment in Senegal had increased in recent years: According to the World Investment Report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), it reached $2.23 billion (€2.07 billion) in 2022, a significant increase on $1.85 billion in 2021. Investment is regarded as key to industrializing the country and creating jobs. Every year, around 200,000 young people enter the job market in Senegal.

But it's not only the economy that's likely to suffer. Observers fear that the political repercussions of postponing the election could be devastating. Senegal shares a border with Mali. Terrorist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS are active there, as well as in the nearby Sahel states of Burkina Faso and Niger. Neighboring countries further south have been dealing with the problem for a long time already, but until now, Senegal has been something of an exception.

Kane is skeptical that this will remain the case. "In the past two or three years, there have been a lot of cases of sleeper terrorist cells that had set up in Senegal, and have been the subjects of judgements," he points out. "This shows that the country is not immune to such things." The concern is that Islamist groups may exploit the domestic political crisis.

ECOWAS: a weak regional organization

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is also affected. On January 28 this year, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, all of which are now ruled by military juntas following the recent coups, announced that they were withdrawing from the bloc. This makes Senegal all the more important, says Philipp Goldberg, head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Peace and Security Centre of Competence Sub-Saharan Africa, in Dakar. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation is affiliated with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

"Senegal is a very important member state, not only for ECOWAS, but also for multilateral engagement generally," said Goldberg. For instance, he points out that the country was the largest African contributor of troops to the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali, which ended last year after disagreements with the military government. "There has been significant political engagement here with regional issues."

According to Goldberg, ECOWAS is worried that Senegal could become another a destabilizing factor. The organization, which previously had 15 member states, is increasingly losing credibility. It is strongly critical of military coups, and earlier this week it urged Senegal to stick to the election schedule. However, Goldberg remarks that ECOWAS formulated its statements in a very diplomatic, vague, and friendly way.

"They essentially congratulate Macky Sall on respecting his country's constitution and not seeking a third term," he says. "I think that shows very clearly just how nervous the region is."

This article has been translated from German.

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