Senegalese president says organized forces are threatening the country

Senegalese president says organized forces are threatening the country

The macabre death toll rises with each cycle of anti-government protests in Senegal. In Saint-Louis, Ziguinchor and Dakar, three young demonstrators have died since Friday, February 9, while protesting the postponement of the presidential election. These deaths add to the heavy toll of victims stemming from violently repressed politics unrest in the country since March 2021. In three years, about 60 people have been killed in clashes with the security forces, a dozen from gun wounds.

In this tense climate, the week ahead promises to be fraught with danger. The opposition and civil society are calling for a march on Tuesday, February 13, to re-establish the electoral timetable abruptly interrupted by the president three weeks before the ballot and ratified by a law passed under pressure. Over the next few days, the Constitutional Council, to which a dozen candidates have appealed, will rule on the legality of the postponement. Two of the Council’s judges who have been implicated in an alleged case of corruption have justified the postponement of the election. The country has been plunged into uncertainty pending the decision.

Contested from within and criticized from without for having halted the electoral process, the Senegalese government is nevertheless trying to position itself as the peacemaker in the crisis. On Saturday, during an interview with the AP US news agency, President Macky Sall urged his opponents to accept a national dialogue to warn what he described as a possible destabilization of the country.

“If the political actors are not able to agree on the essentials, other organized forces will do it for them. And then they will lose the country,” Mr. Sall warned. “It is necessary to protest, but not to overstep the limits that allow the democratic trajectory to be maintained. Because if we are no longer in democracy, we are in something else.”

‘Blackmail shot’

After holding “occult forces” responsible for the riots in June 2023 that caused about 20 deaths, the president is now referring to the perils of “organized forces.” His troubling rhetoric comes amid persistent rumors of a possible army intervention should the political crisis degenerate after April 2, when the government’s current term is scheduled to end.

“These rumors are unfounded. There is no risk of a coup d’état in Senegal, because the army is republican,” an advisor to the president said. “These organized forces are the jihadist groups knocking at our country’s door. We are resisting thanks to our democratic stability.”

For some opponents, however, the Senegalese government is using “coup blackmail” to force its rivals to accept a national dialogue deemed insincere. “Macky Sall has created chaos with this artificial and deadly institutional crisis. Talking about a potential coup d’état is totally irresponsible and dangerous. He is telling our opponents that we are vulnerable, that our security forces would be incapable of dealing with a coup ,” said Amadou Ba, the representative of imprisoned candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye.

The opposition coalition, which grew out of the Pastef party that was dissolved by the government, is rejecting any offer of dialogue for the time being. “The only possible dialogue is to re-establish the electoral calendar for Macky Sall to leave power on April 2. Otherwise, it’s not out of the question for us to set up a parallel government with the entire opposition to move toward a transition that is civil and political but not military,” Mr. Ba added.

Avoiding escalation

Faced with an explosive situation, mediators from civil society are working behind the scenes to avoid a wider conflict. They are trying to extract strong guarantees from the government so that opponents may be encouraged to accept dialogue. Some mediators are suggesting the release of Ousmane Sonko and his candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye, both of whom are being prosecuted for undermining state security among other charges.

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Diomaye Faye has not yet been judged, but polls indicate that he is in a good position. “A very broad agreement under the aegis of the ruling coalition and the former Pastef would lead to their release in a few months’ time. Ousmane Sonko would then be in a position to run for president,” said one foreign observer.

“If President Sall wants to prove his intention to reconcile the Senegalese people through an inclusive dialogue as he has announced, he must involve his main opponents, Ousmane Sonko and Bassirou Diomaye Faye as well as release imprisoned activists. It’s a question of trust, especially as the previous dialog ultimately proved useless. If he keeps this door shut, we risk a confrontation,” said the mediator Alioune Tine, head of the Afrikajom Center.

But this option does not convince the leaders of the former dissolved party. “If we make the release of Ousmane Sonko and Bassirou Diomaye Faye a prerequisite for dialogue, we will allow Macky Sall to validate his political blackmail. We are not ready to negotiate their exit and that of the activists against his abuse of power,” Mr . Ba said.

Imams’ call to action

Among the religious leaders, whose influence with politicians remains significant, many stakeholders are calling for the restoration of the electoral calendar. For instance, Archbishop of Dakar publicly denounced the government’s decision. This was also the case of the Unitary Framework of Islam in Senegal (CUDIS), an organization that brings together the country’s main Muslim associations.

“The urgent thing is to get everyone back to the discussion table and move forward as quickly as possible before positions become irreconcilable,” said Cheikh Tidiane Sy, president of CUDIS. “The other urgent thing is to organize elections before April 2, or otherwise to allow the president of the National Assembly to act as interim president until elections are held within three months,” he continued, adding that the religious guides of the major groups would intervenes “only as a last resort, if all other avenues have failed.”

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Unusually, imams have also joined the Aar Sunu Election civil society platform against postponement. During Friday prayers, they called on their followers to mobilize.

The presidential camp, unified in unfailing defense of the postponement, is hammering home the need for inclusive dialogue. “The president really wants to leave. His departure on April 2 can also be discussed. For that to happen, we need dialogue to reach a consensus on the effective duration of the transition and on the political authority that should preside over it. This could be the president of the National Assembly,” a minister said.

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With less than two months to go before the end of the president’s term in office, the protest is also provoking strong reactions in the diaspora. On Sunday, at least 2,000 people marched in Paris against the postponement and repression of the demonstrations.

“Macky Sall has put himself in a situation over which he has no control. He still has a small window to leave with dignity. For that to happen, he needs to show some signs of de-escalation to restore confidence,” said a source . According to his supporters, a “first sign of appeasement” was given on Sunday evening with the return to the Walfadjiri press group of its license, withdrawn a few days prior following the remarks of a columnist deemed offensive to the head of state. Other olive branches, such as the authorization of Tuesday’s rally, could follow to ease the pressure in this decisive week.

The United States and European Union have called on the government to restore the original election timetable.

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