Senegal appears to be going through an identity crisis: its citizens are proud of the fact that it is considered one of the most stable democracies in West Africa, and many are outraged that this reputation is now at stake.
“We feel betrayed by Macky Sal“says a group of imams gathered at a mosque in the capital, Dakar, of the political crisis that hit the country a week ago when parliamentarians backed President Sall’s decision to delay this month’s presidential elections until December.
“The president must review this. It is unacceptable,” explains Ismael Ndiaye, secretary general of the League of Imams of Senegal.
“It has never happened before. In Senegal, a presidential election has never been delayed. We feel betrayed. We feel misunderstood.”
Islam is the predominant religion in Senegal, and comments like these from influential Muslim leaders, who have mediated to resolve previous political crises, carry enormous weight.
His forceful words reflect the wave of anger gripping the country as protesters take to the streets.
President Sall has justified his move by saying time is needed to resolve a dispute over who is eligible to run as a presidential candidate after several opposition contenders were excluded.
But those on the streets see the postponement as a way for Sall to cling to power beyond the end of his second term on April 2.
In his first interview since the announcement, President Sall denied that this was his intention.
“The only thing I’m looking for at all is to leave a country in peace and stability,” he told the Associated Press over the weekend.
“I don’t want to leave behind a country that will immediately plunge into great difficulties.”
These words ring hollow to his critics given his stance before his election in 2012, when he staunchly opposed then-president Abdoulaye Wade – The Best of Abdoulaye Wade seeking a third term.
“A president cannot extend his term. It is not possible,” Sall, who once served as Wade’s prime minister, said during the 2011 election campaign.
“He cannot extend his mandate even for a day, otherwise the country would plunge into chaos because the people would not recognize his legitimacy and there would no longer be any authority in the country.”
Violent protests occurred across Senegal last week, leaving three dead.
The first victim was a Gaston Berger University student who died during clashes with police in the northern city of Saint-Louis, while the second victim was allegedly shot in the Dakar suburb of Pikine and a 19-year-old was declared dead on Saturday. , according to hospital sources in the southern city of Ziguinchor, a stronghold of the opposition.
Debris remains strewn across the streets of the capital after clashes with security forces, who fired tear gas to disperse protesters.
Many of the city’s four million residents are upset by the turn of events.
We met Fanta Diallo as she ventured out to stock up on supplies for what seem like uncertain times.
“I am hurt and ashamed,” she told the BBC. “This is not normal. We are not in a monarchy. I came to the city today so I can buy everything I need.”
Adamadou Baye, who was in central Dakar on Saturday with his friend Aminata Issete, agreed.
“We need to demonstrate peacefully for what we believe is right, but something absolutely needs to be done. Personally, I am very, very upset,” he told the BBC.
At first, Mrs. Issete was a little shy when it came to being interviewed, but then she became very encouraged.
“We are exhausted, angry and deeply disappointed. What is wrong with our country? What is wrong with that man?” he asked about the 62-year-old president.
“Why is this lack of respect towards Senegal’s own citizens? We don’t deserve it. We want to vote for a new president,” he said.
Defeated, disappointed, upset. These are the recurring words in the streets, which are repeated on social networks, where videos and images circulate showing alleged police brutality during the protests.
These young people are the ones expressing their frustration over the lack of jobs in the country and are the backbone of support for Ousmane Sonko, a popular opposition leader who has been excluded from the presidential race due to a defamation conviction.
He has faced many legal battles in recent years and has been jailed in a separate case for calling for insurrection, conspiring with terrorist groups and endangering state security. This was in July, when his party was also banned.
The 49-year-old maintains that all charges are politically motivated. Even with the election delayed until December 15, there is little chance he will be allowed to run, but anyone he supports could have a chance of winning.
It is his stance on the economy that has particularly worried Senegal’s elite, but has won him enormous support. He criticizes the country’s close relationship with France, the former colonial power.
The former tax collector wants to withdraw the CFA franc, the regional currency used by 14 African countries and which is linked to the euro thanks to a guarantee from the French government. Critics fear such a move would spell economic disaster.
The next nine months may give the weak ruling coalition a chance to strengthen its chances in the elections and perhaps consider a stronger candidate in place of Sall’s chosen successor, Prime Minister Amadou Ba, whom some consider lacking charisma.
The postponement may also favor another opposition leader, Karim Wade, son of the former president, who was disqualified for not having renounced his French citizenship in time: electoral laws do not allow dual nationality.
Government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana reiterated that President Sall will not risk his credibility for a few more months in power.
“When you are a leader, you often have to make unpopular and sometimes misunderstood decisions,” he told the BBC. “It is not a pleasure for (President Macky Sall) to do it. He did it to preserve his country, since he is mature and responsible.”
With the level of support from Mr Sonko and the feeling that the judiciary has been used to exclude him from the race, it is difficult to see how a solution will be found that can truly resolve the crisis.
Legal expert El-Hadji Omar Diop says another scenario could occur.
“President Sall could decide to resign the day after April 2. In this case, the president of the National Assembly would assume power and call new elections within two or three months,” said the university professor.
More demonstrations are planned for Tuesday, although they have not yet been authorized by the authorities.
Mamadou Faye, a father of three, hopes this will get his message across without the need for more protests, which could prevent him from working.
“No one is going to help me. We are tired of all this. We just want to be able to feed our family.”