Bassirou Diomaye Faye: Senegal election offers hope to frustrated young Africans.
Politics

Bassirou Diomaye Faye: Senegal election offers hope to frustrated young Africans.

Few political turnarounds can match the last month in Senegal.

Just over two weeks ago, Bassirou Diomaye Faye was a little-known opposition leader languishing in jail, detained without trial on charges including inciting insurrection, who had never held elected office.

One week ago, he defeated the governing party’s candidate, Amadou Ba, in the country’s presidential election, winning 54% in the first round.

On Tuesday, the 44-year-old is set to be sworn in as the fifth president of Senegal and become Africa’s youngest elected head of state.

In a region where a large majority of the population is under 30, his victory offers hope to those young people frustrated by a lack of economic opportunities, with old elites seemingly clinging to power.

Mr Faye’s spectacular rise is a powerful reminder that elections still represent the best way to remove a failing government for many citizens in Africa.

Not only has his win removed an unpopular government from office, it has strengthened the country’s democratic institutions and reinvigorated popular confidence in democracy at a time when coups in other West African states have done the opposite.

The story of Mr Faye’s victory will also inspire other leaders across the continent, who have experienced years of rising repression, intimidation, and censorship.

According to long-time Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who has recently worked with his younger counterpart Bobi Wine to campaign for democracy in his country, “Senegal’s extraordinary electoral process has demonstrated, again, that with a well-mobilized, resilient and well-led population, it’s possible to non-violently achieve the desired democratic transition in Africa”.

The inspirational impact of Mr Faye’s success will be magnified by the fact that it did not come easily.

Ahead of the election, the government of President Macky Sall took several undemocratic steps in what was seen as an attempt to try and hold on to power against a backdrop of growing popular discontent.

This included the sustained persecution of opposition leaders and critical voices and a last-ditch attempt to delay the elections in a desperate bid to avoid defeat, which led some commentators to ask whether we were seeing the death of Senegalese democracy.

Many of these measures were aimed at undermining the momentum behind the popular opposition party, the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity (Pastef).

This included detaining the party’s popular leader Ousmane Sonko and Mr Faye, who was Pastef’s secretary-general. There was also widespread intimidation of Pastef supporters.

The jailing of Mr Sonko – for allegedly acting immorally towards an individual younger than 21 after allegations by a massage therapist – along with several inflammatory moves, sparked some of the biggest protests Senegal has seen in recent years. In turn, a heavy-handed response from the security forces led to numerous deaths.

Mr Sonko described the charges as trumped-up and aimed at barring him from running for president.

Pastef itself was dissolved by the authorities last year after it was accused of stoking violence in the country – but its leadership continued operating.

It took incredible bravery and hard work from opposition leaders, civil society groups, journalists, and those working in some of the country’s democratic institutions to ensure that this bleak situation ended in an election that Mr Faye was in a position to win.

It was the members of the Constitutional Council, Senegal’s top court, that ensured the election would go ahead as scheduled when they stood up to the president and ruled that his attempt to change the date was unlawful.

The Pastef leadership also played an important role, standing firm in the face of great intimidation.

This realization made it clear that choosing Mr. Faye, who was never actually put on trial, was a safer option – even though it meant Mr. Sonko, the party’s figurehead, taking a backseat.

Civil society groups and journalists also played an important role, continuing to report on government repression and human rights abuses, despite being attacked, detained, and tear-gassed.

Through their work, they ensured that Senegalese citizens and the rest of the world knew what was happening in their country, increasing the pressure on President Sall to back down.

In the end, these efforts, and the weight of Senegal’s democratic traditions, ultimately led Mr. Sall to release both Mr. Faye and Mr. Sonko from jail – albeit as part of a wider amnesty deal that critics argue is designed to confer immunity on government leaders for the abuses they committed during the period of political turmoil.

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