Senegal’s Sall Tries to Salvage Legacy Amid Democratic Crisis

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(Bloomberg) -- Senegalese President Macky Sall rode to power in 2012 on the back of a popular uprising against an aging leader trying to cling to power. This week, he tried to dispel the widespread perception that he had turned into one himself.

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In a carefully orchestrated appearance on state TV on Thursday, Sall insisted that the constitutional crisis sparked by his decision to cancel elections in the West African country — a government crackdown on mass protests, internet shutdowns, opposition leader arrests — wasn’t his fault. He remained the democrat Senegal had enthusiastically elected in 2012, and “never intended to overstay” his tenure.

“My mandate has ended and that’s that,” Sall said in French. “From April 2, I plan to leave the office of the president of the republic.”

In an ornate room at the presidential palace, a media handler occasionally reminded four handpicked journalists not to digress from pre-approved topics. Critics, who in Sall’s dozen years in power had witnessed the steady erosion of civil rights, the jailing of opposing voices and the muzzling of the press, saw something else: a leader using one of his last national addresses to salvage his reputation.

“He is doing exactly what he used to denounce,” said Aminata Toure, who served in Sall’s cabinet for 10 years, ran his 2012 campaign and was arrested during an anti-government protest this month. “He’s behaving like a 90 year-old autocrat,” she said of the 62-year-old.

“Sall now and the Sall of 2012 are two different people,” she added. “He discovered the extent of his power and got lost in it.”

Now the country is in limbo. Sall’s announcement will leave a power vacuum, without any precedent for who is meant to fill it if elections aren’t held before the end of his term - which, according to him, is the likely scenario.

“It is clear that the country cannot remain without a president,” said Sall. The new election date and the pick of transitional leader, if there’s a gap, are what the constitutional council and a dialogue of presidential contenders will have to decide, he said.

Throughout his tenure, Sall was an investor darling, presiding over strong economic performance, with average annual growth of about 5%. The country is now readying to become an oil and gas producer for the first time when its Grand Tortue Ahmeyin gas field project, backed by BP Plc and Kosmos Energy, starts production later this year.

But the cancellation of the election was the culmination of more than three years of political upheaval in the country, in which Sall’s government is believed to have arrested more than 1,000 activists, journalists and politicians since massive March 2021 anti-government protests, according to a Human Rights Watch report. The country, long seen as a bulwark of democracy in a region riven by coups and authoritarianism, now ranks alongside dictatorships in Freedom House rankings.

As his last term drew to an end last year, Sall openly toyed with the idea of seeking a third term, a move considered unconstitutional by many civil-society groups and opposition parties. He succumbed to public pressure and named a preferred successor last year.

But he continued to style himself as a champion of democracy, becoming one of the biggest critics of soldiers that had seized power in coups over the last three years, including in Niger — where he offered to send troops to restore the president.

Read more: What’s Gone Wrong in Normally Stable Senegal?: QuickTake

“He’s trying to wear the clothes of a unifier,” said Maurice Paulin Toupane, a senior researcher at ISS Africa’s Dakar office. “The truth is that Macky Sall’s 12 years in office have been marked by a crackdown on the opposition and by restrictions on civil society and the media.”

Now he wants an “honorable exit” after the postponement of elections went a step too far, Toupane said.

Investors, at least, cheered the move — Senegal’s bonds due in 2037 rallied 1% to their highest level in two weeks on the news of his planned exit.

The same was true in 2012, when Sall — an engineer who was educated in Senegal and Paris — railed against the third-term bid by Abdoulaye Wade, his predecessor. Back then, Sall’s victory — and the smooth transition on April 2 — gave Senegal a risk perception boost. Investors cut the extra yield they demanded to own the country’s sovereign dollar bonds rather than US Treasuries by 266 basis points to 443, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. indexes. That remains the biggest annual reduction in the country’s risk spreads on record.

For now, Senegal remains in “unchartered territory,” said Toupane. “We don’t know how the power vacuum will be handled.”

The constitution dictates that the parliamentary speaker must fill a vacancy in case of a president’s death, a resignation or impediment, he said. It’s not clear what’s meant to happen if the incumbent’s term ends without an elected successor.

The authorities’ heavy-handedness has bolstered support for the previously little-known anti-establishment party, Pastef, whose members now form the strongest opposition group in the country even though the party itself was banned by authorities last year.

“Macky Sall has played a big role for Pastef’s public relations because of the injustices” against the party and its leader, Ousmane Sonko, who’s currently in jail, said Yassine Fall, its vice-president for international affairs. “People have seen the government’s heinous attitude toward one person and one party, to the point of banning it, and it’s made them curious about the party.”

Sall argued on Thursday that he’s only sought to stabilize the country. While his decision to step down will ease tensions, the move was too little too late for one-time supporters.

“It’s a relief, but at the same time I’m upset to see that the fight we have been waging for 12 years is not moving forward,” said Fadel Barro, one of the founding members of the 2012 anti-Wade protest movement that propelled Sall to power. “It is still the same fight for power without taking the people’s will into account.”

--With assistance from Srinivasan Sivabalan.

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