What Next for President Faye?

By all accounts, on 2 April 2024, Bassirou Diomaye Faye will be sworn in as the fifth democratically elected president of Senegal. His election is expected to be a decisive first round victory in a contest that had been marred by the decision of Macky Sall, his soon-to-be predecessor, to delay the elections arbitrarily earlier this month. The narrative around Faye’s election has been dominated by a repudiation of Sall’s presidency by the people who carried the latter to power 12 years ago, as well as Faye’s youthfulness and his recent stint in prison. In a region that has recently seen young heads of state, albeit through military coups and not through the ballot box, this is a victory that many will rightly see as a testament to the values of democracy in a region sorely missing.


The Sall Factor

The story of Faye’s insurgent victory truly begins with Sall’s own victory in toppling an incumbent in 2012. Sall, a former prime minister and mayor, had left the ruling party to unseat incumbent Abdoulaye Wade, who had his own constitutional court crisis and was seeking to stay in power for a controversial third term. Sall had actually lost the first round of the vote, polling 27% to Wade’s 35%, but his rival had failed to cross the 50% threshold to avert a second round. During the run-off, Sall was able to forge a coalition of rivals to defeat his former boss and receive the support of many Senegalese. His bid for a second term in 2019 introduced the world to the firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, whose youth and engagement style propelled him to a third-place finish with 16% of the vote. The runner-up in that contest, Idrissa Seck, would also run in 2024, but the momentum was swinging from an elite consensus to a revolution that had been driven by an increasingly challenging economic climate, government scandals, the uncertainty over Sall’s interest in a third term and his eventual postponement of the polls.


What would a Faye presidency look like?

There are several questions about what Faye’s victory means for Senegal and democracy in a region that has been more associated with coups than contest victories. For starters, there is the question of the effectiveness of the youth vote in the contest. More than 60% of the population is estimated to be under the age of 25, and many had expressed disillusionment with unemployment and economic uncertainty. Many of them had bought into Sonko’s message in 2019 and evidently many more supported his candidate in 2024. Recent elections have seen questions of the efficacy of a youth vote, most notably in Nigeria where Peter Obi’s third-place finish was driven by an appeal to the country’s populous youth bloc. But it remains to be seen how effective Faye will be at handling these expectations when in power, especially since the same movement could easily turn on his government if he does not deliver soon.


But it remains to be seen how effective Faye will be at handling these expectations when in power, especially since the same movement could easily turn on his government if he does not deliver soon.

This leads to a question of how a former tax collector who has not held political office before will govern. On 15 March, after he was released from jail alongside Sonko, he walked back his initial promise to establish a new currency and abandon the CFA franc, promising to carry out necessary reform. This might have served to ease investor concerns about a radical economic policy and might show a presidency prepared to walk back less feasible promises made during the campaign.

A major element of his campaign was reducing the powers of the president, which would no doubt gain more support following Sall’s actions ahead of the elections. Campaign promises include pledging to introduce impeachment, a vice-president and seeking to strengthen the various institutions charged with preserving democracy. Yet Senegal has had other leaders who came to power on the back of populist attempts to redesign the nation’s democracy. Faye’s immediate two predecessors, Abdoulaye Wade (2000 – 2012) and Macky Sall (2012 – 2024) both defeated incumbent presidents as opposition leaders and pledged to enact changes. Yet the largest extent involved term limits and term lengths. A question to be answered will be if Faye finds a similar challenge in exercising his broad agenda for the country without the powers that the constitution gives him.


Faye also comes to office in the midst of an ongoing question of France’s role in West Africa. Following coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger, allies in former colonies have been replaced with leaders preaching anti-French sentiment and embracing other powers. There was some speculation that Sall’s aborted actions were driven by fears from France that a Faye presidency would be a death knell to French interests in the region. The relationship between both countries has historically been strong, and survived the different opposition transitions since the turn of the millennium. Faye’s approach to dealing with Paris might redefine relations between France and the region, and potentially influence key elections in Côte d’Ivoire next year. Within the region, similarly young military leaders might see a kindred spirit in the avowed pan-Africanist ideals of a President Faye, which will put him in an influential position in dealing with the standoff between ECOWAS and the newly formed AES. For all his flaws, Sall was adept at engaging with diplomatic issues, notably during his term as chair of the African Union. But that was also by virtue of the unique role Senegal has historically played, a responsibility that will now fall to Faye at a time when many states in the region are experiencing leadership turnover.


But the most burning question remains what role Ousmane Sonko will play in a Faye administration.

But the most burning question remains what role Ousmane Sonko will play in a Faye administration. Sonko himself would likely have become president if he had not been disqualified and the campaigns went to great lengths to show that a vote for Faye was a vote for Sonko (Diomaye mooy Sonko). Sonko is likely to assume the proposed vice-president role and there will no doubt be a considerable delegation of powers to the man who Faye has named one of his sons after. But history is littered with examples of strong partnerships in opposition unravelling with the strains of governance. A strong bellwether of Faye’s success will be his ability to ensure a united front, in delivering on their promises.


At 44, Faye will become Africa’s youngest democratically elected leader and an unintentional model for the clamour of increased youth participation in African governance. It is worth noting that he will assume office with barely any transition period and will still face the enormous expectations that his historic election has created. But, in the immediate heady moments of this historical victory, it is worth remembering that the actual victory is that of the Senegalese people who have shown a passion and commitment to fighting for their democracy. It is to them that Faye owes his victory and he would do well to remember that in a country with a history of removing erring incumbents, it is them he is ultimately accountable to.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development. 

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