From Prison To Presidency: Senegal’s election offers a glimmer of hope in a troubled region

May 5, 2024
Senegal flag and vote sign
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*** This Opinion piece was published in The Africa Report on 11 April 2024, see the original version.


The remarkable outcome of Senegal’s recent elections demonstrates the power of institutions and people in defending democracy in Africa. It is important to reflect on how these strengths could be replicated in a region characterised by some as a ‘coup belt’.


About 61% of Senegal’s 7.4 million electorate, almost one-third of whom are younger than 35 years old, sent a clear message on 24 March: Senegal values democratic governance and Senegalese are willing to fight for it.
However, the country and the continent yearn for democracy that delivers.

Youngest elected head of state

Senegal’s election outcome is noteworthy because of the phenomenal ascent to the presidency of one Bassirou Diomaye Faye from relative obscurity to becoming the youngest elected head of state in Africa.

This was made possible by the endorsement of the wildly popular Ousmane Sonko. It represents a momentous victory for Senegal and an inspiration for a governance reset in a region that has recently been beset by military coups. Senegal’s success is attributable to the critical role that key institutions – particularly the judiciary, Constitutional Council, and security forces – play. It highlights the urgent need to ensure Senegal’s promising but fledgling democracy continues to be supported towards consolidation, especially in this period in which it could fall prey to spoilers as it struggles with what will be a gargantuan task of having to swiftly rise to the challenges of governance and the need to deliver fast in a climate of outsized expectations.

In this context, it is important to reflect on how these strengths could be replicated in a region that risks living up to its characterisation in some quarters as a ‘coup belt’, populated with youth that have dwindling faith in the potential of democracy to deliver on its promise.

What lessons can be drawn?

The first is the importance of leadership in promoting peace and constitutional transition. President Macky Sall ultimately abided by the Senegalese Constitutional Council heralding the need for timely, free, and fair elections when he released jailed opposition leaders and proceeded to call for elections. This showed the power of a Senegalese constitutional institution whose independence stood the test, and which now ensures Senegal stands tall among emerging democracies on the continent.

Secondly, a robust constitutional framework backed by an effective judicial system in Africa could serve as an effective check and balance as well as a catalyst for democratic stability.

Senegal’s election showed that all political crises, even the harshest, can be resolved through the ballot box

President Faye’s candidature, let alone victory, would have been inconceivable without the eleventh-hour endorsement from Sonko, the leading opposition figure jailed for defamation, and in whose defence he rose, earning him a jail sentence. A defamation conviction stood in the way of Sonko ascending to the presidency, an indication of the extent to which the Senegalese judicial system works in its enforcement of the integrity provisions of the Senegalese constitution for elected leaders. 

Enhancing democracy 

Thirdly, the professionalism of the security sector contributes to enhancing democracy in Africa. Despite being in a region that has been plagued with coups, and despite the prolonged periods of unrest that Senegal has endured in recent times, the Senegalese army stayed in the barracks. This showed that all political crises, even the harshest, can be resolved through the ballot box. The determination that Senegalese expressed through a peaceful vote is an affirmation of this truth.

These factors laid the ground for the momentous transition that took place in Senegal, thereby gifting the region and Africa more broadly speaking, with some much-needed positive news. It is now time for President Faye’s pre-election political discourse to translate into positive dividends for the Senegalese people. 

As we celebrate this milestone, it is imperative to recognise that the journey towards democracy and stability in the region is ongoing. There is a need for a nuanced approach that promotes inclusive governance and addresses the aspirations of the youth across the entire region. Strengthening institutions and upholding democratic principles remain essential for fostering lasting peace and progress. 

The international handwringing we observed over Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger must be replaced with clear support for this delicate transition in Senegal. The work is not over; but rather, it begins now.