Senegal’s President Calls Off a National Election. His Critics Call It a Coup.

Senegal’s president has canceled the election for his replacement three weeks before voting was set to take place, saying that a dispute between the legislative and judicial arms of government needed to be resolved first.

Speaking on Saturday afternoon from the presidential palace in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, his words live-streamed on his social media platforms, President Macky Sall said that he was repealing the decree convening the electoral body, effectively postponing elections indefinitely.

But his opponents said he was essentially carrying out a coup d’état, and accused him of treason.

“For the first time in its history, Senegal has just suffered a coup d’état,” Ousmane Diallo, a researcher with Amnesty International, posted on X. In an interview, he said that the dispute Mr. Sall cited as the reason for the postponement was “a manufactured crisis, a crisis created in a week to stop the electoral process.”

After the country’s constitutional council published lists of approved candidates for the election, some of them were found to have been approved despite holding dual nationality, something presidential candidates are not allowed in Senegal.

One was Karim Wade, the son of President Sall’s predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade. The younger Mr. Wade, whose mother is from France, had renounced his French citizenship in order to run, but may have done so only after the constitutional court rejected him as a presidential candidate. After he was blocked from running, his party accused two of the court’s judges of corruption, and it appears that these allegations form the basis of President Sall’s decision to cancel the election.

In his speech on Saturday Mr. Sall portrayed it as a dispute between the national assembly, which launched an inquiry into the allegations, and the constitutional court, saying things had reached a crisis point. The situation, he said, “could seriously damage the credibility of the election” in a country that “cannot afford a new crisis.”

Mr. Sall had spent years refusing to confirm whether he would try for a third term in office. Senegal’s Constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms. But in 2016, when Mr. Sall was four years into his first term, voters changed the Constitution to reduce terms to five years from seven, which he argued reset the clock, allowing him to run a third time.

But last July, he said he would not run again, and later named the prime minister, Amadou Ba, as the governing party candidate for the 2024 election.

He gave no new date for an election in his address to the nation on Saturday, but said he was still committed to staying out of the race himself.

“My solemn commitment not to run in the presidential election remains unchanged,” he said in his live-streamed address, before the camera cut to shots of the golden lions outside the presidential palace, and the Senegalese flag embossed with the president’s initials fluttering in slow motion.

Half an hour after the president’s address on Saturday, three young men jumped off a bus in Ouakam, a neighborhood in Dakar, and bought cups of spiced coffee as they discussed the news of the canceled election. One said that Mr. Sall was just testing people, to see if they would take to the streets.

“This is the biggest coup d’état ever,” said another, Abdou Lahat, sipping his Touba coffee.

Despite a warning from the U.S. embassy that violent protests could break out, most residents of Senegal’s capital, Dakar, merely continued with their day on Saturday. But many were unhappy.

“We want to change all these people,” said Fatou Diouf, a young woman selling fabric in a Dakar market on Saturday afternoon, referring to the country’s leaders.

Koumba Sakho, a 28-year-old who works in a bakery in the city center, agreed. “The Senegalese will no longer accept anyone being imposed on them,” she said.

In the wake of the announcement of the canceled election, experts scrambled to assess the legality of the president’s move.

One said that by canceling the decree convening the electoral body when he did, the president was violating the constitution and the electoral code. Another said only the constitutional court could postpone the election, and then only if one of the candidates died.

A presidential candidate, Thierno Sall, accused the president of treason.

“Macky Sall knows that his candidate, Amadou Ba, cannot win the presidential election,” he said in a statement. “He is afraid of the consequences of his actions during all his years at the head of our country.”

Senegal has, so far, been spared the military coups that have recently convulsed other former French colonies that neighbor it in the arid Sahel region just south of the Sahara. But the president’s critics on Saturday accused him of carrying out a constitutional coup.

“This is a Louis Bonaparte 1851-style coup,” said Ndongo Samba Sylla, an economist, referring to Napoleon’s nephew, an elected president of France who, when his term expired, declared himself emperor.

The day before Mr. Sall’s announcement, Mr. Sylla sat in a café on Dakar’s palm-lined coastal road, the Corniche, expressing fear that Senegal’s leaders were about to destroy its institutions.

Long lauded as a regional model of democracy, Senegal’s electoral process was in fact “a system to cheat,” Mr. Sylla said, reflecting a dynamic mirrored across Francophone Africa: aging presidents who are unpopular with their youthful electorates, with charges continually brought against potential opponents.

“Senegal is not democratic, for me,” he said. “Democracy is about political equality. We don’t have that.”

Like the countries now led by juntas, Senegal has experienced a wave of youth discontent, with widespread demonstrations against a government that many see as repressive, out of touch, in cahoots with France, and unable to create sufficient opportunities for young people, who dominate the country demographically.

These problems have led many young Senegalese to turn to a politician who portrayed himself as a savior from the country’s elites, from France and from economic hardship: 49-year-old Ousmane Sonko.

Mr. Sonko, who is in jail and barred from standing in the election, his party dissolved, has variously been charged with calling for insurrection, with defamation of the country’s tourism minister and with rape. He was acquitted of rape, but convicted of “corrupting youth” for acting immorally toward the young massage therapist who accused him of raping her.

His legal battles have only seemed to fuel Mr. Sonko’s popularity, sending thousands into the streets, bashing pots and pans throughout the country in his support and in defiance of the government.

At least 16 people were killed in the demonstrations, according to Human Rights Watch.

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