Brown University

Senegal’s Democratic Façade: How Senegal is not the Example by Zach Witkin @ Brown University

Senegal has been widely regarded in the international community has having one of the most stable democracies in Africa. The 2012 election in which President Macky Sall defeated longtime incumbent Abdoulaye Wade marks the third consecutive democratic election and peaceful transfer of power, and serves to support claims of democratic consolidation and progress. However, the realities of a Macky Sall presidency have not lived up to this perception. Even though Senegalese voters have a voice in lawmaking and governance through the ballot box, the Sall administration has made half-hearted efforts to actualize campaign promises to tighten the length of presidential terms and fight corruption, and is actively working within the constitutional parameter to consolidate power.

Manipulating Term Limits

In his campaign platform, Sall pledged to immediately reduce presidential term limits from seven years to five years as a way to consolidate democracy. Once elected to office, Sall did not follow through on this promise until he submitted an official referendum in February 2016 – midway through his term (Kelly, 2016). The Constitutional Council, a body which rules on the constitutionality of rules and government proceedings, rejected the immediacy of the referendum, pushing its activation to the subsequent term, effectively deciding that Sall’s term would be seven years. Many have argued that the way in which he went about sending the referendum was a strategic decision to consolidate power.

Issuing this referendum when Sall did, and then the Constitutional Council rejecting its activation until the next term cycle, it appears to constituents that the council made this decision unilaterally and Sall merely accepted their ruling. According to Ozan Varol’s work, Stealth Authoritarianism, Sall’s political maneuvering is a prime example of when contentious issues are assigned to a judicial body in order for the executive to avoid blame or public backlash and maintain popularity by the public (Varol, 1693). From the perspective of Sall supporters, the way in which the Senegalese government navigated this piece of the 2016 referendum preserves their view that Sall is upholding his promise for the strength of democracy. But those skeptical of his actions might say that this is a strategy clad with intentions to hold onto power for as long as possible, while hiding behind a facade of democratic consolidation.

Packing the Constitutional Council

Adding to this puzzle, the term limit measure was part a larger constitutional referendum which includes fourteen other changes. One referendum item that is directly applicable to Sall’s presidency and power is the proposal to expand membership of the Constitutional Council from five to seven members, with the two additional members to be nominated by the Speaker of the National Assembly to join the current presidential appointees (Pham, 2016). This might seem like  a common-sense change aimed at diversifying power, but it possesses substantial underlying effects on the political landscape.

Changing the way in which members are appointed to the Constitutional Council appears to diversify power to other branches of government. However, the referendum stipulates that the two new members who are approved by the referendum be elected by the Speaker of the National Assembly, currently Moustapha Niasse, a member of Sall’s own party. As a result, the composition of the Constitutional Council has a greater number of members aligned with Sall’s party than it did previously. Additionally, council members’ terms are six years, with terms expiring every two years. So, with Sall’s seven-year term, in addition to the two new, party-loyal members, he will have a greater ability to appoint those who share his political ideology, and the people that Sall appoints will be on the Constitutional Council until after his seven year term. This directly connects to Varol’s argument in conversation with Ginsberg and Hirschl as it proposes that this idea of appointing judges who will be in a position of power after that leader leaves is a way of consolidating power through constitutional means. Additionally Bermeo’s article, On Democratic Backsliding, says that when party loyalists or supporters of the executive possess majority control an existing legislative or judicial body, they do so as an effort to “aggrandize” the executive, and by extension his entire party (Bermeo, 10-11). As a form of democratic backsliding, according to Bermeo, the referendum that Sall sent operated within the Senegalese constitutional framework, but the results have lead to a consolidation of power within Sall’s own party.

Arresting the Competition

Another question relating to the status of democracy in Senegal are the high profile arrests of Karim Wade, son of former president Abdoulaye Wade and senior member in his father’s cabinet, and the former mayor of Dakar and member of parliament (elected to parliament whilst in jail), Khalifa Sall. In April 2013, Macky Sall’s government convicted Karim Wade of embezzling $238 million; and detained in March 2016 for allegedly stealing $2.9 million of government funds, Khalifa Sall remains behind bars as he awaits trial.

Many argue that these arrests are signs that Macky Sall is following through on his vow to fight government corruption, while others raise questions considering both Mayor Sall and Karim Wade were two potentially leading candidates in the 2019 presidential race to unseat the incumbent president. A leading criticism surrounds Macky Sall’s reinstatement of the Court for the Repression of Illicit Enrichment (CREI), which has not existed for over three decades. Those against Sall assert that this move is just one way to authoritatively consolidate power by arresting, and in Wade’s case convicting, those who oppose him. The plot thickens when, two days before Karim Wade’s conviction on embezzlement charges, he was chosen as the candidate of the main opposition party for the 2019 election. Facing harsh criticism from United Nations Working Group of Arbitrary Detention and Senegal’s League of Human Rights on the legitimacy of the arrest, after serving three years of a six year sentence, President Macky Sall pardoned Karim Wade but did not forgive the $230 million fine that has yet to be paid. After being released, Wade fled to Qatar where he remains, with no chance to run for president.

Meanwhile, Khalifa Sall’s arrest and continuing detention, while he awaits trial on embezzlement changes raises similar questions surrounding the legitimacy of the case against him and around Macky Sall’s administration’s motives behind the arrest. Is it a coincidence that Khalifa Sall, a potential presidential candidate, is still in detention and awaiting trial? I do not think it is. The lawyers of the detained Sall have made numerous appeals for his release so that he may campaign for president while awaiting trial. They have only been met with avoidance and stagnation by the judiciary, thus preventing him from running an active campaign for president.

Maintaining the theme of consolidating power, like executive aggrandizement, Bermeo explains that the manipulation of elections, by keeping opponents from running as President Sall’s administration is doing, is another form of democratic backsliding (Bermeo, 13). While the Sall administration claims that the charges of fraud are legitimate, and the defendants maintain their innocence, the perspective that really matters is that of the judicial body ruling on the trials — the CREI, a court that Macky Sall reinstated for the exact purpose of trying Karim Wade. Once again, Macky Sall has worked, and continues to work within the parameters of his power and the constitution to manipulate the balance of power and decision-making to benefit his authority and rule. After vowing to fight corruption and promising to be a president uninterested in an authoritative grip on power during his campaign, Sall supports can make a superficial argument that he has followed through on his promises. However below the surface, Sall has made calculated strategic plays to consolidate power.

*Photo courtesy of AfricaNews

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