Senegal’s president defends delaying elections as protests erupt nationwide

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Senegalese President Macky Sall defended his decision to postpone elections as violent protests erupted across the country on Friday.

In his first interview since announcing the delay, Mr. Sall brushed off allegations that the decision was unconstitutional and that he’d created a constitutional crisis, saying the country needed more time to resolve controversies over the disqualification of some candidates and a conflict between the legislative and judicial branches of government.

But much of the public fears that Mr. Sall, who faces term limits, is just seeking to delay leaving office.

Senegal is one of West Africa’s most stable democracies, but the presidential vote has been dogged by controversies from deadly protests that resulted in Mr. Sall announcing that he would not seek a third term, to the disqualification of two opposition leaders by the highest election authority.

Mr. Sall denied that he’s trying to hold on to power. “I am absolutely seeking for nothing except to leave a country in peace and stability,” said Mr. Sall. “I am completely ready to pass the baton. I have always been programmed for that.”

Mr. Sall spoke to the AP inside the presidential palace in the capital, Dakar, while outside, hundreds of protestors took to the streets, burning tires, throwing stones and blocking traffic as security forces used tear gas to disperse them. At least one student was killed on a school campus following demonstrations in the country’s northern city of Saint Louis, according to a statement from the public prosecutor.

“Our future is at stake, we have to fight,” said Mohamed Sene, a protestor in Dakar.

Mr. Sall, who came to power in 2012 and is set to finish his two terms on April 2, postponed elections scheduled for Feb. 25 just as campaigning was set to begin.

Mr. Sall’s bid to delay the election came amid tensions over who was allowed to run. The Constitutional Council, the highest election authority, blocked a major party candidate because he held dual citizenship with France at the time he filed to run. Karim Wade, the son of a former president and candidate for the Senegalese Democratic Party, accused two Council members of corruption and appealed to parliament to delay the election.

Mr. Sall said his decision to intervene was necessary to prevent worse electoral chaos.

“I don’t want to leave behind a country that will immediately plunge into major difficulties,” said Mr. Sall. “I am saying now that I am going to work for appeasement, for conditions that will allow the country to be peaceful… let’s all hold inclusive discussions before we go to elections,” he said.

Senegal’s parliament voted Monday to delay the election until Dec. 15 in a chaotic process that took place after opposition lawmakers were forcefully removed from the chambers.

The constitution empowers the Constitutional Council to reschedule the vote in certain circumstances including “the death, permanent incapacity or withdrawal” of candidates. But parliament’s attempts to change the legislation violates some clauses of the current constitution, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Earlier this week, more than a dozen opposition candidates filed an appeal with the supreme court to overturn the decree.

The Constitutional Council is expected to rule within approximately a week as to whether it agrees with the parliament’s conclusion. However, when pressed, Sall wouldn’t say whether he would accept the court’s decision if it rejected the delay.

“It is too early for me to consider this prospect… When the decision is made, I will be able to say what I will do,” he said.

Conflicts analysts say the postponement of the election in a country that used to be seen as a beacon of democratic stability is likely to accelerate democratic decline in West Africa, a region plagued by coups and insecurity.

“The current trend threatens to tarnish Senegal’s reputation and risks enabling anti-democratic practices by elected leaders in other West African countries,” said Mucahid Durmaz, a senior analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

Senegalese faith in democracy has significantly declined under Mr. Sall, with more than half of citizens saying their country is less democratic now than it was five years ago, according to Afrobarometer, an independent survey research network. Rights groups accuse authorities of repressing the media, civil society and the opposition. Human Rights Watch said nearly 1,000 opposition members and activists have been arrested across the country in the last three years.

Two experts at the U.S. Institutes of Peace wrote that Mr. Sall was responsible for the crisis he cited to delay the election, calling them “disputes that his administration, and a presidentially appointed constitutional council, have largely created by barring prominent opposition figures or their parties from the electoral process.”

Several opposition members, including Sall’s strongest opponent, Ousmane Sonko, have been imprisoned.

Mr. Sonko’s candidacy was also rejected, due to a conviction by the Supreme Court for defamation against a minister. Sonko’s supporters maintain his legal troubles were part of a government effort to derail his candidacy for this year’s elections.

On Friday, Mr. Sall called on the international community to show restraint and understanding while Senegal was going through a challenging time. He said the path forward includes launching a national dialogue, which could begin as early as next week. The goal is to foster trust and create an inclusive environment for elections, he said.

“During periods of fragility, we have to be careful … The country must navigate this stage of electoral transition with complete lucidity and tranquility, so that the country continues to move forward,” said Mr. Sall.

But a Senegal expert said the only way out of the current crisis is for the government to release opposition candidates from jail, for Sall to end his tenure on time and for the Constitutional Council to annul the decree.

“Senegal is in real danger of plunging into violence and chaos,” said Alioune Tine, founder of Afrikajom Center, a West African think tank. “It’s a citizens’ revolution against dictatorship and there’s no end in sight,” he said.



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