Senegal's president-elect, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, has vowed to fight corruption and promote greater prosperity. But analysts say he might need the charismatic opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to fulfill those pledges.

Senegal: Will Faye bring change after election victory?

DWnews || Shining BD

Published: 3/27/2024 5:10:06 AM
President-elect Bassirou Diomaye Faye has promised radical change in SenegalImage: SEYLLOU/AFP

President-elect Bassirou Diomaye Faye has promised radical change in SenegalImage: SEYLLOU/AFP

During the election campaign, Diomaya Faye described himself as a "candidate for system change" and a representative of "left-wing Pan-Africanism." He has raised hopes for change in Senegal, especially among the young electorate, by proposing monetary policy reforms and renegotiating oil, gas and mining contracts.

He promised, among other things, the restoration of Senegal's "sovereignty," a determined fight against corruption, and a fairer distribution of wealth in the country.

Analysts see this as Faye's intention to distance Senegal from Western powers, particularly the former colonial ruler, France.

The "new guy" about to take Senegal's top office has prioritized fighting political corruption. He also wants to reform the currency to finance the Senegalese economy and abolish the CFA franc, which critics say is tightly controlled by the French treasury and pegged to the euro.

"The first change that is already happening is [...] swiping away [...] that political class that has been ruthless, very harsh and violent with our citizens and institutions," Hawa Ba, division director at the Open Society-Africa initiative in Senegal, told DW.

According to Ba, the main thing President Diomaye Faye is expected to deliver is restoring the institutions of democracy: "To reduce the power of the president and to place citizens at the head of the governance processes."

Sonko and Faye's alliance

Opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who backed Faye's candidacy, has long called for this policy, and Faye seems to be taking his political line.

Election posters with the slogan "Diomaye is Sonko" showed Sonko and Faye side by side. They are the leading "heads" of the Senegalese opposition movement.

But only one was allowed to stand in the presidential elections in Senegal on Sunday, March 24. Bassirou Diomaye Faye entered the race as an independent candidate after joining hands with charismatic opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and his African Patriots of Senegal for Labor, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party, which was dissolved by the Senegalese authorities.

Provisional results showed Faye had won nearly 54% of the vote. His main rival, 62-year-old Amadou Ba, endorsed by outgoing President Macky Sall, managed to garner 32%. The 44-year-old Faye on Monday thanked his opponents for congratulating him on his apparent victory, which marks a significant defeat for the ruling Alliance for the Republic party.

For Hawa Ba, Ousmane Sonko was a fundamental piece in this puzzle because he is the mastermind. "It is [Sonko's] vision, leadership and the unwavering support he gave to President Faye during the past 10 days of the electoral campaign that got them to win these elections. Without Sonko there is no Diomaye."

Ruling party candidate Amadou Ba conceded defeat after initially vowing to stay in the raceImage: Luc Gnago/REUTERS

Sonko as gray eminence

For Ismaila Diack, a lawyer and project manager at the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Dakar, the opposition's success is mainly due to Sonko. Young Senegalese revere him as a critic of elitist politicians and an anti-graft champion. 

"The people voted officially for Bassirou Diomaye Faye, but that happened with the guarantee of Ousmane Sonko," Diack told DW. He added that he was the one who really carried the campaign and supported the entire political project.

Sonko was not allowed to stand for election due to a conviction in a defamation trial.

In February 2021, Sonko was arrested after being accused of repeated rape by a young employee of a massage parlor. Mass protests and bloody battles with the police followed the arrest of the popular opposition leader.

Last June, the 49-year-old was then sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly "corrupting young people." Sonko described his conviction as a plot to exclude him from the presidential election.

Young Senegalese voters have high expectations of the incoming government of Diomaye Faye and possibly Ousmane SonkoImage: Muhamadou Bittaye/AFP/Getty Images

Sonko is the founder and chairman of the PASTEF party and since 2021 has been engaged in a fierce power struggle with President Macky Sall, who was not allowed to run again after two terms in office. Sall had postponed the election date, which was originally scheduled for February 25.

However, the Constitutional Council rejected this step and Sall announced March 24 as the new election date. Sall's second term in office ends on April 2.

From prison to president-elect

Initially a guest when the PASTEF party was founded in 2014, Faye quickly rose to become one of the party's most prominent figures. A graduate of the Ecole Nationale d'administration, he worked in the General Directorate for Taxation and Estates.

There, he met Ousmane Sonko, who was later dismissed from the civil service in 2016 after he accused President Macky Sall and his entourage of embezzlement in the management of the country's natural resources.

After Sonko's arrest in 2021, Faye became secretary-general of PASTEF. However, the former tax auditor was still largely unknown. This changed when Sonko confirmed Faye as his replacement candidate. According to media reports, the two politicians are good friends.

Following uncertainty about the possibility of Sonko running in the presidential elections, PASTEF in November 2023 endorsed Faye as its presidential candidate for the 2024 polls, even though he had also been imprisoned since April 2023. Faye had been charged with contempt of court, defamation and possibly endangering the public peace.

Faye was only able to leave prison, together with Sonko, on March 14 as part of an amnesty agreement by President Sall following the political unrest triggered by the election postponement.

Although Faye has nowhere near the experience and charisma of his mentor Ousmane Sonko, he can still count on a supportive base.

Ousmane Sonko was not allowed to stand for the presidential elections but remains hugely popular

Could Sonko outshine Faye?

Sonko was a member of the National Assembly from 2017 to 2022 and mayor of the city of Ziguinchor in Casamance since 2022. Among other things, he has positioned himself against homosexuality.  In March 2023, he declared that a law to tighten the repression of homosexuality would be one of the first he would pass if elected as president.

According to Diack, one has to consider the possibility that Sonko could outshine Faye at some point. "But what they have shown and sold to the Senegalese is that they are there to work together to solve the problems of the Senegalese through designing a social concept for society," Diack said.

However, if Faye does anything other than what this project envisages, he would betray the Senegalese, Diack stressed. "Now, it is not yet clear what their cooperation will look like, whether the president's powers will be limited, or how they might share power among themselves."

Hawa Ba agrees. She told DW that Sonko could be actively involved in the next government, either as prime minister or in a similar position, assisting in the daily running of the country. "The second scenario that should not be ruled out is that he stays in the background," she said.

Shining BD