26 March 2024

3 min read

Vol 2, 2024 | Beyond the ballot box: Senegal at a crossroads

Global Risk Bulletin
Vol 2, 2024 | Beyond the ballot box: Senegal at a crossroads placeholder thumbnail

Longstanding political tensions and socio-economic grievances in the country are unlikely to be resolved swiftly despite election promises. These factors could instigate more unrest in the future regardless of the government of the day, writes Zaynab Hoosen. *   

*Opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye won the 24 March election in the first round of voting.

Long considered a beacon of stability in an otherwise turbulent region, Senegal’s recent political climate has starkly contrasted with its reputation. Recent tensions relating to incumbent President Macky Sall’s attempt to delay the elections and violent protests by opposition activists in response have raised concerns among Senegal watchers, especially amid a notable shift towards authoritarianism and military juntas in the wider region. Against this regional backdrop, marked by military takeovers in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, Senegal stands at a critical juncture. And, despite the incoming government’s desire for stability, underlying political and socio-economic grievances remain deeply embedded in Senegalese society, posing the threat of future turmoil if not adequately addressed.

A tense political backdrop 

Senegal’s image as a model democracy in West Africa has been shaken by political turmoil in recent years. Sall’s tenure since his 2012 election has occasionally been marked by concerns relating to perceived suppression of the political opposition. A notable case involves Ousmane Sonko, an anti-corruption whistleblower and popular opposition figure. Sonko’s legal troubles, including a conviction in 2023 for “corrupting the youth,” sparked substantial civil unrest in recent months, leading to fatalities and property damage. Additionally, Karim Wade, son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, was controversially excluded from elections due to his dual citizenship. Tensions escalated further when parliament attempted to postpone the presidential elections, originally scheduled for 25 February 2024, to December, supposedly due to disputes over opposition candidates’ eligibility. Opposition politicians widely condemned the move as a “constitutional coup” and an attempt by Sall to unlawfully extend his tenure, sparking widespread protests and violent clashes that killed four people. The Constitutional Court subsequently overruled the postponement of the vote and elections proceeded on 24 March. Nevertheless, the prevailing atmosphere of tension and uncertainty in recent years is unlikely to dissipate quickly, suggesting that the path to sustained stability will be fraught with challenges.

Youth unemployment and other socio-economic challenges

Beyond political uncertainty, Senegal is grappling with several socio-economic challenges. The economy growing 5 percent on average annually since Sall became president has not translated into widespread improvements in living conditions. While improved economic growth is forecast in the medium term off the back of oil and gas production set to come online in 2024, the perceived exclusion of the general population from the benefits of the extractive industry is likely to fuel further anti-government sentiment. Moreover, many Senegalese continue to find costs of transportation, housing, electricity and fuel prohibitively expensive. Since late 2022, consumer price inflation has decreased but remains relatively high at 9 percent. There has also been a notable increase in food prices, rising over 11 percent year-on-year. 


The economy growing 5 percent on average annually since Sall became president in 2012 – amid significant investments in extractive sectors and infrastructure projects – has not translated into widespread improvements in living conditions.”


Socio-economic challenges are particularly acute among the youth, who already criticise the government for a sluggish response to the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The unemployment rate among young Senegalese stands at about 20 percent, and the actual figure is likely higher due to widespread underemployment and informal employment in this demographic. This has contributed to a sense of disillusionment among the youth, particularly in urban centres where people are more vocal about their discontent. Though, the situation is not considerably better in rural areas; here, climate change continues to negatively impact traditional jobs in fishing and farming, for example. This backdrop of economic and social discontent has made the youth increasingly receptive to political figures like Sonko, who has positioned himself as a champion of the marginalised. However, these socio-economic challenges are not likely to be resolved swiftly, sustaining the threat of further protests in the foreseeable future.

Uncertain road ahead

Though the elections have since concluded largely peacefully, Senegal’s journey towards stability is uncertain amid its recent political upheavals and deep-rooted socio-economic challenges. With a young population facing high unemployment and disenchantment, fuelled further by an economy that fails to equitably distribute the benefits of growth, the potential for further unrest looms large. As Senegal navigates this complex terrain, the actions of the newly elected government and its responsiveness to these multifaceted issues will be critical in determining the country's trajectory in the years ahead.

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