Postponement of Senegal election a further sign of West Africa’s ominous drift from democracy

Senegal has long been considered an example of stability in West Africa

Coups come in many guises. As do “insurrections”. And Africa’s latest suspension of democracy in its most stable democratic state, Senegal, just about qualifies as a coup, much as Trump’s attempt to suppress his own election defeat just about constituted an “insurrection”. In the year when some two billion voters across the world will go to the polls it is more evidence of the ominous, remorseless drift of African states from democratic norms.

Just as alarmingly the trend seems to enjoy a surprising degree of popular approval. A recent Afrobarometer poll based on surveys in 36 African countries found that the share of respondents who prefer democracy to any other form of government has fallen from 75 per cent in 2012 to 66 per cent last year. Some 53 per cent said a coup would be legitimate if civilian leaders abuse their power, which they often do. Only 38 per cent are satisfied with the way democracy works.

Senegal (with a population of 17 million) is among the few African states never to have suffered a military coup in more than six decades of independence. Two weeks ago president Macky Sall, a close ally of former colonial power France, went on live television to announce that for technical reasons he was postponing this month’s elections until next December – a move not unrelated to his own reluctance, despite denials, to leave office. Senegal’s Constitutional Council has cancelled his decree as unconstitutional, although it remains unclear when or if the elections will be rescheduled.

Sall brought troops on to the streets of Dakar to counter protests, while opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who last year rallied the country’s youth in a challenge to the president. remains in prison on trumped-up charges of “corrupting the youth”. Some 2,000 Sonko supporters are also in prison after last year’s protests, in which at least 16 people were killed.


Senegal is the latest francophone nation in Africa’s arid Sahel region, a 4,000-mile stretch of North African Sahara from the Atlantic to the Red Sea coasts, whose democracy has stuttered. Generals in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Chad, Sudan and Gabon and Niger have ridden to power since 2020, many on a wave of anti-French sentiment. Nine coups against a background of high levels of internal terrorist violence, a civil war in east Sudan, and the regional displacement of more than 15 million people.

Attempts by neighbouring democracies to curb the trend have been increasingly toothless.

The Senegal coup prompted a lukewarm response from allies and notably the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) which has in the past prided itself on being a bulwark of democratic governance. Instead of the usual robust denunciation of a coup with threats of punitive measures, Ecowas simply politely urged a return to the election timetable

The bloc, established in 1975 and of which Senegal was a founder and linchpin, is an embryonic regional political and economic union akin to the early EU, sharing some of the same problems. Its main objective is to promote trade, economic co-operation, and development among member states. But it has also seen itself over the years as a guarantor of democratic standards, and used a variety of means, including collective military action, to protect its notionally democratic members.

It contributed to regional force Ecomog, crucial to ending the Sierra Leone and Liberia civil wars in the 1990s, and in 2017 the alliance helped usher out former Gambian autocrat Yahya Jammeh, who refused to hand over power after losing elections. More recently, however, it has been reluctant to use force, preferring economic sanctions.

Two weeks ago suspended members Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, all of which last year succumbed to coups, announced their intention to leave the bloc permanently, largely in response to empty threats to send troops to Niger to restore its old government and to the imposition of trade sanctions against all three. Ecowas was accused of being “under the influence” of foreign powers, notably France and the US, and of failure to support their war against al Qaeda and Daesh.

“There is a question about the future utility of Ecowas,” warns Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, an Abuja-based political analyst. “It has failed to stop four coups now. The question of its continued relevance in the region needs to be raised.”

Senegal is just the latest to take a step backwards from democratic norms, Sall undoubtedly emboldened by the weakness of regional responses he has seen. The broader regional significance should not be underestimated either, not least if Senegal contributes to further undermining the only pillar of regional political and economic integration Ecowas.

And while Senegal does itself not host an Islamic insurgency the regional destabilisation and the juntaisation of neighbouring states is also dangerously opening the door to increased Russian and Chinese presence in Africa.