Senegal prepares to swear in former opposition figure, recently freed from prison, as new President

Senegal is inaugurating Bassirou Diomaye Faye as its new president, completing the previously little-known opposition figure’s dramatic ascent from prison to the palace in recent weeks

April 02, 2024 10:16 pm | Updated 10:16 pm IST - DAKAR

Senegal’s Newly elected President Bassirou Diomaye Faye addresses the audience after he took the oath of office as president during the inauguration ceremony in Dakar, Senegal, on April 2, 2024.

Senegal’s Newly elected President Bassirou Diomaye Faye addresses the audience after he took the oath of office as president during the inauguration ceremony in Dakar, Senegal, on April 2, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Senegal prepared to inaugurate Bassirou Diomaye Faye as its new President on Tuesday, completing the previously little-known opposition figure's dramatic ascent from prison to the palace in recent weeks.

Mr. Faye was released from prison less than two weeks before the March 24 election, along with popular opposition figure and mentor Ousmane Sonko, following a political amnesty announced by outgoing President Macky Sall. It will be the former tax inspector's first time in elected office.

“It’s the culmination of a long struggle for democracy and the rule of law,” said Aissata Sagna, a 39-year-old factory worker who worked on Mr. Faye's campaign. “This is a day of celebration for us, even if we have lost young people killed during the demonstrations.”

The election tested Senegal’s reputation as a stable democracy in West Africa, a region that has experienced coups and attempted coups. It followed months of unrest ignited by the arrests last year of Mr. Sonko and Mr. Faye and concerns that the President would seek a third term in office despite constitutional term limits. Rights groups said dozens were killed in the protests and about 1,000 were jailed.

Mr. Faye, 44, campaigned on promises to clean up corruption and better manage the country's natural resources. His victory was seen as reflecting the will of young people frustrated with widespread unemployment and former colonial ruler France, seen by critics to be using its relationship with Senegal to enrich itself.

Such frustrations are common across many countries in Africa, home to the world's youngest population, where a number of leaders have clung to power for decades.

In his first speech as President-elect, Mr. Faye promised to fight corruption and reform the economy.

A practicing Muslim from a small town, Mr. Faye has two wives, both of whom were present on Tuesday. Ahead of the election, he released a declaration of his assets to show transparency and called on other candidates to do the same. It listed a home in Dakar and land outside the capital and in his hometown. His bank accounts totaled roughly $6,600.

“I think the first challenge is the formation of his (Faye’s) government,” said Alioune Tine, founder of the Senegalese think tank Afrikajom Center. “This will be the first concrete message he sends to the Senegalese people. The size, diversity and profiles will be analysed with a fine-tooth comb, to see if they meet the demand for a break with the past.”

The new President was little known until Mr. Sonko, a popular opposition figure who came third in the previous election in 2019, named him to run in his place after being barred from the election for a prior conviction. While Mr. Sonko's future role in the new administration is unclear, he is expected to have a prominent role.

Mr. Faye was arrested for alleged defamation last year, while Mr. Sonko faced a number of charges, including a prolonged legal battle that started when he was accused of rape in 2021. He was acquitted of the rape charges but was convicted of corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison last summer. Mr. Sonko’s supporters say his legal troubles were part of a government effort to derail his candidacy.

While Sall eventually ruled out running for a third term, he then abruptly postponed the election in February with only weeks to go, triggering another wave of protests. That move was blocked by the country’s constitutional court and the election was eventually held weeks later in March.

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