Senegal and Chad’s Elections and the State of African Democracies

While there is still an ongoing debate on whether what African countries need is a Western-style democracy – and if not, what the best model is – the recent elections in Senegal and Chad offer a glimpse of the state of democracies on the continent and what might be the common trends in the new era of coups and political instability.
With the support of the Chadian military, Mahamat Déby inherited the Chadian presidency in April 2021 in a move that was against the country’s constitution and what many dubbed a coup. [AFP]

Senegal and Chad held presidential elections on 24 March 2024 and 6 May 2024, respectively. Official results released by Senegal's election officials indicated that Basserou Diomaye Faye, the country's new president, received 54.28 percent of the votes in the first round. (1) In Chad, military leader Mohamed Idriss Déby was declared the winner with 61 percent of the votes, while opposition leader Succès Masra came in second place with 18.5 percent. (2)

While there is still an ongoing debate on whether what African countries need is a Western-style democracy – and if not, what the best model is – the recent elections in Senegal and Chad offer a glimpse of the state of democracies on the continent and what might be the common trends in the new era of coups and political instability.

The struggle against third-term attempts

Senegal is the westernmost country in West Africa, and Chad is located at the crossroads of North and Central Africa. The pre-election happenings in the two countries, which are both former French colonies, present a clear picture of two common political trends going on in many African countries. The first is constitutional coups, whereby ruling presidents and leaders try to prolong their stay in by changing the constitution to remove term and/or age limits for presidents. (3) These could be seen in countries such as Guinea (before the 2021 Guinean coup d'état against Alpha Conde), Togo, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Chad (under late president Idriss Déby), Cameroon, Rwanda, Burundi (under late president Pierre Nkurunziza) and Egypt, among others.

Senegal, under the previous governments of Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall, was caught up in the effects of the third-term attempts. Wade amended the constitution in 2001 to include two-term limits, but then sought a third term and received support from the constitutional court, which ruled in his favour (4). Sall emerged as a major opponent to Wade in the 2012 presidential election, winning in part because of his campaign against Wade's potential third term, his support for term limits, and his pledge for constitutional reform. However, after being elected to a second term in 2019 and serving his constitutional terms, Sall attempted to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor by revising the constitution in 2016 to shorten presidential terms from seven to five years and ensure that no president could serve more than two consecutive terms. It later emerged that Sall was going for another term, a move the opposition claimed would mean he would serve for three terms, which is against the constitution. However, Sall and his allies denied this, claiming that the constitution amendment resets the term limit, and therefore his prior terms did not count. Due to instability, Sall was forced to announce in July 2023 that he would not contest a third term in the 24 March, putting an end to years of uncertainty about his political fate. (5)

Another blow to the presidency of Sall, who was praised for Senegal's economic performance under his administration, was his decision on 3 February 2024, just three weeks before elections scheduled for 25 February 2024, to postpone the elections and propose a new date of 15 December 2024. This move sparked violent riots and arbitrary arrests of opponents and demonstrators, as well as condemnations from local and international organisations, forcing him to announce the new date of 24 March. (6) Some believe that Sall’s postponement aimed at improving his strategy of clearing the coast in favour of his preferred presidential election candidate, Amadou Ba of the Alliance pour la République (APR) and leader of the ruling coalition, Benno Bokk Yakaar (BBY), who resigned as prime minister to run for the election. Ba previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Economy and Finance, and Director General of Taxes and Domains. Ba received only 35.79 percent of the vote in the election. (7)

Hereditary presidency and the failure of state institutions

The second common political trend is hereditary presidency, or a country’s leader using his power and position to force national institutions and the political apparatus to accept the transfer of power to a member of his family. (8) While presidents in Togo and Chad are typical examples of this, many leaders of other countries, such as Uganda, Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo, have been accused of orchestrating the transfer of power to their sons.

The recent political happenings in Chad present a clear example of this trend. Idriss Déby successfully ousted his predecessor, Hissène Habré, in 1990 and ruled over the country in a largely repressive style. He served five consecutive presidential terms; and in April 2021, he contested for his sixth term in an election in which the provisional results showed that he had won. However, he was killed while leading troops in a battle against armed rebels, known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). (9) With the support of the country’s military, his son, Mahamat Déby, inherited the Chadian presidency in April 2021 in a move that was against the country’s constitution and what many dubbed a coup. (10) Despite the opposition to Déby junior’s leadership and internal competition among his family, he was able to weather the storm by using a carrot-and-stick approach and relying on Western support, organising national dialogue but also tightening the noose on the opposition, and rejecting local and international calls for the members of the Transitional Military Council, including Déby junior himself, not to participate in the 6 May elections.

After three years of military rule, Mahamat Déby finally held the recently concluded elections that were believed, even before the results were announced, to be a mere formality to put an official seal on his rule, thus extending his family's control over a country that is considered not to have had a free and fair transfer of power since independence from France in 1960. Succès Masra, opposition leader from the Transformers Party and former prime minister, claimed that he had won the election, (11) and accused the authorities of rigging the election in Déby junior's favour. Masra also called on the country's military, police and other security services to quit obeying Déby junior's unjust commands after the results were released. (12)

It is worth mentioning that the state institutions in Chad are in contrast to those in Senegal, which is also the case in most African countries being ruled by autocratic regimes where state systems and institutions are unable to maintain their independence in the performance of their mandates. Senegalese institutions work for the betterment of the people and the rule of law, which is why the Constitution Council, made up of members appointed by Macky Sall, argued against any unlawful delays in the voting process.

Holding elections in the new coup era

The presidential elections in Senegal and Chad were held during a new era of coups on the African continent, where democracy has taken major blows in the past four years in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan, Gabon and Niger, reversing some of the minor gains made by local democracies and putting pressure on the regional blocs entrusted with “defending” democratic integrity. Yet, looking at the calendar across the continent and seeing about 18 other African countries scheduled to hold presidential and legislative elections this year (13) means that despite the coups, democracy seems to still be the preferred type of government and elections among many Africans, despite the indications that poor governance and weak development performance in some countries cause their citizens to welcome a non-democratic government. (14)

Also, despite the obstacles Senegal faced in the run-up to its elections, the Senegalese people have not only made history by restoring democracy but have also transformed their country into a beacon of democratic progress in West Africa, serving as a wake-up call for the region's military governments. As a result, the country remains one of the most stable democracies in Africa, with peaceful transitions of power since independence. Macky Sall's capitulation to local protests and shelving of his ambition due to pressures, the opposition's strategies and alternatives in the face of adversity, the ultimate victory of Faye, an opposition candidate, and Sall and his candidate's acceptance of defeat have all become an inspiration to many African youths. It has also revived interest in politics across countries like Nigeria, (15) where youth are still finding their footholds in the national politics dominated by old guards and godfathers; Uganda, (16) where Bobi Wine, a 42-year-old politician, is seen as an unprecedented threat to President Yoweri Museveni's nearly four-decade rule; and Ghana, which will hold its presidential and parliamentary elections on 7 December 2024.

Senegal and Chad’s elections will bolster regional diplomacy and international pressure on juntas to hold elections and return to democracy. In the case of Chad, despite the perspective that its election was insignificant due to irregularities, the high voter turnout indicates that people truly understand the importance of their votes and are willing to participate in order to see the change they desire. The elections may also help Déby junior rebuild his image and relationship with international allies who need his country for military bases that advance their interests in West Africa and the Sahel region, especially the United States and France, which consider Chad one of the few reliable friends in the vast Sahel region after ruling military leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger expelled their soldiers and now rely on Russia and its mercenaries for combating insecurity. The election could also make Chad a regional reference point regarding the conflicts and governments in Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic.

Civil society, youth participation and the question of governance

These elections, particularly those held in Senegal, demonstrated the necessity of youth engagement in politics as well as the responsibility of civil society and religious leaders in keeping peace and bringing all sides to the negotiating table. Young voters were facing low economic prospects prior to the elections, and anger towards President Sall's government, which was seen as attempting to maintain his grip of power at all costs, deepened political turmoil that had a knock-on effect on the economy, with a decline in tourism and a halt in most industries. Civil society continued to put pressure on the government and urged respect for the law, while religious organisations opposed Sall’s proposed date. (17) Objection to the postponement of the elections by Islamic sect leaders, particularly of the Sufi orders, to which more than 95 percent of Senegalese Muslims belong, as well as their intermediary role between the government and opposition parties, (18) both help to calm the political situation and prevent the country from devolving into further violence and instability.

However, while Faye's election as president of Senegal at the age of 44 is remarkable for African youths and has given many nations hope, doubts about governance and policy sustainability have arisen since the election’s dust settled. Faye has appointed his mentor, Ousmane Sonko, as prime minister. Both men are former government tax inspectors with limited experience, and this makes it difficult for many people to predict the future of Senegal's socio-economic development despite the many campaign promises and hopes they offered the Senegalese youth who complained under former president Sall’s administration, which is credited with positioning the country as an emerging oil and gas producing nation. This means that Faye's government will also need to address the high unemployment rate while maintaining equitable resource allocation. His travels since taking office have also shown that he is enthusiastic about promoting peace and national unity, enhancing Africa's economic integration to advance Senegalese interests, and contributing to the reform of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

In addition, following the elections in Chad, concerns about instability and security have emerged in relation to the insurgency in the Lake Chad region and armed oppositions. While Déby junior may opt to include opposition figures in the new government to promote peace, Masra, who was admired by many youths and opposition supporters, is unlikely to retain his position as prime minister or be part of the new government due to his prior agreement with the military government before the completion of the election. This could be understood in the pre-2023 context: Masra fled Chad in October 2022; and the military government suspended his party and six others in response to protests during which more than 60 people were killed. The government described the protests as an “attempted coup” because the protesters were against Déby junior's intention to extend his term in power by two years. Masra's political party later reached an agreement with the minister of reconciliation and allowed him and other opposition politicians to return to Chad, after which Masra was appointed as interim prime minister. (19)

Besides, Chadian rebel groups may use the allegations of electoral fraud and Déby's hereditary presidency as an excuse to launch attacks on security forces, delaying planned legislative elections until next year and diverting attention away from other national developmental challenges and local socioeconomic issues. Masra's situation can also be compared to that of some opposition parties in many African countries that miscalculated their political capacities and strategies due to a lack of true understanding of the situation on the ground or practical solutions to pressing challenges.


The recent elections in Senegal and Chad highlight both the excellent progress of African democracies and the problems they face. Senegal's election was not only an achievement for the country but also a win for the continent, and it has the potential to improve transparency in governance and prosperity for Africans. It also demonstrated the profound impact of youth participation in democratic processes as well as the potential for a positive outcome when combined with the unwavering commitment of the people and state institutions to holding public officials accountable. The high voter turnout demonstrates the resolve to challenge any status quo that contradicts national interests, as well as the importance of electoral engagement in forming the overall outcome and acceptance of political results. The peaceful transfer of power to a youthful opposition will influence citizens in other African nations, particularly those in the same region as Senegal and governed by military juntas.

For Chad, the opposition's rejection of the results, as well as Mahamat Déby’s tactics of utilising institutions and military forces to get the people to accept his rule, despite the illegality of his actions, are all expected outcomes of authoritarian regimes. These also demonstrated how the current longest-serving African leaders continue to win elections despite decades of declining growth and the displeasure of their populace, who want fresh ideas, new economic opportunities and enhanced local development. While the election failed to give the impression that things will change in Chad as the Déby family continues ruling the nation, conducting it seems to be crucial for the West, which can now consider Mahamat Déby a civilian president rather than a military ruler.

نبذة عن الكاتب


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