Follow us on social

Senegal's new president is anything but a lackey for the West

Senegal's new president is anything but a lackey for the West

Bassirou Diomaye Faye's rhetoric has much in common with junta leaders in other parts of the Sahel

Analysis | Africa

In Senegal, February and March brought tension as then-President Macky Sall, facing a term limit, postponed scheduled elections and seemed poised to remain in power past the expiration of his mandate.

Street protests and outcry from at home and abroad forced Sall’s hand.

In a dramatic development, he not only rescheduled the elections but also released two of his key opponents, Ousmane Sonko and Bassirou Diomaye Faye, from prison. Sonko, Sall’s chief rival, was banned from running for president due to a long-running legal battle. But on March 24, Faye — running with slogans such as “Diomaye is Sonko” — achieved a smashing first-round victory with over 54% of the vote.

In Western capitals, one could almost hear the sighs of relief. Senegal, along with Ghana, is one of the two leading democracies in West Africa. The region saw five successful military coups between 2020 and 2023. And many of the elected civilian presidents, like Sall, have a penchant for locking up opponents and seeking third (or fourth, or fifth) terms. Without mentioning Sall, the U.S. State Department congratulated Senegal and Faye, saying, “We commend the millions of Senegalese citizens who voted, along with Senegal’s electoral institutions and judiciary who faithfully upheld Senegal’s constitution and laws. … Senegal’s leadership is essential to resolving the many challenges facing the region today.”

And yet Faye’s policy positions and public postures — and those of Sonko, whom Faye quickly appointed prime minister — do not necessarily align with what Washington, Paris, and other Western governments have traditionally looked for in their African “partners.” Indeed, reactions to his victory in Paris were mixed. Officials in Washington and in Europe should give Faye ample room to maneuver, however; he faces numerous tricky choices on the domestic, regional, and international scene, and it would be better for all if he succeeds on his own terms, even if those partly clash with what the U.S. government might want.

Sonko and Faye, both former tax inspectors, have branded themselves not just as anti-corruption advocates but also as critics of France’s relationship with its former African colonies. In May, at an event with left-wing French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Sonko commented, “I want to reiterate Senegal’s desire for self-determination, which is incompatible with the long-term presence of foreign military bases in Senegal.” (France, even before Senegal’s election, was already reducing its presence in Senegal and some other African countries.) The country’s new leaders have also called for increased self-determination in the economic sphere, questioning both the status quo of the CFA franc — a currency with colonial origins and whose reserves are still largely held in France — and agreements with Europe in sectors such as fishing.

Such stances show that Faye and Sonko are not necessarily the polar opposites of the military juntas to which they are frequently contrasted in the media. The juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger came to power by toppling career politicians widely perceived by citizens as ineffective and as subservient to France; in rhetoric and policy, the juntas have strongly emphasized a certain vision of sovereignty, expelling French troops and, in Niger’s case, bristling at Washington’s attempts to dictate the terms of the security partnership. Faye came to power via the ballot box, but his and Sonko’s rhetoric sometimes overlaps with those of the officers in Bamako, Ouagadougou, and Niamey. Across West Africa, youthful citizens appear interested in sweeping policy changes, and many are more interested in the changes themselves than in whether those changes occur via ballots or putsches.

The emerging relationship between Faye and the Sahelian juntas — several of whose leaders are even younger than he is — is complex. Traveling recently to Mali and Burkina Faso (one of many trips Faye has already taken in West Africa), the Senegalese president sought to persuade the junta-led Sahel states not to abandon the Economic Community of West African States. ECOWAS is a half-century-old regional bloc that has, inconsistently, sought to enforce civilian rule and democratic norms in the region; ECOWAS tangled with all three of the central Sahelian juntas as well as with the junta in Guinea, and in all cases was ultimately unable to pressure soldiers into surrendering power. The three central Sahelian states, declaring their withdrawal from ECOWAS, are building an alternative structure called the Alliance of Sahel States.

In pleading ECOWAS’s case, Faye pleases not only regional heavyweights such as Nigerian President Bola Tinubu but also policymakers in Washington and Europe, who favor ECOWAS as the first responder for West African crises. Indeed, Faye’s trip to the Sahel may have been partly pitched at European governmental audiences, reassuring that continent’s officials that Faye wants to act as a regional leader and a broker of stability. Yet the scenes of Faye side-by-side with Mali’s Assimi Goita and Burkina Faso’s Ibrahim Traore were also a reminder that Faye is unlikely to freeze out these states diplomatically or economically; even as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger continue to anger Washington and Paris through their ties to Russia, Faye emphasizes Senegal’s fundamental connection to its neighbors and nearby peer countries.

The issue of Russia is another potential point of tension between Senegal’s new rulers and Washington. So far, Russia does not seem to feature prominently on Faye’s radar. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, touring Africa in early June, did not stop in Senegal. Yet Russian diplomats seem intrigued by Faye’s rhetoric, and Russia’s Ambassador to Senegal Dmitri Kourakov recently expressed eagerness to deepen economic ties. Here the difference between Senegal and the central Sahelian states looms large: Senegal has no mass insurgency on its territory, and thus no need for Russian mercenaries or major defense pacts, yet Russia has become a symbol of anti-imperialism for some Africans. If Faye ends up taking a step or two in Russia’s direction, Washington would be wise not to overreact. He is a potentially quite valuable diplomatic partner in a very volatile region.

Faye and Sonko may prove less radical than their rhetoric would indicate. Faye’s key economic appointees have been “orthodox” figures with backgrounds at the International Monetary Fund, suggesting that an economic revolution may not be forthcoming after all. If those moves reassure Faye’s critics in Western capitals, those critics might think twice — Senegalese voters backed Faye massively because they want change. Indeed, two successive generations of Senegalese youth have been gravely disappointed by change candidates (in 2000 and 2012), the second of whom was Macky Sall. If Faye breaks the mold of Senegalese presidents, it will be uncomfortable for the United States and Europe, but if he doesn’t, the country may face a fresh political crisis before too long.

Senegal's President Bassirou Diomaye Faye shakes hands with Burkina Faso's junta leader Captain Ibrahim Traore upon his arrival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso May 30, 2024. Senegal's Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Analysis | Africa
Russian warships are in Cuba, try not to overreact

People watch Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov as it enters Havana’s bay, Cuba, June 12, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer

Russian warships are in Cuba, try not to overreact

Latin America

The news that four Russian warships are in Havana for naval exercises brings to mind the old mariner’s aphorism, “Any port in a storm.”

Cuba is in desperate need of economic help, and Russia has been providing it. The result is a deepening partnership that has geopolitical echoes of the Cold War, although the Cubans are now drawn to Moscow less by ideological affinity than economic necessity.

keep readingShow less
That stinks: Global opinion of US goes down the toilet

Vilnius, Lithuania. 12th July 2023. Joe Biden, President of United States of America. Nato Summit 2023. (ArChe1993 / shutterstock)

That stinks: Global opinion of US goes down the toilet

Global Crises

Dragged down in important part by disapproval over the U.S. position on the Gaza war, the popular image of the United States abroad has declined over the past year, according to a new poll of public opinion in 34 countries released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.

The survey, the latest in an annual series that dates back more than two decades, also found that international confidence in U.S. democracy has fallen. A median of four in ten of the more than 40,000 respondents said U.S. democracy used to be a good model for other countries to follow but no longer is. That view was most pronounced in the ten European countries covered by the poll.

keep readingShow less
US lifts ban on Neo-Nazi linked Azov Brigade in Ukraine

The Idea of the Nation symbol used by the 12th Azov Assault Brigade of Ukraines National Guard is pictured during a rally held in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the units foundation, Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine. Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on May 05, 2024. Photo by Dmytro Smolienko/Ukrinform/ABACAPRESS.COM

US lifts ban on Neo-Nazi linked Azov Brigade in Ukraine

QiOSK

The State Department announced that it has lifted its ban on the use of American weapons by the notorious Azov Brigade in Ukraine, an ultra-nationalist outfit widely described as “neo-fascist," even "neo-Nazi."

The group was initially formed in 2014 as a volunteer militia to fight against Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists in the eastern Donbas region, and later incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine, under the purview of the Interior Ministry.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest