Senegal’s president-elect to lead country days after being released from prison

Senegal woke up Tuesday to a new president-elect, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, a former tax inspector and political newcomer who inspired voters, including many unemployed youth, with a vow to fight corruption and reform the economy.

Faye, 44, was catapulted into the presidential campaign when he was backed by the popular opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who had been barred from running due to a prior conviction. Winning Sunday’s presidential election was a dramatic rise for Faye, who was released from prison less than two weeks ago and is now due to be the youngest leader of the West African nation.

“I pledge to govern with humility and transparency, and to fight corruption at all levels. I pledge to devote myself fully to rebuilding our institutions,” Faye said during his first speech Monday night as president-elect, restating promises made during his campaign.

While official results of Sunday’s vote are not expected until Friday, the other front-runner — former prime minister Amadou Ba, who was backed by incumbent president Macky Sall — conceded defeat based on clear margins in preliminary results.

Ba and Sall both congratulated Faye and named him the winner.

‘We needed change’

The election followed months of unrest ignited by the arrests last year of Sonko and Faye, and concerns that the president would seek a third term in office despite constitutional term limits. The violence shook Senegal’s reputation as a stable democracy in a region that has seen a wave of coups. Rights groups said dozens were killed in the protests, while some 1,000 people were jailed.

Sall sought to delay the election until December, but that move was blocked by the country’s constitutional court, and the government was forced to allow an election to go forward this month.

A man with a goattee wearing a religious cap speakings in front of several reporters holding microphones and recorders in an outdoor setting.
Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, centre, speaks to journalists as he leaves after casting his ballot at a polling station in Ziguinchor on Sunday. Sonko threw his support to Faye after being barred from running. (Muhamadou Bittaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Celebrations erupted around the capital Monday evening as news of Faye’s victory spread, but calm returned on Tuesday and citizens went about their normal business. Mamadou Diakhate, a 32-year-old market vendor from Dakar’s suburbs, said he was relieved that elections had been peaceful and that life could resume after months of uncertainty.

“We hope the new president will not disappoint,” Diakhate said Tuesday. “The young have a lot of hope in him.”

Faye was considered an anti-establishment candidate, and his campaign messages of economic reform and anti-corruption resonated with youth. Almost a third of young people are unemployed, with thousands risking their lives on dangerous journeys in search of jobs in the West.

Abibatou Fall, a 25-year-old unemployed tourism graduate, said she was praying that the incoming president can improve the economy and create jobs.

“I am unemployed and my parents continue to look after me,” said Fall. “We needed change.”

Country faces significant challenges

Faye has vowed to improve Senegal’s control over its natural resources by promoting national companies to prevent the country from falling into what his campaign called “economic enslavement.” His manifesto promised to renegotiate Senegal’s oil and gas contracts and introduce a new currency.

Rida Lyammouri of the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think-tank, said that a promise by Faye to move away from former colonial power France could define the foreign policy of the country’s new government.

A cleanshaven, dark complected man celebrates with arms raised and a firecracker appears to be in his right hand, in an nighttime photo.
Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye and opposition leader Ousmane Sonko celebrate at Diomaye’s coalition headquarters in Dakar, Senegal, as the votes were being counted on Sunday night. (John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)

“A win by the opposition also means major changes ahead in domestic and foreign policies,” Lyammouri said.

However, analysts at Pangea-Risk said that the lack of a majority in Senegal’s parliament and financial conditions imposed by the IMF will prevent Faye’s more drastic pledges. Already, Faye has backtracked on the promise to create a national currency.

After Sall’s efforts to delay the election led to both a rebuke from the constitutional court and unrest in the country’s streets, the government on March 6 announced that the election was scheduled for later in the month. The government also passed an amnesty law releasing hundreds of political prisoners, including Sonko and Faye on March 14.

Faye’s roots lie in a small town in central Senegal. He is a practising Muslim and has two wives.

After studying law and graduating from Senegal’s National School of Administration in 2004, Faye became a tax inspector. This was when he met Sonko, also a tax inspector, and joined his newly formed party PASTEF. He quickly became a prominent figure in the party and was named general secretary in 2021.

“I would even say that he is more honest than me. I place the project in his hands,” Sonko told supporters at a joint news conference in March of last year. Weeks later, Faye was arrested and jailed on various charges, including defamation.

Faye paid tribute to Sonko in his speech, but declined to say what role Sonko might play in his government.

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