Senegal’s president has canceled the election for his replacement three weeks before voting was set to take place, saying that a dispute between the legislative and judicial arms of government over accusations of corruption needed to be resolved first.
Speaking on Saturday afternoon from the presidential palace in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, his words live-streamed on his social media platforms, President Macky Sall said that the dispute between the West African country’s national assembly and its constitutional court had reached a crisis point, and that he was repealing the decree convening the electoral body, effectively postponing elections.
But his opponents said he was essentially carrying out a coup d’état, and accused him of treason.
“For the first time in its history, Senegal has just suffered a coup d’état,” Ousmane Diallo, a researcher with Amnesty International, posted on X.
After the country’s constitutional council published lists of approved candidates for the election, some of them were found to have been approved despite holding dual nationality, something presidential candidates are not allowed in Senegal.
This situation, the president said, “could seriously damage the credibility of the election” in a country that “cannot afford a new crisis.”
Mr. Sall had spent years refusing to confirm whether he would try for a third term in office. Senegal’s Constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms. But in 2016, when Mr. Sall was four years into his first term, voters changed the Constitution to reduce terms to five years from seven, which he argued reset the clock, allowing him to run a third time.
But last July, he said he would not run again, and later named the prime minister, Amadou Ba, as the governing party candidate for the 2024 election.
He gave no new date for an election in his address to the nation on Saturday, but said he was still committed to staying out of the race himself.
“My solemn commitment not to run in the presidential election remains unchanged,” he said in his live-streamed address, before the camera cut to shots of the golden lions outside the presidential palace, and the Senegalese flag embossed with the president’s initials fluttering in slow motion.
One presidential candidate, Thierno Sall, accused the president of treason.
“Macky Sall knows that his candidate, Amadou Ba, cannot win the presidential election,” he said in a statement. “He is afraid of the consequences of his actions during all his years at the head of our country.”
Senegal has, so far, been spared the military coups that have recently hit other former French colonies that neighbor it in the arid Sahel region just south of the Sahara. But the president’s critics on Saturday accused him of carrying out a constitutional coup.
Like the countries now led by juntas, Senegal has experienced a wave of youth discontent, with widespread demonstrations against a government that many see as repressive, out of touch, in cahoots with its former colonizer, France, and unable to create sufficient opportunities for young people, who dominate the country demographically.
Many young Senegalese said there was a solution to these problems: Ousmane Sonko.
Mr. Sonko, a relatively young politician — he is 49, Macky Sall is 62 — has drawn support by criticizing France, denouncing Senegalese elites and promising to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
He has variously been charged with calling for insurrection, with defamation of the country’s tourism minister and with rape. He was acquitted of rape, but convicted of “corrupting youth” for acting immorally toward the young massage therapist who accused him of raping her.
The charges against him seemed to only fuel Mr. Sonko’s popularity, sending thousands into the streets, bashing pots and pans throughout the country in his support and in defiance of the government.
At least 16 people were killed in the demonstrations, according to Human Rights Watch, and in late July, the government dissolved Mr. Sonko’s party.
Currently in jail, Mr. Sonko named Bassirou Diomaye Faye as his replacement to lead the movement. But Mr. Faye is in detention, too, on charges including incitement to insurrection, and it is unclear whether he will be able to contest the leadership.