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Macky Sall Präsident Senegal
Image: picture alliance/augenklick/Minkoff

Senegal unstuck over constitutional reform?

Madelaine Meier / mc
March 23, 2016

Five years in office, no more. Having made this promise, Macky Sall was elected Senegalese president in 2012. But his recent referendum on constitutional reform was denounced by critics as a cop-out.


The Senegalese are used to wearisome presidents. Macky Sall's predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, severely tried the patience of the electorate when he extended the constitutional limit on presidential terms from five to seven years.

The amendment was made shortly before the end of Wade's second term in 2011. Wade also secured permission from the Constitutional Council to run for a third term, even though it was illegal. Many Senegalese felt betrayed and took to the streets in protest. The atmosphere ahead of the elections was tense, fear of civil war was in the air.

Enter Macky Sall with his promise to limit his term in office to five years. The Senegalese were delighted. Wade was defeated in the run-off and Sall was elected president. When rapper Cyrille Omar Toure, alias Thiat, now one of Sall's most vociferous critics, recalls that pledge, a cynical smile crosses his face. "60 percent voted for him just because he had promised to reduce his term in office. The whole world applauded," he said.

Senegalese referendum 20.3.2016 *** ©Aliou Mbaye/PANAPRESS/MAXPPP - 20/03/2016 ; Dakar ; Senegal
Senegal's interior ministry said turnout at Sunday's referendum was just over 40 percentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Mbaye

Clever tactician or loyal supporter of the constitution?

On Sunday (20.03.2016) the Senegalese were able to vote on several constitutional reforms, including whether presidential terms should be reduced or not. However, their vote would not affect Sall's present period in office.

The government campaigned for a vote in favor of limiting presidential terms and it secured a majority though not as large as it would have wished. The Interior Ministry said 63 percent had endorsed the reforms proposed by Sall who had been expecting 80 percent. Official results have yet to be published.

Thiat believes the referendum was a farce. He is a member of the movement Y'en a Marre which means "Enough is enough" and is disappointed that Macky Sall didn't reduce his presidential term immediately, rather than waiting for re-election. "If he had been determined to follow it through, he would have delegated the matter to parliament," Thiat said. "He said several times he wanted to shorten his mandate and then, four years later, it is no longer possible." Thiat believes that Sall "has betrayed the Senegalese people."

Sall insists his hands are tied. He submitted the matter to the Constitutional Council, a body of five members all of whom, incidentally, are nominated by the president. The Council refused his request for a shortening of the presidential term and suggested a referendum. Critics like Thiat view this as a lame excuse to stay in power for another seven years.

Rapper Thiat
Senegalese rapper Thiat beleives Macky Sall has lost the trust of the peopleImage: DW/D.Köpp

Noisy debate, low turnout

Andrea Kolb from Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation also suspects Sall of calculating in advance. Kolb had been following events in Senagal since 2011. "People really wanted Macky Sall to keep his promise and now they are frustrated and disappointed," she said.

The referendum polarized Senegalese society. There were violent clashes between opponents and supporters of Sall's proposed constitutional reforms shortly before polling day. Yet even though there was much heated debate ahead of the vote, polling stations were surprisingly empty on the day itself.

Voters arrived in dribs and drabs. There were no long queues and turnout was just over 40 percent. Kolb says one reason was that 200,000 voting cards were not distributed in time. When people realized that Sall would be staying in power for a full seven years, irrespective of how they voted, many just lost all interest in constitutional reform.

Both Y'en a Marre and the president's camp campaigned hard, going house-to-house to canvass votes. The Sall campaign was keen to emphasize its commitment to good governance. "The priority is to consolidate Senegalese democracy" said Seydou Gueye, spokesperson for the "Alliance for the Republic," which is Sall's party. "The reforms will strengthen the rule of law and good governance," he added.

Abdoulaye Wade Photo:Rebecca Blackwell/AP/dapd)
Abdoulaye Wade was beaten in a presidential run-off by Macky Sall in 2012Image: AP

The debate about shorter presidential terms eclipsed other reforms up for the vote in the referendum. There were proposals for modernizing Senegal's political parties, enshrining environmental protection in the constitution as a human right and strengthening civil liberties and the opposition. Yet despite positive sides to the referendum, "it still had a nasty aftertaste," said Kolb.

The next legislative elections will be held in Senegal in 2017. Presidential elections are due two years later and Macky Sall could run again. Kolb says changes may well be needed in the governing coalition "if it is to battle for support from voters." Thiat believes that the president has lost the confidence of the electorate irrevocably. "The upshot of this referendum is that Sall could even run for a third term," he said. That was what his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade did.

Mamadou Lamine Ba contributed to this report

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