After years of speculation, Senegalese President Macky Sall shocked the nation Monday night when he announced he would not seek a third term in office. The decision is a win for democracy in West Africa where countries have gravitated toward authoritarianism in recent years.
Speaking in a televised address from the presidential palace in Dakar, Sall said he knew his decision would come as a surprise.
“Senegal is bigger than me and it is full of leaders who are also capable of pushing the country towards development,” he said. “I have a code of honor and a sense of historical responsibility that commands me to preserve my dignity and my word.”
Since taking office in 2012, Sall has stymied press freedom, cracked down on peaceful protests and jailed political rivals.
Moumoudou Samb, a driver of Senegal’s clando cars, or informal taxis, said it was refreshing to see an African leader willingly step down from office.
“I’m impressed by his graceful exit, but it’s too late – too many people have needlessly died,” said Samb. “But at least he’s ending his reign on a high note.”
Sall’s main opponent, Ousmane Sonko, spent the last two years on trial on a rape accusation – charges his supporters say were fabricated to prevent him from running in the February 2024 election.
In March 2021, Sonko’s arrest ignited violence that led to the deaths of 14 people.
In early June Sonko was acquitted of the rape charge but was instead sentenced to two years in prison for “corrupting youth,” making him ineligible to run. The unrest that followed led to the deaths of 28 people, according to Amnesty International.
Protesters expressed anger not just over the ruling but over Sall’s repeated refusal to state whether he would run for a third term.
Senegalese presidents are entitled to two terms, however in 2016 Sall made a constitutional revision to term lengths that many feared he would use to justify a third run. During his candidacy, Sall vowed not to seek a third mandate but has recently been vague about whether his stance had changed.
“I applaud his decision to honor his commitment,” said Elene Tine, a member of the opposition and a former deputy with Senegal’s national assembly. “The president has set the bar very high to show the entire world that Senegal intends to remain an exemplar of democracy.”
Senegal had been widely considered as an outlier in West Africa, which has seen a decline in democracies and a rise in coups in recent years.
But Senegal’s positive reputation began to slip during Sall’s time in office.
“It's a relief. It's a bomb that's been deactivated,” said Alioune Tine, founder of the Dakar-based think tank AfrikaJom Center and the former Amnesty International director for west and central Africa. “I think the whole region was indeed waiting for Senegal to really light up the road to democracy in Africa.”
Though a sense of relief and calm has blanketed the country, citizens now await the fate of Sonko, who has been blockaded inside his home by government security forces since the June 1 verdict, awaiting arrest.