Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Special Update: Senegal Election Crisis Destabilizes Another Western Partner

 Author: Liam Karr

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Data Cutoff: February 7, 2024, at 10 a.m.

Key Takeaway: The ongoing election crisis in Senegal is destabilizing a crucial democratic US ally in turbulent West Africa, which threatens to further weaken America’s position in the region. Disputed elections and a continued lack of economic prospects for Senegalese youth would likely erode democratic legitimacy in Senegal and increase political instability in the coming years. Russia has capitalized on the rise of authoritarian regimes emerging from democratic erosion and instability in other West African countries to gain a foothold in the region. Al Qaeda–affiliated militants in western Mali could also take advantage of instability to expand into Senegal, which would further destabilize the country and create more avenues for security cooperation with Russia. Senegal’s highly professional military is unlikely to launch a coup to take advantage of the unrest, but the spate of coups across Africa since 2020 underscores the risk of such an event.

The election crisis in Senegal is destabilizing a crucial democratic ally in West Africa and risks further weakening America’s position in the region. State election authorities barred two leading opposition candidates from participating in the election on January 21, and the government postponed elections scheduled for February 25 until December 15.[1] President Macky Sall claimed that the delay will enable the government to address concerns about the opposition candidates.[2] However, political analysts suspect the president feared an opposition victory as his designated successor has been lagging in polls and his second choice is one of the barred candidates.[3] The national assembly also approved a measure that permits Sall to stay in office after his constitutionally mandated term expires on April 2 until his successor takes office.[4]

The national assembly also approved the election postponement and term extension after gendarmes forcibly removed opposition MPs from the assembly.[5] These actions prompted widespread protests and the arrests of several demonstrators, including a presidential candidate who is running in the postponed elections.[6] The government has also cut television channel signals and internet reception to suppress protest coordination.[7] The US and the regional West African political bloc directly condemned the delay, while the EU and African Union called for elections to be held as soon as possible.[8]

Senegal is a key US partner in West Africa. Senegal is one of Africa’s most stable democracies, and this is the first time it has delayed elections since gaining independence in 1960.[9] Senegal also has one of Africa’s most professionalized and apolitical militaries. These characteristics have led the United States to develop close military and state ties with the country. US Africa Command regularly conducts joint training operations with Senegalese forces, and the United States invests significantly in democratic programs to strengthen Senegal’s democracy.[10]

The election postponement is the latest flash point in a turbulent period for Senegal’s democracy during the second half of President Sall’s second term. The government convicted Sall’s main opposition rival, Ousmane Sonko, on defamation and “corrupting youth” charges in June 2023, which barred him from the upcoming elections.[11] Sonko’s supporters and human rights watchdogs called the charges politically motivated.[12] The government then forcibly dissolved Sonko’s opposition party in July 2023.[13] Human rights watchdogs have also accused Sall of repressing protests and media, with multiple mass arrests of protestors and internet shutdowns.[14] Sall was allegedly considering running for an unconstitutional third term until he formally announced that he would not do so in July 2023, after protests over fears that he aimed to prolong his stay in office turned violent.[15]

Senegal’s economy is also facing acute challenges amid this political upheaval. The economy has steadily grown under Sall through the oil and gas industry, but Senegal’s burgeoning youth population has dim prospects.[16] Youth unemployment is a long-running and growing concern. The government has backed various measures to address high youth unemployment since 2006.[17] Youth unemployment is currently at 20 percent despite these efforts, and more than 100,000 young people enter the workforce each year as roughly half of the population is under age 18.[18] Climate change is also contributing to growing coastal flooding and inland droughts, threatening a national economy where 75 percent of people earn their living from fishing and the land.[19]

Disputed elections and a continued lack of economic prospects for Senegalese youth in the coming years would likely further erode faith in democracy in Senegal as it has across West Africa, leading to increased political instability. Mali’s initial 2020 coup followed five months of nonviolent protests that called for the unpopular French-backed president to resign due to corruption and increasing insecurity.[20] The first of Burkina Faso’s two coups in 2022 also garnered popular support and occurred after growing protests over rising insecurity.[21] Polls showed steep declines in support for democracy in Burkina Faso and Mali before the coups and heightened pro-military sentiment after the countries installed generally popular military juntas.[22]

Senegal has much stronger democratic institutions and does not face these same security challenges, but Senegalese citizens are growing increasingly frustrated with the country’s democracy. The proportion of Senegalese citizens who say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in the country has decreased from 64 percent in 2014 to 48 percent in 2022, despite 84 percent of respondents saying they prefer democracy over any other system.[23] This trend is paralleled by a sharp increase in the number of citizens who believe the president ignores the country’s laws and courts jumping from 19 percent in 2017 to 57 percent in 2022.[24] Most Senegalese citizens of all ages have identified the economy as their most important issue and said the government is not doing enough to provide jobs.[25] The erosion of democratic legitimacy in Burkina Faso, Mali, and to a lesser extent, Senegal, highlights the importance of the government providing democratic dividends—jobs, security, accountability, justice, public services, and other deliverables that constitute effective governance—that tangibly improve the lives of its citizens to garner support for democratic institutions.

Russia has capitalized on the rise of authoritarian regimes that emerged from democratic erosion and growing instability in other countries in West Africa to gain a foothold in the region. Populist authoritarian movements in West Africa overthrew unpopular Western-backed democratic leaders, strengthening the perception that rejecting colonialism and France means rejecting democracy, increasing the correlation between the fate of democracy and the West’s trajectory in the region.[26] Russia has played on this link by conducting information operations in former French colonies to promote anti-French and pro-Russian views since at least 2014.[27]

The junta leaders in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have all tapped into widespread anti-French and broadly anti-Western sentiment to boost their popular support through rhetoric and policies that cut most ties with France and the West in favor of increased cooperation with Russia as an alternative partner.[28] The West and Western-supported African institutions were quick to levy sanctions and cut military aid to countries that undergo unconstitutional changes of power, further solidifying this link and leading authoritarian regimes to seek alternative partners.[29]

Anti-French sentiment is present in Senegal. More than half of Senegalese civilians in 2021 believed that French influence on the country was negative, whereas only 17–20 percent felt similarly about Chinese, Russian, or US influence.[30] Opposition leader Sonko also gained popularity on a platform of anti-French economic policies and is a noted advocate of the Malian junta leader.[31] Sonko’s arrest and disqualification will entrench the views of his supporters and undermine their faith in democracy, strengthening anti-French and authoritarian currents in Senegal.

Figure 1. Recent Cooperation Between Russia and the Alliance of Sahel States


Source: Liam Karr.

Al Qaeda–affiliated militants in western Mali could capitalize on prolonged instability in Senegal to establish an operational foothold in eastern Senegal. Al Qaeda’s Sahelian affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) has capitalized on overstretched and distracted security forces following the coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to strengthen and expand.[32] JNIM has strengthened in western Mali since 2020 and tripled the number of attacks in Mali’s Kayes region—which comprises 260 miles of Senegal’s eastern border—in 2023, compared to previous years.[33]

There are indicators that JNIM has the capability and intent to operate in eastern Senegal. JNIM militants have already established economic links across the border, as they regularly rustle cattle given to contacts that sell it on the Senegalese side of the border.[34] Senegalese civilians have also traveled east to join the Salafi-jihadi groups since the insurgency began in 2012, which further raises the risk of repatriation efforts to establish homegrown Senegalese cells.[35] Senegalese authorities dismantled a JNIM support cell on the Senegalese side of the border in 2021, indicating a desire to at least establish a rear support base in Senegal.[36]

Figure 2. JNIM Increases Attacks in Western Mali’s Kayes Region


Source: Liam Karr.

JNIM expansion into Senegal would present opportunities for Russia to grow security ties with Senegal as it has with other West African states. Senegal does not face the same security challenges as the central Sahelian countries, which currently limits the potential for Russian engagement. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger are the epicenter of the regional Salafi-jihadi insurgency, and their engagement with Russia has focused on replacing Western military support.[37] This led to defense agreements and the deployment of Kremlin-funded Wagner Group mercenaries in Mali in 2021, Kremlin-controlled Africa Corps mercenaries in Burkina Faso in 2024, and ongoing discussions to deploy Russian mercenaries in Niger.[38]

Senegal’s highly professional armed forces are unlikely to launch a coup to take advantage of the unrest, but the spate of coups across West Africa since 2020 underscores this risk. Senegal has established a professional and apolitical military culture since gaining independence in 1960.[39] The army has remained out of the current political dispute and issued a public statement in March 2023 demanding that politicians and civil society keep the armed forces out of political debates.[40] Senegal also does not have a presidential guard or special forces units.[41] These types of elite units were key supporters or leaders of coups in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Guinea, and Niger, where they sought to safeguard their personal economic and political interests.[42] Gendarmes guard important institutions, and the gendarmerie chief rotates these positions every two to three years to ensure that neither the president nor individual gendarmes can abuse postings.[43]

Other contested elections and unpopular nominally democratic leaders on the continent have spurred coups since 2020, however. The Gabonese military deposed the country’s longtime leader, who won a dubious election in 2023.[44] The Burkinabe and Malian coups overthrew unpopular democratic leaders despite their legitimate elections. Western-trained military personnel also participated in the coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger, indicating that Western training does not make a military invulnerable to coups.[45] During an interview discussing Senegal’s strong institutions, the former chief of staff of Senegal’s armed forces noted that soldiers “must believe that their leaders were elected in a transparent and political fashion” to accept democratic control of political leaders, indicating Senegalese military personnel risk becoming more politicized if other democratic institutions erode.[46]

Figure 3. Coups Spread Across an African “Coup Belt”


Source: Liam Karr.





































[36] https://www.tdg dot ch/une-cellule-liee-a-al-qaida-demantelee-au-senegal-772551422104




[40] https://www.pressafrik dot com/L-Armee-dement-YAW-et-demande-aux-politiques-de-tenir-les-militaires-hors-de-leurs-debats_a255415.html