Does Senegal Give Hope to Third Parties In Africa?

Abdulai Mansaray, author

Senegal has just voted for Bassirou Diomaye Faye, 44 as one of Africa’s youngest Presidents. This is coming at a time when countries like America are grappling with the choice between two Octogenarians to lead them. Africa has the highest number of very old presidents, including Paul Biya, 90(Cameroon), Alassane Ouattara,81(Cote D’Ivoire), Teodoro N. Mbasogo, 81(Equatorial Guinea), Emmerson D Mnangagwa, 80(Zimbabwe) and Joseph Boakai, 79 (Liberia). This puts things in stark contrasts when you know that Bassirou D Faye was born in 1980, the year Zimbabwe got independence. It becomes more ridiculous to imagine Bassirou sharing political platforms with people like Emmerson Mnangagwa during African Union summits.

What does Bassirou’s victory mean for Senegal and Africa?

Bassirou’s victory could be seen as a classic reflection of the increasing lack of democracy that is sweeping across the world. Political upheavals, fuelled by anger at political elites show demonstrable economic dissatisfaction and anxiety about social changes. Bassirou’s victory in Senegal portrays a general disenchantment and disillusionment with the political establishments and their elites. Other examples of such anger has been shown in many other countries where political unknowns, with no political experience under their belt have triumphed. Irrespective of their lack of proven political acumen, voters have shown that they are ready to take a leap in the dark and thrust their trusts in these unknowns. This is because, many people are concluding that many electoral systems across the world are mere public relations extravaganzas.

In the USA, Donald Trump won the 2016 elections, not because he had much to offer. His victory was another example of voters sticking two fingers to the established order. Despite her three decades in the political arena, Hillary Clinton lost to Trump because she was seen among other reasons, as a symbol of the tired old established elite. In Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, we saw a renaissance -like wave from the past, albeit through less desirable means of the uniform.  It might be too early to summarily conclude that Africa is venturing onto a path to break with the past. Bassirou reiterated this notion during one of his victory speeches to journalists, “by electing me, the Senegalese people have chosen to break with the past”. It is not surprising therefore, that France was directly in his sights during his speech.

It is intriguing to see how Bassirou became Senegal’s President by “default”. Ousmane Sonko was the better-known opposition leader with whom he teamed up against Macky Sall’s party. He has no experience as a politician or statesman. Both were tax collectors, and both were jailed.  Macky Sall had postponed the elections till the end of the year. This prompted deadly protests that resulted in loss of lives and damage to property. Macky later relented amidst widespread condemnation and the intervention of the courts. With just over one week to the elections, both Sonko and Bassirou were released from jail. Macky might have banked on the hope that a week was too short for the opposition to make any meaningful campaign gains. Not only did Macky hopelessly fail to factor in the people’s desire for change, but he also forgot that a week in politics is a long time. With Sonko banned, it was left to Bassirou to carry the mantle of the opposition. With eleven months jail time under his belt, Bassirou’s transformation from prison to president is reminiscent of the late Nelson Mandela. The irony of Bassirou’s ascendancy to power is not lost on some people. With Sonko as the main opposition candidate who was barred from political participation and jailed with Bassirou, it sounds inexplicable that the unknown has become the President, thanks to Macky Sall’s error of judgement, among other factors. Does that sound like “wata way na for you……?

Senegal’s President-elect Bassirou Diomaye Faye meets outgoing President Macky Sall at the presidential palace in Dakar, Senegal, March 28, 2024. REUTERS/Abdou Karim Ndoye

Even though some doubt his suitability, you would think that Bassirou’s experience as a former tax collector and time in the treasury should provide him with enough ammunition to tackle any African country’s perennial canker worm, CORRUPTION.  He has promised to govern with humility and transparency and has made tackling youth unemployment a signature focus. Many would hope that his political party, PASTEF (African patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity) which encapsulates a broader agenda, would do exactly as it says on the tin.

There is no doubt that some miscreants would try to sow some Caesar-Brutus scenario between Sonko and Bassirou. However, and as if in response to such thinking, Sonko recently said “Bassirou is me”, while a PASTEF colleague, Moustapha Sarre described the duo as “two sides of the same coin”. Time will tell. A cursory dig into Bassirou’s past shows that the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop, whose work is accorded as one of the precursors to Afrocentrism is one of his most revered heroes. He was one of the left-wing cheerleaders of Pan-Africanism.  It is not surprising that his recent political posturing is branded in the pan-Africanist ethos.

So, what does Bassirou’s victory say about political third parties?

Firstly, it breaks the myth that third parties can’t survive to rule. Third parties are sometimes likened to bees; once they have stung, they die. It is undeniable that most two-party systems are rigged to make sure that together, they control the electoral process that does not allow an independent or third party to infringe on their exclusive franchise to rule. In two-party systems, third parties almost never win a national election. People may like what third party candidates say but usually won’t vote for someone who doesn’t have a chance. This is what makes a third party futile, in a political system that has been reduced to musical chairs for the two-party political process. However, it sounds like Senegal has bucked the trend and apparently destroyed that myth. Should that give hope to other third or independent political parties elsewhere?

Is there any hope for third parties in Africa?

Since the independence of African nations and right across the world, democracy has largely been defined, ordained, and practised along the framework of two-party systems. With the pungent smell of disillusionment, disgruntlement and disenfranchisement wafting across political nostrils, the election of Bassirou has shown that democracies can self-correct and come out stronger and more resilient. Senegal had independence in 1960 and has had five “democratically elected” presidents; Leopold Sedar Senghor (1960-1980), Abdou Diouf (1981-2000), Abdulaye Wade (2000-2012) Macky Sall (2012-2024) and Bassirou Faye (2024- —). Senegal is one of the few African countries that has never experienced a coup d’etat or harsh authoritarian government. Senegal has been one of the most stable democracies in West Africa and Africa in general. Is it surprising that when democracy seems to on the downward spiral across the world, Senegal bucked the trend to show that democracy can self -correct, and without the barrel of a gun, interregnum a civil war or rebel war?  

Sierra Leone had its independence in 1961. How many Presidents or Heads of State have ruled in Sierra Leone? How many successful coup d’etats, failed coup d’etats, and stage-managed coup d’etats have we had? How many military/junta leaders have we had as Heads of State? How many interim governments have we had? How many authoritarian or one-party governments have we had? How many state of emergency political hiatus have we had? How long is a piece of string? If we are to compare Sierra Leone and Senegal along the political spectrum, the chasm cannot be more glaring.

Sierra Leone was colonised by the British and Senegal by France. Both were victims of colonial rule based on policies of divide and rule and assimilation respectively. Sierra Leone had independence a year after Senegal. Interestingly, both practised constitutional democracy., so to speak.  At this point, a look at Senegal’s inauguration oath might give us an inkling into why things are the way they are. The Senegalese Constitution provides the following oath for the president which must be taken before they enter office:

 “I swear, before God and the people of Senegal, to faithfully execute the office of president of the Republic of Senegal, to keep the provisions of the Constitution and laws and to ensure their observance, to devote all my strength to defending constitutional institutions, to defend Senegal’s territorial integrity and its independence, and [I swear] to spare no effort to realize the unity of Africa”. That is Senegal’s political system encapsulated in a time-honoured pledge, that has served its people throughout its post-independence history. In “I swear to spear no effort to realize the unity of Africa”, it’s easy to see the fingerprints of Cheikh Anta Diop and to some extent Leopold Senghor all over the last sentence of the presidential oath.

With the myth of third-party futility broken, where is Yumkella when you need one?

Like any other country, Sierra Leone has had its fair share of third political parties. With its independence looming, the APC was borne out of a political wedlock and as a scion of the SLPP. According to ECSL (2018), Sierra Leone has about 17 fully registered political parties, including the APC & SLPP, NGC, C4C, ADP, NDP, etc. Senegal has 75 registered political parties. It is safe to say that the NGC and C4C which were founded in 2017-2018, made noticeable strides in their attempt to break the strangle hold of the APC and SLPP in our political DNA. This was especially so in the 2018 general elections. The PASTEF party in Senegal was founded by Ousmane Sonko in 2014. While Yumkella (NGC) gave EBK and the APC sleepless nights, Sam Sumana (C4C) was presumed a king maker briefly, when he took over Kono District, the “Ohio” of Sierra Leone politics with C4C.

The 2018 elections might have given some Sierra Leoneans one of the clearest flickers of hope, that a third-party could gate crash the strangle hold by APC and SLPP. While Sam Sumana was summarily sacked from his position as the elected VP, Yumkella was politically asphyxiated and left with little political room to breathe in the SLPP oxygen tank.  Sadly, like most third parties, both NGC and C4C have fizzled out. Both Yumkella and Sam Sumana have reportedly since returned to their parent parties respectively. Winston Churchill once said that “some men change their party for the sake of their principles: others their principles for the sake of their party”. 

Thanks to the “comot dae, go dae” politics, it shows that if a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, it is a mere conspiracy to seize power and not a political party. If someone is committed enough to a particular vision of politics, they would be relatively immune to the charms of its competitors.  Others see the act of switching parties as “entryism”. Both Yumkella and Sam Sumana formed their respective NGC and C4C in response to their treatment by their parent parties. However, and like the prodigal sons, they have quietly, and some will say “wisely” returned to base.  Well, you don’t have to be the leader of a political party to serve your country faithfully.

Does Bassirou give hope to other third parties?

With the APC and SLPP as the two main participants in our political musical chairs competition, it is plausible to assume that a significant chunk of the populace remain unimpressed with the situation. This has been the case for a long time, irrespective of which party is ruling or who’s the tenant at State House. The situation has now become a stalemate. Nevertheless, we cannot hide from the fact that despite the bad press, the hard times, the political gymnastics, both parties have done some good things for the country. However, there is a clear dissatisfaction from voters from both sides of the aisle. This is so bad, that one of the only ways opposing supporters compare their political parties is by telling us how bad the party opposite is.

It would be nice to hear opposing factions compare the developmental projects, the improvements made in areas such as education, health, employment, infrastructure etc by their respective leaders. Sadly, the chasm between these two parties is so wide, that we have lost the ability to see the good in others. The “success” of our political parties are now calibrated along the lines of negativity. It has now become like a contest about which is the lesser of two evils. Even when people criticise one party, the other justifies it by comparing the other party with a similar accusation. When an APC member says that the SLPP is tribalistic, the SLPP might remind you of EKUTAY. If you say that times are hard under Bio, someone will remind you that EBK left the country in austerity. For every criticism about one party, you can bet your last kobo that the other person will find an equivalent in the party opposite. Not only does that make things sound justifiable, but they also tend to add a flavour of normalcy to it. Our ability to see the good in others is slowly but surely being lost.

If people seem to be disillusioned by both parties, does that mean that Sierra Leone can also have a third party? I mean a proper third party. President Bio is fulfilling his second and final term. It is obvious that his focus will be on leaving a memorable legacy. The survival of such a legacy could depend heavily on continuity. Therefore, a viable and reliable successor will be high on President Bio’s agenda. It might sound too early to talk about the political gymnastics that lie ahead. In the red corner, the APC might still be licking its wounds from reality. There is no doubt that some of its supporters would be warming up to the idea of “na we turn now”, for 2028. The APC will need a winning formula and the SLPP might need to keep the tent intact when they choose President Bio’s successor. One thing is certain though, both parties are facing a period of monumental changes to mark two new but different political daybreaks, that would determine their future chances to lead the country. Both parties will offend chunks of their respective parties when they chose their leaders. Does that give room for some last-minute Bassirou……. Salone style?

Don’t forget to turn off the lights when you leave the room.


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