Senegal’s President Macky Sall has declared he will not run for a third term in next year’s election, ending years of uncertainty over his political future that helped fuel deadly opposition protests last month.
In a speech carried live on his official Facebook page, Sall maintained on Monday that Senegal’s constitution would have allowed his candidacy despite having already been elected to a second term in 2019.
“There has been much speculation and commentary on my eventual candidature on this election,” Sall said in his speech. “The 2019 term was my second and last term.”
“My decision, carefully considered… is not to run as a candidate in the upcoming election on February 25, 2024… even though the constitution grants me the right,” he said.
Sall’s announcement will likely quell fears of a democratic backslide in Senegal.
Rumours that the 61-year-old leader would try to extend his stay in power have led to bouts of unrest since 2021 in which dozens have been killed, shaking Senegal’s reputation for calm in a restive region.
Sall was first elected in 2012 for a seven-year term after prevailing against then-President Abdoulaye Wade, whose decision to seek a controversial third term prompted violent street demonstrations.
Wade ultimately conceded defeat after a run-off between him and Sall, his former protege.
Sall was elected again in 2019 for a five-year term, following a constitutional revision that set a two-term presidential limit. The president’s supporters have called for him to run again, arguing that his first term under the prior constitution should not count.
Sall has not designated a political successor and in recent months, has been coy about another term.
Some worried he would follow other regional leaders, including in Ivory Coast and Togo, who used changes to the constitution as an excuse to reset their mandate and extend their hold on power.
On the eve of Sall’s nationwide address, his fiercest critic, Ousmane Sonko, urged the public to “come out en masse” and oppose him.
Sonko, who is popular with Senegal’s disaffected youth, has painted Sall as a corrupt, would-be dictator. “It’s incumbent on all the Senegalese people to stand up, to face him,” Sonko said on Sunday.
The opposition leader was sentenced on June 1 to two years in jail for “corrupting” a young beauty-salon worker, sparking protests that led to 16 deaths according to the government, 24 according to Amnesty International and 30 according to Sonko’s party.
The conviction means he is not eligible to stand in 2024.
Sonko says the case was staged to prevent him from running, a charge authorities deny. He has been blocked in by the authorities at his home since May 28.
Sall, in his speech on Monday, asked the government to do everything possible to organise a transparent election in February.
“Senegal is more than me, and is full of capable leaders for the country’s development,” the incumbent said, adding that he had sought to prioritise his country’s progress, “in particular at a time of social-economic difficulties and uncertainties”.
Regional leaders, including the presidents of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, Guinea Bissau’s Umaro Sissoco Embalo and the African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, praised Sall’s decision, with Bazoum saying it will ease tensions.
Aminata Toure, a former prime minister of Senegal, said it was the pro-democracy protests that forced the president to drop his reelection bid.
“He [Sall] was the one who suggested through referendum to have a specific item in the constitution that nobody could run more than two consecutive terms, which is his case,” she told Al Jazeera.
“So he is just applying the constitution. It’s not like he’s making a heroic move. He should have said that the minute he got reelected in 2019. This would have saved the country all the turmoil and the trouble we went through.”
She added, “I’d like to congratulate all the democrats and the young people who stood to defend Senegalese democracy. Without that, President Macky Sall would have run… It’s also a lesson for other African countries. People need to stand when democracy is at threat.”
Supporters at Sall’s party headquarters in an upscale neighbourhood in the capital, Dakar, were divided. Some applauded, while others cried.
“That’s his choice and he is our leader. We accept his decision and we will support whoever he designates,” said a female supporter in tears.
Other residents of Dakar said it was time for change.
“I don’t want him [Sall] to stand again. We’ve already given him 12 years – it’s time for him to go and let somebody else take over,” said Abdou Diagne, a 38-year-old car washer.
“If he says otherwise, it’s not a given that people will stand by with their arms folded,” he said. “Either way, we are praying for peace.”