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Senegal: Macky Sall’s reputation is dented, but the former president did a lot at home and abroad

A man in blue suit walk pass a line of soldiers
Macky Sall during a visit to the French Elysee presidential palace on 10 June 2022 in Paris. Antoine Gyori/Corbis via Getty Images

Macky Sall’s legacy as Senegal’s president since 2012 became more complex in his last year in office. The year was so filled with transgressions that they appeared to have tarnished his reputation indelibly.

For some months he gave the impression to his adversaries and critics that he had third-term ambitions – not uncommon in contemporary west African politics.

A public outcry followed his decision on 3 February 2024 to postpone the polls that had originally been scheduled for three weeks later. Then his deputies in the national assembly voted unanimously to postpone the elections and prolong Sall’s term in office until December.


Read more: Macky Sall throws Senegal's democratic credentials into doubt


On 6 March, the country’s Constitutional Council ruled that the delay was unconstitutional and that the elections would have to be held before 6 April before April 2 rather, when Sall’s presidential term expires.

In compliance, Sall slated Senegal’s election for 24 March. With that decision, the danger of an authoritarian drift in Senegal appears to have been averted.

The time has therefore come for a more reasoned evaluation of his eight years in office.

I’ve been an observer of Senegalese politics since the late 1990s, doing democracy building for the US Information Agency’s Africa Regional Bureau, teaching African politics to graduate students in Paris, and commenting in the media on developments in Senegalese politics.

Based on my experience, I would argue that Sall’s presidential terms have made some economic, domestic and international achievements worth remembering now, in these days of suspense and doubt.

In my view the legacy of Macky Sall has been saved. Or at least that is how it appears.


Read more: 2024 Senegal election crisis points to deeper issues with Macky Sall and his preferred successor


What he leaves behind

Among his presidential legacies are major infrastructure projects, including airports, a better rail system and industrial parks.

Senegal’s airports were in a deplorable condition when he came to office. The country had 20 airports, but only nine had paved runways. In their poor state, these airports did not attract the major international business flyers who could set up businesses and hire the country’s educated workforce or collaborate with its innovative entrepreneurs.

Blaise Diagne International Airport, named after the first black African elected to France’s parliament in 1914, opened in December 2017. The project, which was started in 2007 by his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, was completed by Sall.

Located near the capital, Dakar, with easy access via a modern freeway, it has boosted passenger mobility and freight transport. The national airline, Air Senegal, is based here. It reaches more than 20 destinations in 18 countries.

Sall also built the country’s first regional express train, the Train Express Regional, an airport rail link that connects Dakar with a major new industrial park (also built during Sall’s tenure) and the Blaise Diagne International Airport.

Sall also strengthened the regional airport hubs of the country. He spearheaded the reconstruction of five regional airports within Senegal.

The Diamniadio Industrial Park, 30km east of Dakar, financed by loans from Eximbank China, was completed in 2023. The park is a flagship industrial project of Sall’s industrialisation strategy for Senegal.

The new park is positioned at the heart of a network of special economic zones, including Diass, Bargny, Sendou and Ndayane.

Enterprises from multiple fields, including pharmaceuticals, electronic appliances and textiles, are setting up offices in the park, which is expected to manufacture high-quality products that meet local needs.

The airports, trains and industrial parks are expected by Sall’s supporters to make a real contribution to Senegal’s transformation from post-colonial peanut exporter to import-substitution manufacturing hub.

In my view, what Sall leaves behind is substantial, particularly when compared with the highly controversial African Renaissance Monument of his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade. The 171-foot-tall bronze statue located on top of a hill towering over Dakar, built by a North Korean firm, has contributed little or no value to the country’s economy.

Sall has also made some contributions to Senegal’s reputation abroad, positioning himself as a respected and influential player on the international stage. As president of the regional economic body Ecowas in 2015-2016, he made improving economic integration the focus of his term.

He also worked to build closer relations with other international organisations, including the G7, G20 and the African Union. While chairman of the AU from 2022 to 2023 he lobbied for inclusion of the African Union in the G20, complaining that South Africa was the continent’s only member of any economic forum of international importance.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly, he championed the cause of the continent. There was no excuse, he said, for failing to ensure consistent African representation in the world’s key decision-making bodies.

He emphasised the importance of increased funding from developed countries for climate adaptation initiatives in developing countries, particularly those in Africa.

Sall’s management of the COVID crisis, which reached Senegal in March 2020, was his first major test of leadership. Despite its limited resources, Senegal outperformed many wealthier countries in its COVID pandemic response, thanks to Sall’s leadership.


Read more: Senegal's internet shutdowns are another sign of a democracy in peril


Contribution to Senegal’s democratic tradition

His important legacy will be his participation in the democratic tradition of Senegal.

Firstly, he took on Abdoulaye Wade’s dynastic ambitions to name his son Karim Wade as the heir apparent. Sall then went on to respect his two-term limit on the presidency. This means he will soon hand power over to a successor, maintaining a unique and uninterrupted tradition of power transition in one of west Africa’s most stable democracies.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. In recent years, the temptation of power seemed to have overwhelmed Sall. He started giving out troubling signs of his desire to remain in office beyond his constitutional mandate.

Then, after testing the waters and finding public opinion was strongly opposed to his violating the limits that he himself had imposed while in the opposition to his predecessor, he declined to present himself for elections. Instead, he endorsed the candidacy of his then-prime minister Amadou Ba.

But this was followed by a series of arrests of his most vocal opponents, in particular the popular social media celebrity Ousmane Sonko.

More than 350 protestors were arrested during demonstrations in March 2021 and June 2023. At least 23 died.

Then came his last-minute presidential decree postponing the election earlier scheduled for 25 February.

This was followed by democracy protests and by violent police repression of urban protests, which resulted in civilian deaths.

After protests, Sall made another extraordinary about-turn. He announced that he would respect the Constitutional Court decision, which denied him the right to prolong his presidential mandate and required that elections be held before 6 April.

In doing so he preserved the system of checks and balances in Senegal. In addition, his decision to release Sonko and his other opponents from prison and grant them amnesty has preserved the space for democratic opposition and civil liberties.

Sall’s legacy as a voice of Africa may offer him a lateral promotion from the presidency of Senegal to the seat of some international organisation.

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