Senegal police, protesters clash after election postponed

An opposition supporter reacts in front of a burning barricade during demonstrations called by the opposition parties in Dakar on Feb 4, 2024. [AFP]

Opposition party supporters and police clashed in the Senegalese capital Dakar on Sunday after President Macky Sall announced the indefinite postponement of a presidential election set for February 25, sparking a wave of international concern.

Just a day before official campaigning was due to begin, Sall plunged the nation into the unknown, saying he intervened because of a dispute between the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court over the rejection of candidates.

Lawmakers are investigating two Constitutional Council judges whose integrity in the election process has been questioned.

"I will begin an open national dialogue to bring together the conditions for a free, transparent and inclusive election," Sall said, without providing a new date.

Heeding the call of some opposition candidates, hundreds of men and women of all ages, waving Senegalese flags or wearing the jersey of the national football team, converged in the early afternoon at a roundabout on one of the capital's main roads.

Police responded with tear gas and then pursued the fleeing protesters through adjoining streets, while some demonstrators responded by throwing rocks.

Under Senegal's election code, at least 80 days must pass between publication of the decree setting the date and the election, so the earliest a vote could now be held is late April.

Presidential candidates said they would launch their campaigns on Sunday in defiance of the official postponement.

The RFM opposition party said it "systematically" rejects the postponement.

"We will see all Senegalese people this Sunday for a march," said party spokesperson Cheikh Tidiane Youm.

Habib Sy, one of the 20 candidates, said opposition parties had met and agreed to launch their election campaigns together.

Another opposition figure, former mayor of Dakar Khalifa Sall, called for pro-democratic forces to unite.

"All of Senegal must stand up," he told journalists.

Sall, who is not related to the president, denounced "a constitutional coup" by a leader who "dreams of eternity".

'High treason'

The United States, the European Union and former colonial master France led appeals for the vote to be rescheduled at the earliest date.

The EU called for a prompt, transparent, inclusive and credible election, with spokesperson Nabila Massrali noting the delay "opens a period of uncertainty".

In Paris, the foreign ministry urged authorities to "end the uncertainty... so the vote can be held as soon as possible".

The US State Department also called on Senegal to set a date for a "timely, free and fair election" in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

The West African bloc ECOWAS expressed "concern" and called for dialogue, in a post on X.

Senegal has traditionally been seen as a rare example of democratic stability in West Africa, which has been hit by a series of coups in recent years including in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

It was the first time a Senegalese presidential election has been postponed.