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Diomaye Faye: The life and wives of Africa's youngest president

Africa
 Bassirou Diomaye Faye (centre) and his wives Marie Khone Faye (left) and Absa Faye pose after his swearing-in as Senegal's president in Dakar on April 2, 2024. [AFP]

The navy-blue boubou adorned with a smattering of tiny white sparkles running across the chest, or the silverish one with a dash of miniscule greyed triangles intricately patterned out in front, are becoming the trademark garments for Senegal’s new president Bassirou Diomaye Diakhar Faye.

But on his inauguration, the 44-year-old posed in his immaculate blue suit embroidered with a green sash and ceremonial chains of office, a slumped Senegal’s flag in the corner behind him, his two wives flanking the political-greenhorn-overnight-turned-president.

Days before, in the small village of Ndiaganiao where he grew up, locals kept vigil on the night the electoral body was set to announce the presidential election results, awaiting the outcome of a duel that had 19 candidates. It was not obvious that one of them would outrightly garner the over 50 per cent required for a first-round win, and if it was, then the newbie Faye was quite easily not the favourite.

Yet boosted by the support of his close friend Ousmane Sonko, whose disqualification from the contest initially propelled Faye to contention, and fueled by the backing of other contestants who subtly withdrew their bids, Faye cruised to victory, becoming Senegal’s fifth president.

At 44, he is also the country’s youngest president in history.

Unique traits

The new president brings with him a raft of unique traits, making for interesting scrutiny, and giving plenty of fodder to political pundits.

He has never contested before for any elective position. He was in prison just days before he galloped to this victory. He is said to have been greatly opposed to political discourse in his school days, and the actual moment his transformation occurred cannot be pointed out. And he ushers in two first ladies into the state house, which is unprecedented in the country.

Born on March 25, 1980, to a farming family in central-western Senegal, Faye grew up “studious, loyal, curious and sometimes stubborn,” according to The New York Times, “rooted in Senegalese traditions and his Islamic faith, with a deep understanding of the predicament facing his country’s legion of frustrated youth.” 

His family talks about him with glowing admiration, waxing lyrical about a man whose uptick in political fortunes has been phenomenal, tremendous even.

“Bassirou grew up in an environment where people fight for other people’s rights,” Diomaye Faye, his uncle, says of his nephew, according to the New York Times. Faye’s father Samba Ndiagne Faye, 92, describes his son as “young in years, but not in his intelligence and behaviour.”

Deeply rooted in social values and committed to his peers’ well-being, Faye has shown a great ability to forge friendships and thrive in partnerships, the very thing that is responsible for his current star status. 

It was his defence of his persecuted ally Ousmane Sonko, a political firebrand with great charisma, that saw Faye thrown in jail. And it was this loyalty that was rewarded by Sonko, suddenly making Faye a household name overnight where the electorate had never heard his name. 

Not his closest allies or nemeses saw this coming.

Gaggle of children

Faye was raised in Ndiaganiao, an unspectacular parched village in the west of the country. He “grew up in a house occupied by more than 10 adults and a gaggle of children he ran around with, according to his uncle,” The New York Times writes. He was an avid reader, it says. 

 Bassirou Diomaye Faye speaks after being sworn in as Senegal's president on April 2, 2024. [AFP]

He attended Marie Médiatrice Catholic School in the locality and later joined Lycée Demba Diop in Mbour. From here he graduated in 2000, then proceeded to obtain a master’s degree in law from the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar.

Faye then attended the National School of Administration of Senegal, which he joined in 2004. The school trains Senegal’s top civil servants. There, he trained to be a tax inspector. This is the profession that those who knew him associated him with until his meteoric rise in politics.

Fifteen years ago, at around the same time he started practising as a tax inspector, Faye married Marie Khone, now 34. The two grew up in the same village. Local media accounts claim that Khone is a staunch advocate for women’s rights, and that she has championed initiatives to boost education and healthcare accessibility in Senegal.

They have four children, three sons and a daughter. As a show of loyalty to a long-term friend, Faye named one of his sons Ousmane, after Sonko.

Later in his marriage, Faye met Absa, who was studying at Ecole Supérieure Polytechnique (ESP) in Dakar. He was her teacher and they became friends, going on to marry a year ago. Naysayers are incensed about the idea of a polygamous president, a spectacle for many outside the West African country.  

But Faye is Muslim and a few pundits back his move, which is not controversial among adherents. In Senegal, polygamy is widespread, rooted in both tradition and religion, with over 97 per cent of the country Muslim.

According to France24, sociologist Djiby Diakhate says this situation is “the ultimate recognition of the tradition of polygamy at the top of the state, with a situation that will reflect Senegalese reality.” He also says that while many men remain happy with the practice, women tend to remain “mistrustful”.

Media house Inquirer cites sociologist Fatou Sow Sarr saying on X, formerly Twitter, that “polygamy, monogamy, polyandry are matrimonial models determined by the history of every nation”. An unapologetic Faye held hands of his two wives, Marie Khone and Absa, who is 31, during his inauguration, parading them in front of cheering crowds as he promised change in a Senegal baying for it. 

Widely labelled a leftwing pan-Africanist, Faye cuts the figure of a composed, focused man, of calm demeanour and mild manners, unlike his firebrand friend Sonko, whom Faye suddenly appointed prime minister post-inauguration. 

He scaled the political ladder rather fast, and almost by chance, but was strongly backed by Sonko, with whom he seems ready to forge a formidable force as a reformist political duo. 

In July 2023, Sonko was charged with insurrection and consequently barred from running in the election. For many, he was until then the likeliest successor to President Macky Sall. His people were suddenly in limbo, tasked with formulating a plan that would defeat the ruling party’s preferred successor, Amadou Ba.

Faye, for defending his ally Sonko, was arrested in April 2023. He was charged with contempt of court and defamation of court officials. Sonko would be sent behind bars soon after. However, unlike Sonko, Faye was not barred from contesting.

This would be a test of Sonko’s loyalty, belief in a relatively inexperienced friend, and commitment to the course.

“He is competent and has attended the most prestigious school in Senegal,” Sonko said when, with the elections drawing near, he endorsed little-known Faye to run for the presidency.

The endorsement took many commentators by surprise. Oftentimes, such moves, made with enthusiasm, backfire on politicians, when the empowered suddenly decide to discard their endorsers and reach for glory alone.

Faye and Sonko, however, seem to have had a close, genuine friendship, forged through similar interests. The two met on duty; Sonko is also a tax inspector and had founded, and was leading, a trade union, the Autonomous Union of Tax and Domain Agents. Faye joined this union and their fate was sealed.

 President William Bassirou Diomaye Faye (centre) and his wives Marie Khone Faye and Absa Faye. [Courtesy]

When Sonko, in 2014, decided to found a political party, African Patriots of Senegal for Labor, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) Faye joined. He steadily climbed up the ranks to the executive leadership level. It was this party that Sonko used, in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election, as a vehicle to run for the presidency. He placed third as incumbent Sall was reelected.

PASTEF was dissolved on July 31, 2023, by the government, which cited the party’s alleged orchestration and propagation of violent protests, most notably in 2021.

As such, even as the leadership of the crushed party sought to present candidates for the 2024 elections, they knew the only way they could present their favoured competitor was on an independent ticket.

In his campaign trail, where the name Sonko rang among enthusiastic voters, little-known Faye promised radical change for a country he speaks about with a fiery passion, and reiterated his promise during the inauguration at an exhibition centre in Diamniadio. Local media reported that some voters went to the polls still declaring support for Sonko, and insisting it was he that they were voting in, with Faye but a pseudo for the more famous man.

“Before God and the Senegalese nation, I swear to faithfully fulfil the office of president of the Republic of Senegal,” Faye said during his inauguration. “Under my leadership, Senegal will be a country of hope, a peaceful country with an independent judiciary and a strengthened democracy.”

He also promised to restore national sovereignty over key assets, and called for foreign trade partners to actively engage Senegal in agreements “that respect our sovereignty and meet the aspirations of our people, in a mutually beneficial partnership”.

He had only seen freedom ten days before his monumental victory, being among a group of political opponents freed under an amnesty announced by his immediate predecessor, Sall.

Flashes smile

But he now swaggers about in his neatly woven boubou and flashes a discreet smile from a rather gentle, shy face as president of a country of about 20 million, and the world recognizes him thus.

“I congratulate Bassirou Diomaye Faye on his election as the next president of Senegal. And, I send warm wishes to the Senegalese people, who have demonstrated that the right to vote - and have that vote counted - remains democracy’s threshold liberty,” a statement from The White House, on behalf of President Joe Biden, read.

“Congratulations Bassirou Diomaye Faye on your decisive election victory. Your visionary leadership is inspiring and sets an unmatched example for emerging leaders. As you assume office today, we undertake to work with you to escalate Kenya-Senegal ties for our shared prosperity,” wrote President William Ruto on X, formerly Twitter.

 As he embarks on what could be a tough journey to unite a polarized Senegal and to reignite national pride where it had faded, the 44-year-old political sensation has his work cut out for him. He carries many firsts, however, and could bring an authentic style of leadership that sets his country on a path of prosperity.

With the backing of his friend Sonko, and of other stalwarts that see a new Senegal in him, he could yet be among the crop of young global leaders that are slowly pushing out the old guard and cementing their legacies already.

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