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After delays and protests, people in Senegal voters finally go to the polls

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

People in Senegal head to the polls today to vote for a new president. The election was supposed to take place last month but was postponed by the current president, sparking weeks of unrest and protests. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us from Lagos. Thanks for being with us.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: So give us the backstory to today's vote. Like, why was it ever in doubt?

AKINWOTU: Well, it almost didn't happen, actually, because the elections were meant to be held about a month ago, but outgoing President Macky Sall suddenly postponed it indefinitely. Then it was rescheduled to December, so that would have extended his staying power by close to a year. Sall argued that it was to rebuild trust in the vote because some opposition figures were barred from running. But it was really strongly condemned and widely seen as a major overreach by him. So soon afterwards it was overturned by the courts. But this whole episode really was a climax to years of tension and unrest in Senegal, and many people there would say this has been largely driven by Sall's ambitions to stay in or maintain power. You know, many people feared he wanted to run for a controversial third term, but last year, he finally announced that he wouldn't.

RASCOE: OK, if Sall isn't running, who are the candidates?

AKINWOTU: Well, there are 19 candidates. All of them are men, except for one. A key figure is 62 year old Amadou Ba. Until recently, he was the prime minister. He's the frontrunner in the race, and he's endorsed by Sall and has basically the weight of the ruling party behind him. He's promised to build on the government's achievements in office, on development, infrastructure. So basically he's the continuity candidate. Then his most likely challenger is 43-year-old Bassirou Diomaye Faye. He's a former tax collector who is offering an alternative to the status quo. Actually, until recently, he wasn't that well known in Senegal, but he's attracted huge support, mainly on the back of an endorsement from a prominent figure called Ousmane Sonko. And Sonko has been a huge critic of Sall's government and has gained a lot of backing, especially from young people. But he can't run because of a conviction. So Faye has pledged to restore calm, renegotiate oil and gas contracts and replace the French-backed West African CFA franc with a new currency.

RASCOE: So what challenges does a new president face?

AKINWOTU: Well, a big challenge is rebuilding trust after the unrest of the last few years. You know, we've seen journalists, the media, critics all accuse the government of a clampdown. And protests in Dakar and around the country have regularly been repressed. Protesters have even been killed by police and security forces, and that's fueled demonstrations even more. Then a major issue raised by voters, you know, voting today, this morning, has been their living standards. You know, Senegal's economy has largely fared better than many of its neighboring countries, especially after the impact of the pandemic and the Ukraine war on inflation. But the high cost of living is really prominent in people's minds. And unemployment, underemployment, and really just the lack of opportunities in a country where the median age is just over 18. And that's one of the many reasons people risk these horrendous migrant routes just to leave the country.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu. Thank you so much for joining us.

AKINWOTU: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.
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