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Military or civilian, a coup is a coup!

By Wole Olaoye

Coup-making is not the exclusive preserve of soldiers or the armed forces. Civilians, too, do stage coups. In Nigeria, we have had our fair share of coups and counter-coups and have resolved that our collective aspirations as a people are best served by a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

Every form of government has its warts. We have been indoctrinated to believe that the universal adult suffrage of the West is God-ordained. But we have seen, especially in the last US presidential elections, attempts to stage a coup by overrunning the parliament and preventing the announcement of the winner of the elections. That incident clearly showed the whole world that there is nothing unassailable about American democracy. Every mother has them.

Long ago, I concluded that each society deserved to devise its own system based on its history, culture, and aspirations. The monarchical system of Saudi Arabia is replicated in the United Kingdom. Even then, the more you try to compare them, the more they look different because each has its own peculiar flavour. The world can no longer describe a monarchical setting as autocratic because these days, the monarch merely reigns while a prime minister rules.

Until recently, Senegal had the distinction of being the poster boy for democracy in Africa. Since independence in 1960, the country has managed to glide from one civilian administration to another, even the handing over of power by a ruling party to the opposition. First in 1980, from Leopold Sedar Senghor to Abdou Diouf; then, in 2000, from Diouf to Abdoulaye Wade; and then, in 2012, from Wade to Sall. The country has never experienced the ugly incidence of coups, not even when forceful changes of government were commonplace in Africa.


Third Term Bug

Although regular elections are held, each one of Senegal’s leaders attempted to stay in power longer than the designated time. Political observers had been wondering if incumbent president Macky Sall would escape the bite of the tenure extension bug, especially as he had publicly declared that he would not succumb to what we in Nigeria call the ‘third term syndrome’. Everything seemed primed for a successful election until the president forcefully procured an indefinite postponement of the election by getting the parliament to do his bidding with security forces bundling opposition elements who disagreed with the move out of the parliament.

Judging by his body language, Sall desired to run for a third term, but knowing that such an unconstitutional move would pit him against the people, he jettisoned that option in 2023 and endorsed Amadou Ba as his candidate for succession. Then, as the election date drew nearer, it seemed he could no longer bear the imminent change in status from president to citizen and he therefore decided to make another attempt at tenure elongation by first postponing the elections indefinitely. Sall, who has been in power since 2012, called off the elections over disputes about the disqualification of potential candidates and concern about a repeat of the unrest seen in 2021 and 2023. Senegal’s opposition has decried the move as a “constitutional coup” and suspects it is part of a plan by the presidential camp to extend Sall’s term in office.

It is interesting to see how history repeats itself. Sengor had played a few political tricks to stay in power for 22 years before handing over power to his chosen successor, Abdou Diouf, in 1980. Diouf stayed in power for two decades, during which Abdoulaye Wade was his fiercest opponent. Wade went to jail for his political convictions and even went into exile at a point in time. 

His tenacity won him a lot of followers and his popular movement succeeded in defeating the long-ruling Socialist Party headed by Diouf. Towards the end of his second term, he succumbed to the third-term bug. He started plotting how to remain in power beyond the constitutional mandate. When he saw that the people of Senegal would not tolerate him for one day longer than constitutionally guaranteed, he named his son, Karim Wade, as his successor. The dynastic dream of the Wades was not to be. Karim ran foul of the law and was convicted of corruption, thus ending his presidential dream.


Long Knives

After the elimination of Karim Wade from the list of possible leaders in the country, Senegal was confronted with the possibility that power could go to Ousmane Sonko, a maverick politician nicknamed by some of his admirers as the ‘Trump of Senegal’. It was Sonko who published a book on oil and gas corruption in which the Sall-led administration was roundly indicted. It was also Sonko who famously said, “Those who have ruled Senegal from the beginning deserve to be shot.”

Last year, sexual assault charges were preferred against him in what many people saw as a political vendetta. The court acquitted him of the rape charge but convicted him for “corrupting the youth”. Young people, many of whom believed in him, took to the streets in protest, but Sall quelled all the protests forcefully. But Sonko is out of this 2004 ballot.

With Sall and Sonko out of the race, is there a clear frontrunner? The answer is no. Analysts have been weighing the chances of Sall’s chosen successor, Ba, as well as long-time Sall opponents Khalifa Sall and former premier Seck. There is also Bassirou Diomaye Faye, whom members of Sonko’s now-dissolved Pastef party nominated as a backup candidate in the event of Sonko’s disqualification. Faye himself is in detention but he remains eligible to run as there has been no ruling yet on the case of defamation and contempt of court against him. 

It is unlikely that any of the candidates will cross the 50% threshold in the election to claim victory. The election is therefore likely to go to the second round.


President Sall’s bad behaviour has put his brother presidents in ECOWAS in a quandary. With the way ECOWAS has been sending signals that coups are no longer welcome in the West African sub-region, it was embarrassing that Senegal, the stainless member of the community and the beacon for democracy, is toeing the line of anomie. Frantic efforts were being made by the regional body and the African Union last week to save President Sall from himself. It was clear to every objective analyst that Sall had pushed his country to the precipice.  The only logical gear to engage was the reverse gear.

Court Intervention

This was what, thankfully, the Constitutional Court did last week to the relief of all those who had been monitoring the unfolding tragedy. Opposition presidential candidates and lawmakers had filed several legal challenges to last week’s parliamentary bill, which also extended President Macky Sall’s mandate in what critics said amounted to an ‘institutional coup’. Senegal’s Constitutional Council has now cancelled the decree signed by President Macky Sall that postponed the election. The National Assembly’s move on February 5 to reschedule the vote for December 14 was also adjudged “contrary to the constitution.”

As a result of protests and international pressure, President Macky Sall has ordered the release of some political prisoners. To further ease the tension in the land, the president also has to lift restrictions placed on internet usage.

Let Sall’s misadventure into ‘third-termism’ be a lesson to all African leaders. You have no right to transmogrify from a democrat to a despot. Indeed, your tenancy of the state house is at the pleasure of the people. It is immaterial whether the mastermind of a coup is a soldier or a civilian; a coup is a coup. Had Sall’s coup succeeded, it wouldn’t have been any different from those of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.


  • Wole Olaoye is a Public Relations consultant and veteran journalist. He can be reached at, Twitter: @wole_olaoye; Instagram: woleola2021

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