Security forces and protesters have clashed in Senegal’s capital and other cities in the first widespread unrest over the delay to a presidential election that constitutes one of the country’s most significant political crises to date.
Riot police in Dakar fired teargas, stun grenades and what appeared to be rubber bullets at large crowds of protesters who set up roadblocks, burned tyres and threw stones.
Some of the demonstrators waved Senegalese flags, while others shouted slogans such as “Macky Sall is a dictator”.
Demonstrators also faced off against police elsewhere, including Senegal’s third largest city of Touba in the centre of the country; Thies, east of Dakar; Richard Toll, in the north, and Kolda, in the south, residents told Reuters or posts on social media showed.
Alpha Yoro Tounkara, a geography student at Gaston Berger University, was killed in the northern city of Saint-Louis, the opposition leader and former mayor of Dakar, Khalifa Sall, said in a post on X. “The hearts of all democrats bleed at this outburst of clashes provoked by the unjustified halting of the electoral process,” he wrote.
Senegal’s interior ministry said the death was being investigated, but the security forces were not responsible because they did not intervene on campus, Reuters reported.
A statement by the geography club at his university said: “Alpha was a dedicated member of our university community, his premature departure leaves a void in our hearts and minds.”
Senegal’s presidential elections were expected to be held on 25 February before the country’s parliament voted to push the date back to December, extending the mandate of the President Sall until the end of the year.
The move marks the first time in Senegal’s history that elections have been delayed in what represents a major stress test to its democratic credentials. Senegal has been an exception among its neighbours as “model for good governance” in a turbulent neighbourhood dubbed a “coup belt”, says Paul Melly, a west Africa analyst.
“Senegal is totemic and is generally regarded as a country which plays by the rules,” he said, adding: “The present crisis really stands out, as no election has ever been postponed.”
Sall, who came to power in 2012 and has reached his two-term constitutional limit, said he had delayed the vote because of a dispute over the candidate list that threatened the credibility of the electoral process.
The delay has provoked criticism from Dakar’s partners, who warned the outgoing president against resorting to extra-constitutional means to remain in power. The west African bloc Ecowas called on Senegal’s political class on Tuesday “to take steps to urgently restore the electoral calendar” and urged law enforcement agencies to exercise restraint in dealing with protesters.
The EU expressed concern about any de-facto attempt by Sall to extend his mandate, and the US state department said it was “deeply concerned by actions taken to delay Senegal’s February 25 presidential election”.
Several opposition figures have rejected the delay, including the former prime minister and once close ally of Sall, Aminata Touré, who accused the president of “tarnishing in the process the image of our democracy, once respected everywhere”. Khalifa Sall has called recent events an “institutional coup”.
Anta Babacar Ngom, a presidential hopeful on the list for the final twenty candidates, told Al Jazeera that she believes the delay is a cover for Sall to secure himself a third term. “This has not even become a political question, this a human rights question, this is a fight for our democracy, this is a fight for our sovereignty and we have to say no,” she said.
Sall has defended the decision and dismissed allegations that he was attempting to cling to power. In an interview with the Associated Press in Dakar on Saturday, he said: “I am completely ready to pass the baton. I have always been programmed for that. I am absolutely seeking for nothing except to leave a country in peace and stability.”
Demonstrators have been pouring out on to the streets since the decision was adopted by parliament last week, often clashing with police. Authorities also restricted mobile data across Dakar on the 5 and 6 February, the days immediately after the postponement.
“Senegal has a past history of telecoms blackouts and these protests could again become a trigger,” said Isik Mater, the research director at the connectivity watchdog Netblocks.
Aïssata Tall Sall, Senegal’s justice minister, hit back at critics of the postponement in an interview on Friday, accusing them of acting in bad faith.
“My response to these people is to tell them that the initiative was a parliamentary initiative by a group in the national assembly, which is even an opposition group,” she said.
The postponement bill was approved by 105 MPs in the 165-seat parliament on Monday after security forces broke up an attempt by a group of opposition members to stop the vote and dispersed small-scale protests outside with teargas.
Thirty-nine lawmakers in the opposition Yewwi Askan Wi coalition and several opposition presidential candidates have since filed legal challenges with the constitutional court.
The justice minister said legal challenges did not fall within the constitutional court’s jurisdiction. “The postponement of the presidential election was carried out in full compliance with the Senegalese constitution,” she said.
Sall did not specify which legal routes were available to challenge the decision but said the fact that opponents were turning to the courts meant “we are in a functioning democracy”.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report