Senegal’s President Macky Sall says he won’t run again. Democracy advocates applaud.

DAKAR, Senegal — Senegal’s President Macky Sall said Monday that he would not seek a third term in office, surprising many in the West African nation and setting what democracy advocates say they hope is a positive precedent in the region.

Sall’s announcement follows domestic and international opposition that included the deadliest protests in Senegal’s recent history. Sall, who was elected in 2012, said he had considered his decision “long and carefully” and that he decided not to seek a third term in the February election because he was thinking about the country’s future, even as he added that the Constitution would have given him “the right” to do so. “I have deep respect for the Senegalese people,” Sall said in the nationally televised address.

Alioune Tine, a rights expert and founder of the AfrikaJom Center, a Dakar-based research organization, compared Sall’s decision to “deactivating a bomb.”

“The miracle for us is that each time we have the impression that Senegal is on a slippery slope and seems like it is irreversible, there’s something that arrives to save the country,” Tine said. “The fact that Macky decided not to run for a third term, despite the support of his partisans, is an extremely positive thing.”

Sall’s announcement comes as democratic norms in the region are already under threat, with junta governments that seized power via coups now in power in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. In the Ivory Coast and Togo, presidents are currently serving past the two terms originally mandated by their constitutions. (The president of the Ivory Coast said there’d been a “reset,” while Togo’s legislature changed its law).

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Catherine Lena Kelly, an expert on Senegalese politics at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a research group that is part of the United States Defense Department, said Sall deserves credit for his decision to respect the constitution, noting that Senegal has a long history of its leaders trying to hold onto power past their term limits.

“It’s an important and right step that the president made, and for which he should be given credit,” Kelly said. “And it also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other reforms that need to be made and questions about who will be allowed to run and under what circumstances, and how journalists and opposition figures will be treated.”

Kelly said that big questions ahead lie ahead about the independence of the judiciary in Senegal. During Sall’s tenure, three of his political opponents were convicted of crimes. Most recently, opposition figure Ousmane Sonko was convicted on charges of “corrupting youth” and was barred from running in the February election.

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Sonko’s conviction, decried by his supporters as politically motivated, sparked protests in which Senegalese authorities said at least 16 people died. Amnesty International put the toll at least 23 deaths, including three children, and said that several died from bullets fired by the police or unidentified armed men working with them. The government has denied accusations that police fired live ammunition at protesters, and Sall on Monday vowed to prosecute those who were found to be responsible for instigating the protests.

Sonko, who came in third in the 2019 presidential election and attracted a large following among Senegal’s young people, has been detained in his house since the June 1 verdict but had not been officially arrested as of Monday evening.

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