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Freed from jail, Senegal opposition presidential candidate draws hundreds to first event

A day after his release from jail, Senegal opposition leader Bassirou Diomaye Faye drew hundreds of supporters at his first public appearance as a presidential contender for the March 24 elections, promising to tackle corruption.

Next to him, the popular firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko urged supporters to vote for his ally.

“We have an election to win. We have lost too much time,” Sonko, also released from prison on Thursday, said at a joint news briefing.

Firebrand Sonko – who was seen as the key challenger to President Macky Sall’s ruling party – threw his support behind Faye after being disqualified over a defamation conviction unrelated to his detention last July. He says the charges were politically motivated, which authorities deny.


Momentum has gathered pace for the opposition as support for Sall has dropped during his second term in office, which will be his final one. Due to constitutional term limits, Sall will step down and for the first time in Senegal’s history, the incumbent will not be on the ballot.

Most of Sonko’s supporters are expected to vote for Faye, making the latter a serious threat to the other 18 presidential hopefuls, analysts say. Sonko is popular among urban youth frustrated with a lack of jobs and economic hardship in a country where 60% of the population is younger than 25.

Faye’s coalition has been keen to impress on voters that a vote for the less-known Faye is a vote for Sonko. Campaign posters show the two side by side with the slogan: “Diomaye is Sonko.”

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High-profile politicians, including former prime minister Aminata Toure, who had a public falling out with Sall and left the ruling coalition last year, have also backed Faye.

“Macky Sall himself has been the opposition’s best recruiting agent,” Toure told Reuters by phone, adding that Faye projected an image of integrity.


Discreet and soft-spoken compared to Sonko, both co-founded the now dissolved Pastef party in 2014. They studied law in Senegal and worked as tax inspectors, where they met and spoke out against corruption.

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They are seen as “incorruptible” tax inspectors who did not fill their pockets while others did, said Alioune Tine, founder of the AfrikaJom Center think-tank.

“They want to change the system and refresh the political status quo,” said Senegalese political analyst Babacar Ndiaye, noting that Faye, born in 1980, is younger than past presidents.

Some of the coalition’s more disruptive proposals might worry regional allies and investors. These include the creation of a new national currency, and renegotiation of mining and energy contracts just as Senegal is due to begin offshore oil and gas production.

The stance on West Africa’s CFA franc currency is a contentious proposal within Senegal as well, said Tine and Toure. Sonko and Faye sought to ease concerns on Friday with a more tempered approach.


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