Senegal president appoints opposition leader Sonko as Prime Minister

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Left-wing pan-Africanist Bassirou Diomaye Faye on Tuesday assumed office as Senegal’s youngest president, vowing to bring about systemic transformation following years of severe unrest. He announced his mentor, opposition figure Ousmane Sonko, as the prime minister.

Faye, aged 44, has no prior experience in holding an elected position. He secured a first-round victory after pledging radical reforms, just 10 days following his release from prison.

He took the presidential oath amidst the presence of numerous officials and several African heads of state at an exhibition center located in the new town of Diamniadio, near Dakar.

Subsequently, he returned to the capital, where his motorcade was greeted by hundreds of elated residents lining the roads leading to the presidential palace.

His predecessor, Macky Sall, symbolically handed over the key to the presidential headquarters to Faye before departing from the palace.

“Before God and the Senegalese nation, I swear to faithfully fulfil the office of President of the Republic of Senegal,” Faye had said earlier in the day.

Just hours later, his new administration appointed firebrand opposition leader Sonko prime minister.

“Mr Ousmane Sonko is named prime minister,” said Oumar Samba Ba, the general secretary of the presidency, as he read out a decree on the public television station RTS.

Sonko, 49, was at the centre of a two-year stand-off with the state that triggered bouts of deadly unrest.

He was disqualified from running in the most recent race and picked Faye as his replacement on the presidential ballot.

Senegal’s fifth president since gaining independence from France in 1960, the former tax inspector is also the first to openly acknowledge being in a polygamous marriage.

“I am aware that the results of the ballot box express a profound desire for systemic change,” Faye said in a brief speech after taking the presidential oath.

“Under my leadership, Senegal will be a country of hope, a peaceful country with an independent judiciary and a strengthened democracy,” he added.

Faye and Sonko were among a group of opposition politicians freed from prison 10 days before the March 24 presidential ballot under an amnesty announced by former president Macky Sall, who had tried to delay the vote.

“I have painful memories of the martyrs of Senegalese democracy, the amputees, the wounded and the former prisoners,” Faye said Tuesday, referring to the past three years of political unrest that left dozens dead and hundreds arrested.

“I will always bear in mind the heavy sacrifices made in order never to disappoint you,” he added.

Faye also reiterated to foreign partners “Senegal’s openness to trade that respects our sovereignty and meets the aspirations of our people, in a mutually beneficial partnership”.

Often referred to as Diomaye, or “the honourable one,” he secured victory in the election with 54.3 percent of the vote, propelled by his pledge of radical change.

Reconciliation, sovereignty

Collaborating with his populist mentor Sonko, Faye’s campaign outlined key priorities including national reconciliation, alleviating the cost-of-living crisis, and combating corruption.

Additionally, he has pledged to reclaim national sovereignty over vital sectors like oil, gas, and fishing, as Senegal prepares for hydrocarbon production later this year.

Faye advocates for the replacement of the CFA franc, viewed as a relic of French colonialism, with a new regional currency. He also aims to increase investment in agriculture to achieve food self-sufficiency.

Following three years of tension in the typically stable nation, his democratic victory has garnered international acclaim from Washington, Paris, the African Union, and the European Union.

Internationally, Faye aims to reintegrate military-led Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger into the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc.

During his inauguration on Tuesday, he called for “greater solidarity” among African nations in addressing security challenges.

Representatives from military regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, including Guinean President General Mamady Doumbouya, attended the event in Diamniadio.

Burkina Faso’s leader Captain Ibrahim Traore wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that Faye’s mandate represented a “symbol of a new era for an uninhibited, free and sovereign Africa”.

He added he was ready to work together on “the renovation of sub-regional and international cooperation”.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the inauguration “a testament to the Senegalese people, that they fought for their right to vote”.

New generation of politicians

Coming from a modest background and adhering to the Muslim faith with two spouses and four children, Faye embodies a new wave of youthful politicians.

He has expressed admiration for former US President Barack Obama and South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.

However, Faye and his upcoming government are confronted with significant challenges. Foremost among these is the imperative to generate sufficient employment opportunities in a country where 75 percent of the 18-million population is under the age of 35, and the official unemployment rate stands at 20 percent.

Given the bleak economic outlook domestically, many young Senegalese have opted to take perilous journeys to Europe in pursuit of better prospects.