Senegal’s Macky Sall: A ‘Social liberal’ from a long line of warriors

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Senegal’s Macky Sall, a stolid 56-year-old ex-geologist who challenged his former mentor to become president, has big plans to take his country “further and higher” on the path to development.

Sall, whose camp claimed victory in Sunday’s election, campaigned on the back of his “Emerging Senegal” reform plan, which he credits with boosting water and electricity provision, farm output, and new infrastructure.

A geological engineer by training, the portly Senegalese leader is often called “Niangal” — a nickname in the local Wolof language which refers to his closed, austere expression.

A self-proclaimed social liberal — despite a flirtation with Maoism in his youth — Sall has described himself as coming from a long line of warriors.

Warriors “prefer dying to losing face,” he said when his autobiography was published in November.

In it, he describes a slow, steady rise from a modest background all the way to the top, despite a stint in the political wilderness.

But critics argue that such single-mindedness has made Sall willing to bend the rules to get what he wants, even if it means using the courts to rule out challengers.

And some say he did just that to sideline potential challengers in Sunday’s presidential poll.

Former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall, and Karim Wade, son of the previous president, were both disqualified from running following graft convictions that were questioned by rights groups.

Sall has denied abusing his powers, but told France 24 in November that if re-elected, he might consider an amnesty for both men.

– Big mistake –

Sall was born into a modest family in the western city of Fatick, to a civil servant father and a mother who sold groundnuts.

He graduated from Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University with a degree in geology, before heading to France to further his education in the field.

Although his father was a dedicated member of the ruling Socialists, who had been in power since independence in 1960, Sall himself was quickly disillusioned with the party.

In 1989, he joined the opposition Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) led by Abdoulaye Wade and was at his side when the opposition leader finally unseated the Socialists during the elections of 2000.

A year later, Wade named him minister of mining.

In 2003, Sall became minister for territorial administration and government spokesman, then a year later, he became prime minister.

In 2007, he managed his mentor’s election campaign but lost his spot as premier shortly afterwards, only to be elected Speaker of the National Assembly.

– Falling out with Wade –

It was during this period that Sall fell out with Wade after failing to inform him that parliament was summoning his son Karim for questioning over allegations of improper financing.

For him, the showdown was a “turning point”.

Lawmakers promptly drew up a law reducing the Speaker’s mandate from five years to one, prompting him to resign in October 2008.

Several months later, Sall formed the liberal Alliance for the Republic (APR), and in 2009, was elected mayor of Fatick — a year when the opposition claimed several large towns in legislative polls as dissatisfaction with Wade grew.

While Wade spent 25 years in opposition before finally winning the presidency, Sall won the country’s top political prize on his first attempt.

In a first round of voting on February 26, 2012, Sall came second to his one-time mentor, but prevented him from winning outright, forcing the octogenarian into a run-off.

But ultimately he won the backing of his former rivals, with the opposition and civil society joining forces to support him in order to prevent Wade from getting a third mandate that many viewed as unconstitutional.