DAKAR, Senegal — Hotels, a stadium and a conference center are rising in the capital, Dakar. A train line will soon zip commuters from downtown to the new $575 million airport. A bridge that spans the Gambia River is drastically cutting travel time across Senegal and its neighbor Gambia.
These are crowning achievements of President Macky Sall of Senegal in his first seven-year term in office. Billboards that line the streets remind voters of his plan for an “emerging Senegal” as they prepare to head to the polls on Sunday.
But those achievements gloss over criticisms that the president has consolidated power and used what some say are undemocratic tactics to sideline opponents. His toughest competitor, a former mayor of Dakar, is in jail, sent there after prosecutions ordered up by the government.
The president failed to fulfill his biggest campaign promise in 2012: to reduce his own presidential term from seven to five years. His executive actions make it all but certain that he will win the weekend vote.
He is among the numerous presidents elected in the past decade in peaceful and democratic votes in the region, building hope that a time of bloody coups and strongmen was finally gone. But several of these new presidents have tightened their grip on power by engineering an extension of their terms, jailing opponents, and intimidating and imprisoning journalists.
Khalifa Sall, then Dakar’s mayor (and no relation to the president), was arrested on charges of corruption in 2017 to the howls of opposition figures and human rights advocates. While in custody, he was elected to the National Assembly, an act that should have immunized him from prosecution. But in January, he was barred from running for president after a court found him guilty of embezzling $3.2 million dollars in public funds. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Another potential contender, Karim Wade, son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, was also barred from running for president after a court found him guilty of corruption. The younger Mr. Wade, who was a minister in his father’s cabinet, was sentenced to six years in prison in 2015, just two days after the Senegalese Democratic Party appointed him as its candidate. He served half of his prison term before going into exile in Qatar.
Mame Adama Gueye, former president of the Senegalese bar association, said that while a trial was necessary for any government official accused of corruption, the timing of the prosecutions reeked of political motivations. The case of Khalifa Sall was particularly “shady,” he said.
“In all my life as a lawyer, I have never seen a trial process that is so rushed and shrouded in secrecy,” he said.
In February 2017, Ibrahima Hamidou Dème, a magistrate and senior member of the Higher Council of the Judiciary, announced his resignation from the body, which makes recommendations for the appointment of Supreme Court judges and is headed by the president. He later stepped down as a judge altogether, citing what he called a failing judiciary.
In his resignation letter, he criticized Mr. Sall’s administration and said that “a culture of submission” had gradually replaced “the long culture of honor, dignity and independence” of the judiciary.
In April 2018, provisions in Senegal’s electoral code were amended to reduce an unwieldy number of candidates on the ballot, a move praised by many advocates of good government. It also sought to limit presidential terms from seven to five years. Mr. Sall had advocated for that change during his campaign, and voters had presumed the rules would apply to his own term.
But on Jan. 14, after dozens had submitted their candidacy for the coming presidential election, only five were found to be eligible to run under the new law. When the Constitutional Council of Senegal published the final list, the president’s name was on it.
Although by that point it did not come as much of a surprise, many of his supporters expressed a sense of betrayal.
In a recent speech to hundreds of supporters at a rally in Thiès, a city in western Senegal near the capital, Mr. Sall said that with the discovery of oil and gas in the country, one of his priorities in his second term would be to establish centers across the country where young people could train for jobs in those fields, and in tourism and fishing. He pledged also to rehabilitate the nation’s lagging rail system.
One candidate, El Hadji Issa Sall, an information technology professor and founder of a private university in Dakar, ran on a platform to reduce inequality and improve education. In Senegal, wide swaths of rural areas have never had a school, and the main university’s lecture halls are so full that students are sometimes barred from entry.
Amadou Cissé, his campaign manager, said, “A nation can’t develop without quality education.”
Mr. Issa Sall, who is no relation to the president, recently suspended his campaign after a pro-government campaigner was stabbed to death in a string of pre-election clashes between his supporters and those of the president. The candidate’s security guards were arrested, stripped and disarmed.
Under Mr. Sall’s presidency, Senegal has made major steps toward modernization, especially when it comes to infrastructure. The country has benefited from gifts and financing from China, which helped build a new wrestling stadium and the most modern museum in the region, the Museum of Black Civilizations.
But while new hotels and restaurants pop up to serve the nation’s elite and an expanding expatriate community, most Senegalese say they feel little change. Unemployment is still high, coming in at 15.7 percent according to the data company Trading Economics.
Signs of poverty are not difficult to find. Hundreds of people peddle boxes of tissues and bowls of limes along the roadways, and a fleet of tailors marches the streets looking for work with sewing machines on their shoulders, loudly snipping scissors. Scores are pouring into Dakar from the countryside, abandoning farms as rainy seasons get shorter because of climate change. Creaking boats crammed with desperate migrants regularly leave Senegal’s shores to head to Europe.
“The day I don’t sell fish, that day my children won’t eat,” said Ndeye Diop, at a market in the neighborhood of Ouakam in Dakar. “The people talking about development in Senegal don’t know what it feels like to go to bed hungry.”