Security, defense and foreign policy : blind spots in presidential candidates' platforms Spécial

In Senegal, the start of the presidential election campaign went hand in hand with the unveiling of the candidates' programs. An overview of these social projects quickly revealed a poor relation: defense, security and foreign policy issues. Indeed, the vast majority of candidates seem to have little interest in these issues, despite the country's strategic position in a sub-region beset by instability. With this in mind, Timbuktu Institute, one of the leading think tanks on these issues, organized a virtual meeting of experts on March 19, 2024, on the theme: "Security, defense and foreign policy: what are the candidates proposing?". Moderated by E-Media Managing Director Alassane Samba Diop, the panelists' exchanges agreed that the programs' thinking on these projects is lacking. This is far from beneficial for Senegal, which is increasingly at the heart of a regional and international game in constant flux.

From the outset, Bakary Sambe, Regional Director of the Timbuktu Institute, sets the tone for the panel's discussions, expressing surprise that these issues are "the blind spot" on political agendas.  For him, "it's absolutely essential that the contenders for political leadership become increasingly aware of security issues. Sometimes, they don't seem to be aware of the issues and challenges. Post-2024 Senegal will be a country whose geostrategic status is changing, with all the issues surrounding energy resources, but also the inevitable impact of geopolitical developments in the region, in the midst of a cold and information war, with the new Sahelian game already in full swing, amidst a host of covetous and competitive agendas".

General (er) Babacar Faye agrees, deploring: "Of the seventeen of the nineteen candidates competing, the majority of subjects relating to security, defense and foreign policy were treated in a superficial and generic manner, focusing mainly on securing borders, improving the living and working conditions of security forces, clandestine emigration, the fight against drug trafficking, etc.", notes General El Hadji Babacar Faye (er). For him, this lightness is all the more surprising given that the sub-region is in the grip of socio-political upheavals with global repercussions. "Our citizens need to be enlightened about Senegal's cohabitation with neighboring countries," he asserts.

Senior Fellow at the Timbuktu Institute, Babacar Ndiaye makes a similar observation of "the general weakness of proposals", noting at first glance the usual confusion between diplomacy and foreign policy in the French-speaking world. According to Ndiaye, foreign policy covers four essential objectives: maximizing security interests, prosperity and economic development, defending socio-cultural values and international prestige.  Since Senghor, he recalls, "Senegalese foreign policy has been based on the theory of regional integration by concentric circles, based on the idea that alliance and security cooperation, as well as African integration, were sources of economic progress". While most of the candidates are moving in this direction, researcher Babacar Ndiaye points to the case of candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who advocates a rupture. "He is calling into question the WAEMU, which is at the heart of Senegal's prosperity, and we must bear in mind that this has enormous implications for the country's regional integration", he notes. Still on the subject of foreign policy, Babacar Ndiaye observes that candidate Khalifa Sall has posed "the problem of the politicization of the Senegalese diplomatic service, which while moving towards its depoliticization must also adapt to new issues such as the energy transition and positioning in the current world order."

"They touched on security and defence issues".

A review of the platforms of the Senegalese presidential candidates reveals that "the seventeen who addressed these subjects devoted no more than a quarter of a page to them. In fact, they skimmed over it, omitting the important aspect of the concept of collaborative, inclusive and participative security, knowing that the all-military approach has already shown its limits", laments Aïdara Ndiaye Adajaratou, Executive Director at Partners West Africa Senegal. As a result, issues linked to "air safety, road safety which costs 2 to 3% of GDP, security challenges linked to fake news with the emergence of artificial intelligence in a context of informational warfare, maritime security with oil/gas exploitation, prevention and forecasting of violent extremism were only skimmed over, if not addressed at all. » Speaking of foreign policy, she adds, "South-South relations are not a priority, bilateral and multilateral relations not being addressed, while the country is moving in a climate of anti-imperialist fever where the future of ECOWAS or the BRICS are current issues. In this respect, only candidate Pape Djibril Fall mentioned geostrategy." 

According to Babacar Ndiaye, it's also important to note that political parties only focus on electoral issues and the rules of the democratic game. "On issues as essential as peace and security, which could enable voters to make an informed choice, there is little debate. I also think that electoral logic is not unrelated to the downplaying of these issues," says Babacar Ndiaye.

For international consultant Tidiane Dioh, a former diplomat, taking into account "issues linked to cyberspace is vital insofar as we are living in an era of information warfare where electoral processes can be disrupted even up to polling day". He maintains that candidates would have benefited from emphasizing "military diplomacy, given that Senegal exports many officers to international troops (Kuwait, Liberia), as well as foreign diplomacy, bearing in mind that the country does not only have cordial relations with its immediate neighbors, not forgetting that the Casamance question cannot be buried."

Un déni des questions sécuritaires ?

"Our candidates, like many citizens, are victims of communicational and sometimes political denial on the issue of security threats, due to an angelism or nihilism that projects the image of a Senegal definitively at peace", says Bakary Sambe, Regional Director of the Timbuktu Institute. That's why, he continues, "we mainly talk about securing borders, as if the terrorist threat could only come from abroad. This is also part of a certain populism. For Dr. Sambe, we have to come to terms with the fact that "the Senegal of 2024 is no longer the Senegal of 2012. In other words, it is increasingly situated at the confluence of interests between major powers (China, France, Qatar), which candidates are struggling to fully grasp, due to the gap between their awareness of the stakes and military diplomacy." He recommends that local expertise in diplomacy, generals and think-tanks be put to good use, so that we are no longer simply subject to the international policies of others.

This position is somewhat counterbalanced by Dr. Aïdara Ndiaye, who notes that "the Senegalese seem to be more directly affected by the institutional crisis, with issues such as justice reform, democracy, the rule of law, education, access to housing, health, agriculture, etc." In this context, she adds, it is understandable that "security, defense and foreign policy issues are not directly perceived as the most vital". In this context, she nuances, it seems understandable that "questions of security, defense and foreign policy are not directly perceived as the most vital." To get citizens more interested in these issues, Tidiane Dioh believes, "the Senegalese social contract needs to be reformed." This could involve, he suggests, "highlighting the Senegalese concept of an army-nation, while training young people in citizenship on the one hand. Not to mention thinking about the country's security from a global perspective, even if possible from the tri-border area."

Dr. Aïdara Ndiaye has a similar view, believing that the denial also stems from "the absence of a sense of social and civic belonging, whereas Senegal has cultural resilience mechanisms such as cousinage à plaisanterie, kersa, soutoura, badiénou gokh", she explains. However, for his part, General Babacar Faye is optimistic. "There are certain elements classified as secret defense that all the candidates cannot have, in order to give a sufficiently informed opinion. With the authority of important international agreements to soak up the reality, the next rulers will have briefings soon enough on the current situation and the reality of our capabilities, by defense and security technicians," he reassures.


Prepared by Ken Akpo, Cellule Veille & Analyse - Timbuktu Institute