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National dialogues, between sincerity and manipulation

In Senegal, President Macky Sall invites the opposition to dialogue. A method put in place by several African presidents before him, which has not always been followed by positive effects.

When you are in opposition, should you accept the outstretched hands of the powers that be, who generally offer to organize national dialogues? This is a complex issue on which even the opposition parties find it difficult to agree. In Senegal, President Macky Sall has reached out to "all the living forces of the nation", offering them "dialogue" and "consultation". Will the opposition agree to participate, as the 2024 presidential election looms?

Some see this call from the Senegalese president as an attempt at manipulation. It must be said that there are many examples in Africa of national dialogues that have served the opponents well. It's the case in Gabon where, recently, the political leaders gathered during a "political consultation" which lasted ten days decided not to limit the number of mandates of the Head of State. A decision that will be quickly challenged, since part of the opposition had boycotted this event.

If, on the side of Libreville, Ali Bongo wants to quickly include in the Constitution the decisions taken during the famous "political consultation", elsewhere, this is not always the case. In Cameroon, at the end of 2019, a "major national dialogue" had been organized by the authorities. It was in particular a question of evoking the case of English-speaking Cameroon. Several recommendations were made during the discussions, including a proposal for decentralization. But today, nothing really changed.

Opponents feel trapped

This is somewhat the problem of national consultations. If they lead to recommendations or proposals, they still have to be implemented. At the BBC, political scientist Aristide Mono believes that, without binding closure, the proposals made during debates between powers and oppositions "depend on the will of decision-makers, instead of being imposed on them". Another political scientist, the Beninese Joël Atayi-Guedegbe, believes that the powers that be speak only with opposition that is favorable to them.

And this is undoubtedly the lesson to be learned from the national consultations. These are, in general, doomed to failure because boycotted by part of the opposition. In Senegal, it is hard to imagine Sonko - who declares that "the one who speaks of dialogue has himself said that we do not need dialogue because there is no problem in Senegal" -, Wade or Khalifa Sall accept the hand extended by Macky Sall, while the challenge is their business. But they feel trapped: if they accept, they will have to make concessions; if they refuse, they will be seen as those who refused to appease the situation.

So what are the solutions? Oppositions seem to have no interest in dialogue, they have everything to lose. Unless we obtain promises concerning real demands — the release of political prisoners, electoral reforms, etc. Still, organizing a national dialogue on the eve of an election remains difficult to make this approach credible. For Joël Atayi-Guedegbe, the powers in place in Africa should rather organize “permanent dialogues”, to better take into account divergent points of view. And above all to prevent these one-off national dialogues from appearing as an attempt at manipulation.

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