President Macky Sall of Senegal said on Monday that he would not seek a third term in office, putting an end to months of tensions over a hypothetical candidacy that many say would have violated the West African nation’s Constitution.
“My dear fellow citizens, my decision after long consideration is to not be a candidate in the election on Feb. 25, 2024,” Mr. Sall said in a televised address. “My 2019 term was my second and last term.”
Mr. Sall’s speech came a month after at least 16 people died in government protests that were fueled, in part, by his refusal to say whether he would run for a third term next year.
Thousands of demonstrators, most of them young, had taken to the streets to protest against what they saw as an authoritarian drift from Mr. Sall’s government, and against the conviction of his main political opponent, Ousmane Sonko, on charges that his supporters said had been an attempt to sideline him.
The violence, reminiscent of deadly protests in 2021, raised concerns among the Senegalese public and international observers that Senegal was no longer the beacon of political pluralism and stability it had long been regarded as in a region known for its frequent coups and aging leaders clinging to power.
That made Mr. Sall’s announcement all the more welcome to many.
“A time bomb was just deactivated,” Alioune Tine, a renowned Senegalese human rights figure, said about Mr. Sall’s renouncement. “It’s a huge relief for Senegal and the African continent.”
Mr. Sall’s decision not to run was unusual for West and Central Africa, where some leaders have in recent years curbed their countries’ laws to stay in power.
In 2021, President Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast was elected for a third term despite a constitutional rule limiting presidents to two. In the Central African Republic, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra is also seeking a third term through a constitutional referendum scheduled this month.
Senegal, which has never experienced a coup since gaining independence from France in 1960, considers itself as a model of democracy in Africa. Many feared that Mr. Sall might change that.
Mr. Sall, 61, was first elected in 2012 for a seven-year term and again in 2019 for five years after he modified the Constitution, which limits presidents to two terms. He argued that the constitutional change had reset the clock to zero, but legal experts in Senegal and abroad dismissed the contention as fallacious.
Since 2012, Mr. Sall has presided over the development of one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, focusing on major infrastructure projects like a new international airport, a train linking the capital, Dakar, to its suburbs and a new metropolis aimed at alleviating congestion in Dakar.
He has also overseen the development of a gas field off Senegal’s northern coast that is expected to start production next year. It could make the country of 17 million people a major producer of natural gas in Africa.
Yet, Senegal’s health care system remains underdeveloped, while youth unemployment is widespread. And under Mr. Sall’s leadership, hundreds of political opponents have been jailed and journalists arrested.
Senegal now faces an open election in less than eight months.
The future for Mr. Sonko, Mr. Sall’s main opponent, remains uncertain. Last month, he was sentenced to two years in prison for “corrupting youth” after a massage parlor employee accused him of rape in 2021. Mr. Sonko was acquitted of rape and other charges, all which he denied.
Mr. Sall has yet to name a political successor. On Tuesday evening, he said, “Senegal exceeds my person, and is full of leaders capable of taking the country to the next level.”