YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Catholic clerics and laity have joined in widespread pro-democracy protests in Senegal, following a Feb. 3 announcement by President Macky Sall that he is postponing an election scheduled for Feb. 25.

Although Sall has announced that he will not seek a third term in office, critics believe the postponement is intended either to extend his own grip on power or to prepare the way for his hand-picked successor to take over.

In a February 4 press conference, Archbishop Benjamin Ndiaye of Dakar, the national capital, said he was “baffled” by the president’s decision and described the postponement as a “technique of circumvention.”

“When there is a rule, it’s so that it can be followed, not so that we can go left and right,” Ndiaye told journalists.

Senegal, located in West Africa, is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation where Catholics represent less than two percent of the population. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church exercises an outsized social influence, in part due to it extensive network of 316 schools in a country of roughly 17 million people.

In his Feb. 3 televised address to the nation, Sall said he had signed a decree postponing the election over controversies surrounding the selection of candidates.

Tensions had been rising in the West African country over a decision by the Constitutional Council to exclude some key political figures from the ballot. Prominent contenders such as Karim Wade and opposition firebrand Ousmane Sonko were barred, prompting nation-wide protests, with the argument that the rules for candidacy were not applied fairly.

Sall’s decision to postpone the election was an unprecedented move in a country that has for decades stood as a beacon of democracy, on an African continent where peaceful transitions are few and far between. Senegal has seen four largely peaceful transitions of power since independence from France in 1960.

For the first time in Senegal’s history, the incumbent is not on the ballot, but Sall did hand-pick his successor, Prime Minister Amadou Ba, to join 19 other candidates in contesting for the country’s top job. Pledging to respect his commitment not to run for re-election, Sall said he “will begin an open national dialogue to bring together the conditions for a free, transparent and inclusive election.”

Ndiaye, the Catholic archbishop, is clearly skeptical.

“Institutions must be respectable and respected in their missions so that we can move forward together, and that presupposes that we all play the game of national interest,” he said.

He said that Senegal can only continue to enjoy peace if that peace is built and acted upon. Asked what he thought about Sall’s call for dialogue, Ndiaye replied, “What matters most to me is that Senegal lives according to its constitution. That’s the most important thing.”

“Everything we can say and do must be in line with the constitution we have adopted as citizens of this country,” he said.

Catholic laity have also opposed the president’s decision to postpone the election.

In a statement issued Feb. 6, members of the National Laity Council (CNL) said that they were in “total disagreement with this decision, the consequences of which could lead Senegal into an uncertain future.”

“This unprecedented decision, which runs contrary to Senegal’s legendary democratic tradition, entails real risks of instability and is a matter of grave concern for our organization,” they said.

“In keeping with its values of peace and fraternity, and in the best interests of the nation, the CNL calls on the President of the Republic and all political players to scrupulously respect the republican calendar, “they said.

They challenged various stakeholders in the democratic process to “work for the peace and stability of Senegal by finding as soon as possible the solutions needed to organize a transparent, inclusive, peaceful and democratic election.”

In the face of the mounting tensions, lawmakers rushed into parliament Feb. 6 and voted that the postponed election be conducted on December 15. The new date was voted by 105 MPs in the 165-seat assembly, led by the pro-Sall majority.

Opposition MPs, however, claim that the new date is “unconstitutional.” They say it is a gimmick by President Sall to prolong his stay in power.

“They managed to pass the amendment which extended the mandate of the president of the republic illegally, unconstitutionally, until 15 December. We are not going to accept this,” said opposition figure Ayib Daffé in an interview with RFI.

“The situation is completely catastrophic, Senegal’s image is ruined, and I don’t think we’ll be recovering from this democratic bankruptcy, this tsunami in the rule of law, any time soon,” he said.

Several candidates and NGOs have labeled the postponement and the Dec. 15 date “a constitutional coup.”

As the situation threatens to plunge the country into chaos, the country’s Catholic laity believes God can still protect the country from degenerating.

“May the Lord watch over and protect Senegal,” CNL members said in their Feb. 6 statement.