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Senegal swears in Africa’s youngest elected leader as president in a dramatic prison-to-palace rise

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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegal inaugurated Africa’s youngest elected leader as president on Tuesday, as the 44-year-old and previously little-known Bassirou Diomaye Faye completed a dramatic ascent from prison to palace within weeks.

Last month’s election tested Senegal’s reputation as a stable democracy in West Africa, a region rocked in recent years by coups and attempted coups.

BASSIROU DIOMAYE FAYE EMERGES AS SENEGAL’S NEXT PRESIDENT AFTER CONTENTIOUS ELECTION CYCLE

Faye was released from prison less than two weeks before the vote, along with mentor and popular opposition figure Ousmane Sonko, following a political amnesty announced by outgoing President Macky Sall. Their arrests had sparked months of protests and concerns that Sall would seek a third term in office despite term limits. Rights groups said dozens were killed and about 1,000 were jailed.

Senegal-Politics

Bassirou Diomaye Faye is sworn in as Senegal’s president in Dakar, Senegal, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. Senegal has sworn in Bassirou Diomaye Faye as its new president, completing the previously little-known opposition figure’s dramatic ascent from prison to the palace in recent weeks. Faye was released from prison less than two weeks before the March election following a political amnesty announced by the outgoing president.  (AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui)

In his first speech as president, Faye remembered those killed and arrested during the protests and promised to deliver greater sovereignty for Senegal while working to build prosperity.

«I am aware that the results of the elections express a profound desire for systemic change,» he said.

This is the first elected office for Faye, a former tax inspector. His rise has reflected widespread frustration among Senegal’s youth with the country’s direction — a common sentiment across Africa, which has the world’s youngest population and a number of leaders widely accused of clinging to power for decades.

«It’s the culmination of a long struggle for democracy and the rule of law,» said Aissata Sagna, a 39-year-old factory worker who worked on Faye’s campaign. «This is a day of celebration for us, even if we have lost young people killed during the demonstrations.»

Unemployment rates are high. The war in Ukraine has helped drive up the price of food and energy. Like residents of other former French colonies, Senegalese are increasingly disaffected with France, often accused of exploiting its longstanding ties with West Africa.

Faye campaigned on promises to clean up corruption. Ahead of the election, he released a declaration of his assets and called on other candidates to do the same. It listed a home in Dakar and land outside the capital and in his small hometown. His bank accounts totaled roughly $6,600. A practicing Muslim, Faye has two wives, both of whom were present on Tuesday.

«I think the first challenge is the formation of his (Faye’s) government,» said Alioune Tine, founder of the Senegalese think tank Afrikajom Center. «This will be the first concrete message he sends to the Senegalese people. The size, diversity and profiles will be analyzed with a fine-tooth comb to see if they meet the demand for a break with the past.»

Allies are closely watching Faye’s economic policies following his promise to improve the management of natural resources. Senegal has made new oil and gas discoveries in recent years, but the population has yet to see any real benefit. Analysts warn, however, that renegotiating deals could turn investors off.

The new president was little known until Sonko, a popular opposition figure who came third in the previous election in 2019, named him to run in his place after being barred from the election for a prior conviction. While Sonko’s future role in the new administration is unclear, he is expected to have a prominent role.

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Faye was arrested for alleged defamation last year, while Sonko faced a number of charges, including a prolonged legal battle that started when he was accused of rape in 2021. He was acquitted of the rape charges but was convicted of corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison last year. Sonko’s supporters say his legal troubles were part of a government effort to derail his candidacy.

While Sall eventually ruled out running for a third term, he abruptly postponed the election in February with only weeks to go, triggering another wave of protests. That move was blocked by the country’s constitutional court.

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Remembering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 81 years later

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On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland triggered World War II, prompting France and the United Kingdom to honor their defensive pact with Poland and declare war on Germany in response.

As Germany invaded from the west, the Soviet Union invaded from the east, culminating in the division and annexation of Poland under the German-Soviet Frontier Treaty.

The Nazis subsequently unleashed brutality on Poland’s considerable Jewish population, herding them into urban ghettos to await transport to the Majdanek and Treblinka extermination camps.

SURVIVOR OF THE WARSAW GHETTO UPRISING HONORED ON 80TH ANNIVERSARY

During the Grossaktion Warsaw, in the summer of 1942, a quarter of a million Jews were transported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. In response, groups including the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union began to organize a resistance effort, leading to the largest military uprising by Jews during the war.

Boy in Warsaw Ghetto

A group of Jewish civilians being held at gunpoint by German SS troops after being forced out of a bunker where they were sheltering during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in German-occupied Poland, World War II, April 19 – May 16, 1943. (12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As the Nazis’ concentration camp deportation plan unfolded toward the end of 1942, the Jewish resistance initially decided to refrain from military action, under the belief that the Jewish population was being sent to labor camps. As word spread of the Nazi plan for Jewish extermination, fervor for armed resistance spread.

The first limited armed conflict in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising took place on Jan. 18, 1943, as sparsely armed Jewish families took heavy losses, but inflicted dozens of casualties on Nazi soldiers. 

Then, on Passover eve, on April 19, German police and SS forces entered the Warsaw ghetto intent upon completing the deportation plan.

Rabbi in front of congregation

Despite great persecution, Poland again has a thriving Jewish community. Here, Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Shudrich is seen speaking to a congregation of women Rabbis visiting the Nozyk synagogue in Warsaw, Poland on Jan. 17, 2019. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Soon, they met with heavy resistance from Molotov cocktails and grenades. Knowing the Nazi response would be fierce and total, the Jews decided to fight to the end; they refused to allow the Nazis to choose their time and place of death, and desired to call attention to the world’s troubling inaction in the face of growing awareness of Nazi atrocities.

SS Brigadefuhrer Jurgen Stroop, who commanded Warsaw, gave the Jewish defenders an ultimatum, offering them an opportunity to surrender. Upon rejection, Stroop resorted to burning the Jewish resistance out, employing flamethrowers and fire bottles. The so-called «Bunker Wars» lasted for a month, as the brave Jewish defenders slowed German progress in dense house-to-house urban warfare. Some driven from above ground, many defenders took refuge below in dugouts, bunkers and sewers.

GREAT SYNAGOGUE OF WARSAW TO ‘REAPPEAR’, 76 YEARS AFTER BEING DESTROYED BY NAZIS DURING GHETTO UPRISING

Following weeks of combat, the Jewish Military Union lost all of its commanders, prompting its last fighters to escape to the Michalin forest through the Muranowski tunnel on April 29, marking the end of the major engagement, although sporadic resistance continued until early June.

An estimated 13,000 Jews were killed during the uprising, while nearly all the rest were deported to the Majdanek and Treblinka concentration camps. Virtually every structure in the Warsaw Ghetto was subsequently demolished, and Stroop reported to his superiors on May 16, 1943, that the Warsaw Synagogue had been blown up. After razing the incinerated buildings, the Nazis built the Warsaw concentration camp complex in their place.

Auschwitz Birkenau

Railway networks were used to transport hundreds of thousands of Jews to the gas chambers to be murdered, inside the former Nazi death camps. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

However, justice would come for Stroop and the other Nazi commanders who oversaw the anti-Jewish brutality in Poland. Virtually all died in combat during the war or were captured by Allied forces and faced either execution or lengthy prison sentences. Stroop was captured in Germany by American troops, and following his conviction for war crimes, was hanged in Poland in 1952.

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While the Jewish resistance faced overwhelming odds against the vastly larger and better armed German forces, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising stands as an important milestone in Jewish history, demonstrating the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and inspiring other resistance and partisan forces both in Poland and beyond.

In 2018, Simcha Rotem, who played a key role as a courier in the Warsaw resistance, became the last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, dying in Jerusalem, aged 94. 

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