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Faye sworn in as Senegal president, cites 'profound desire for change'

By Ngouda Dione

DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegal's once jailed opposition candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye was sworn in on Tuesday as the West African nation's fifth and youngest president ever, promising to restore stability and bring economic progress.

The 44-year-old former tax inspector defeated Amadou Ba, the candidate of outgoing President Macky Sall's ruling coalition, by a landslide in the first round of voting, reflecting high hopes for change in the country of around 18 million.

"The results of the election showed a profound desire for change," Faye said after taking the oath of office at a ceremony he attended with his two wives.

Over a dozen heads of state and regional representatives attended the inauguration, including Nigeria's President Bola Tinubu, Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo and African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat.

The military juntas of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger also sent representatives.

The smooth transition was a welcome boost after three years of unprecedented political turmoil in Senegal that had raised concern about democratic backsliding in the coup-prone region of West Africa, where juntas have seized power and cut ties with traditional Western allies in favour of Russia.

"Senegal will be a country of hope, at peace, with an independent justice system and a stronger democracy," Faye said, promising to manage affairs ethically and to build the economy.

Millions queued for hours to cast their ballot in an election that eventually took place on March 24 after unsuccessful attempts by Sall's government to postpone it from February to December, then June.

FRUSTRATION

The move stoked frustration against Sall, whose popularity dropped over the course of his second mandate due to economic hardship, a crackdown on dissent, and concerns that he would tamper with the constitution to run for a third term.

Anger crystallised around the prosecution of firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who came third in the 2019 election but was barred from running again due to a defamation conviction. He denies wrongdoing.

"I will work towards preserving peace and national cohesion and make sure we preserve our most cherished resource, our national stability," Faye said.

Sonko backed his right-hand man Faye from jail after his candidacy was rejected. Faye was also in detention at the time on charges, including defamation, which he denies.

The two were released days before the vote, sparking mass street celebrations, and joined the campaign trail as a crowd-pleasing duo under the slogan "Diomaye is Sonko".

Expectations are high as Faye, relatively inexperienced in government affairs, becomes president of a young population frustrated with rising living costs and a lack of jobs in a country set to become an oil and gas producer this year.

The new president has vowed to tackle corruption and introduce a series of economic reforms to prioritise national interests, including the re-negotiation of oil, gas and mineral contracts with foreign operators.

He has not yet said what role Sonko, who has been at his heels and joined a meeting between Faye and Sall last week, might play in the new government.

(Reporting by Ngouda Dione; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Bate Felix and Gareth Jones)