By Diadie Ba

DAKAR (Reuters) – A long-awaited decision on Monday by Senegal’s President Macky Sall not to run for a third term next year has opened up the race to lead the West African nation on the verge of becoming an oil an gas producer.

Neither Sall’s Alliance for the Republic party, nor the broader Benno Bokk Yakaar (BBY) ruling coalition, has yet put forward any candidates since Sall ended widespread speculation about his political intentions.

But insiders point to Prime Minister Amadou Ba, former Prime Minister Mahammad Dionne and Agriculture Minister Aly Ngouille Ndiaye as potential candidates.

BBY is seeking to avoid a protracted search and primaries just under five months before a deadline to submit presidential candidates for the February poll.

“We are already discussing among ourselves,” Aymerou Gningue, a former parliament speaker for BBY said on Tuesday.

“If we stand unified and put forward our values of solidarity and generosity to find out what we can do for Senegal we will find a strong consensus,” he added.

The ruling coalition is likely to face a divided field as several opposition politicians have already voiced intentions to run for the top job.

It is still unclear if firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who came third in the 2019 election, will be among them.

Sonko was sentenced in early June to a two-year jail term for immoral behaviour towards a woman younger than 21 he was initially accused of raping. He has denied the charges.

His sentencing sparked days of deadly riots across the country.

Other contenders include former Prime Minister Idrissa Seck, who came second in the 2019 presidential poll, and another former Prime Minister, Aminata Toure.

Toure left the BBY coalition following a public fallout with Sall earlier this year.

The field could increase further as parliament is set to pass bills this week that would allow two other opposition figures struck from the 2019 voter roll to run.

(Reporting by Diadie Ba; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Sofia Christensen and Mark Potter)

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