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Pre-vote standoff in Senegal after protest violence

DAKAR (AFP) – Senegal’s main opposition leader issued an “ultimatum” to President Macky Sall on Saturday, telling him to release “political hostages” arrested during protests that left three people dead a day earlier.

In a message posted on Facebook, Ousmane Sonko told Sall to release detained opposition members, failing which their supporters would come “to get these political hostages, whatever that will cost”.

The stand-off came just six weeks ahead of legislative elections in a country normally considered a beacon of stability in west Africa.

Violence broke out after youths defied a ban on demonstrating and clashed with police in the capital Dakar on Friday.

Media reports put the death toll in Friday’s violence at three.

Police cordoned off Sonko’s home and that of the city’s mayor, Barthelemy Dias, another outspoken critic of the president, preventing them from joining the protests. Three opposition figures, Dethie Fall, Ahmet Aidara and Mame Diarra Fame, were arrested on Friday, Sonko’s PASTEF party spokesman said A fourth, Guy Marius Sagna, was arrested on Saturday in Casamance, according to his brother.

By Saturday, the roadblocks keeping Sonko and the city mayor from leaving their homes had been lifted. But in a Facebook post late Friday, Sonko said, “Mr Macky Sall, we give you an ultimatum (to) release all political hostages in your hands; beyond that, we will come and get these political hostages, whatever the cost.”

Senegalese opposition figure Ousmane Sonko talk the police outside his residence in Dakar. PHOTO: AFP

Sonko accused Sall of being “a murderous president”.

Referring to riots that shook Senegal last year, he said, “After having murdered 14 people during the events of February-March 2021, here he is adding three more victims to his list in June 2022”.

Friday’s unrest came after youth defied a ban on gatherings to protest the invalidation of a list of opposition candidates for the July 31 elections. Sonko had called for protests against the decision, which bans him and other opposition figures from contesting the ballot.

The clashes left one person dead in the capital and two others in Casamance, at least two of whom were not part of the protests according to media reports.

Sonko denounced what he called the president’s “obsession” with seeking a third term in 2024, although Sall has remained vague on the issue.

Sonko, who was third in the 2019 presidential election, is running for president in 2024.

The opposition accuses the government of trying to neuter competition by using institutions such as the Constitutional Council to thwart Sall’s political opponents.

After weeks of wrangling, the council on June 3 confirmed that the national list of candidates submitted by the Yewwi Askan Wi coalition for legislative elections was invalid.

That decision ruled out Sonko and other opponents of Sall.

The opposition held a first peaceful protest on June 8.

It then threatened to prevent the conduct of the elections if their list was not reinstated and called a new rally on Friday.

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