Senegal braces for three more days of protests as crisis deepens

DAKAR, SENEGAL (AP) — Supporters of jailed Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko have called for three more days of protests starting yesterday following violent demonstrations last week that threatened to erode the country’s reputation as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.

Sonko, seen as President Macky Sall’s greatest potential political threat in the upcoming 2024 election, was arrested last week following a rape allegation. His supporters maintain that the charge is aimed at derailing Sonko’s political future and the ensuing protests have been accelerated by broader, long-standing grievances with Sall’s administration.

The violence is the worst unrest to hit Senegal in nearly a decade, as demonstrators have sought to undermine Sall’s business ties with former coloniser France. In recent days crowds have set fire to more than a dozen supermarkets opened by French retailer Auchan, and have targetted Total gas stations.

The sight of burnt-out cars and boarded up shops are a rarity in Senegal, which has never suffered the military coups and dictatorships that have destabilised so many of its neighbours in West Africa over the past half-century.

The opposition coalition known as M2D has urged peaceful protests this week, urging the president “to take concrete action to meet the democratic demands of the Senegalese people”. Chief among those is the release of Sonko, the jailed opposition leader.

Sonko, 46, finished third in the 2019 presidential election with just over 15 per cent of the ballots cast, drawing strong supporter from younger voters. However, his message of greater economic independence for Senegal has attracted a wider audience amid the financial hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic amid curfews and other movement restrictions.

Sall easily won re-election in 2019 with more than 58 per cent of the vote. His opponents fear he will seek to extend his mandate with a third term as presidents in neighbouring Guinea and Ivory Coast did last year though Sall has not commented publicly on his intentions yet.

Demonstrators throw rocks at riot policemen during protests against the arrest of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko in Dakar, Senegal on March 5. PHOTO: AP