Supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on Friday clashed with Senegalese police when they attempted to gather to protest his arrest for “disturbing public order and participating in an unauthorized demonstration.” Sonko was charged for disturbing the public order on March 3 following his refusal to take another route to the courthouse in Dakar to make his initial appearance in an unrelated rape charge.
Sonko, founder and leader of the political party Pastef-Les Patriotes, was accused last month of rape by a female beauty salon employee. Sonko has denied the allegations, stating that they are attempts to dissuade him from challenging the incumbent in the country’s upcoming 2024 presidential election. Many Senegalese are concerned that current President Macky Sall will attempt to change the country’s constitution so that he is able to remain in power for a third term. Under Senegal’s current constitution, an individual may only hold that position for two terms.
According to reports, protesters on Friday threw rocks and burned debris while police fired tear gas and stun grenades at the crowds. Authorities also responded to the protests by restricting access to the internet, preventing private television channels from broadcasting and banning mopeds and motorcycles from the streets of Dakar. At least five people, including one school-age child, were killed in the clashes.
Opposition group Movement for the Defense of Democracy called for three days of protests in Senegal beginning Monday. According to the group, the purpose of the protests was to “demand the unconditional release of the leader of Pastef and all those arrested in the context of this political and judicial case.” Due to concerns over a potential escalation of violence, schools have been closed for a week. Armored vehicles currently occupy some streets in Dakar.
On Friday, Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Mohamed Ibn Chambas, issued the following statement:
[I deplore] the acts of violence that have taken place over the past two days in several localities in Senegal, resulting in the death of one person and many injured. [I call] on all actors to exercise restraint and ensure the constitutional right to peaceful protest. [I call] on security forces to ensure the safety of demonstrators and property in a professional and lawful manner.
Following Monday’s court appearance, Sonko was released on bail. Some assert that the move was designed to relieve some of the mounting tension in the country,
Reports acknowledge that this has been the worst recent violence in “a country usually seen as a beacon of stability in volatile West Africa.”