What Exactly is Going On in Senegal?

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Across the continent, there has been a growing wave of protest and dissent. Senegal is the latest country to experience this with an unprecedented wave of violent protests since Wednesday when the key opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko was arrested for “disturbing public order” following accusations of rape levied against him. However, these have been viewed as political moves orchestrated by President Macky Sall who came into power in April 2012.

Who Is Macky Sall?

The 59-year old Fatick native came to power as the choice candidate of opposition coalition, ‘United In Same Hope’ having forced a run-off election against former President Abdoulaye Wade after obtaining 26.5% total votes against Wade’s 34.8%. Canvassing and winning the support of disqualified and eliminated candidates enabled him win the run-off election having promised a five-year presidential term as against the then-existing seven-year term. He also promised to ensure that no leader served for more than two terms in office.

Prior to becoming an opposition leader and subsequently winning the presidency in 2012, Sall had served as the Prime Minister of Sénégal between 2004 and 2007 under Wade’s government. He was President of the National Assembly from June 2007 to November 2008. He served as the Mayor of Fatick, his hometown between 2002 and 2008, and again, between 2009 and 2012.

In January 2017, a Constitutional Council set up to review the country’s constitution rejected Sall’s proposal to shorten his own term to five years. He went on to win re-election in 2019 winning 58% of votes in the first round. Among those he defeated in that year’s election was Ousmane Sonko, a Thiès native who was the former chief tax inspector in Senegal.

Ousmane Sonko: The Opposition Leader Accused of Rape

Sonko ran for the Senegalese presidency in 2019 as a Tax Justice candidate. He came third in the elections earning only 16% of the vote share. He was reportedly targeted with anonymous smears utilizing fake documents and false claims aimed at discrediting him during the election cycle.

On Wednesday 3rd March, 2021, he was arrested near Cheikh Anta Diop University and charged with disturbing public order and breaking the country’s  COVID-19 protocol. He was on his way to court to stand trial for rape allegations made against him, a move which his supporters claim to be politically motivated.

Sonko was accused of rape by a worker at a beauty salon where he went to get a massage. He has denied the charges and accused the president of conspiring to remove him ahead of the 2024 elections. The summons for his appearance on Wednesday came after Senegal’s parliament voted late last week to strip Sonko of his legal immunity, paving the way for a police investigation of the case. “We will go to the judge, but it is not an abdication,” he said, maintaining his stand against the ruling government but accepting to go through the process of trial.

The People’s Reaction And Government’s Response

Sometime last month, the people responded to the rape charges against Sonko by taking to the street in peaceful protest and demonstrating their displeasure. There’s speculation that Sall intends to run for a third term, hence the clampdown on the opposition. This is further corroborated by Sall’s 2016 Constitutional Council which failed to cap his tenure at two terms.

Following his arrest, protests broke out in the country’s capital, Dakar with hundreds of his supporters clashing with armed police officers. The police were seen firing tear gas and stun grenades at protesters who responded by throwing rocks at police office officers and burning tires on the road. Dozens of students were still reportedly holed up in Cheikh Anta Diop university when unrest broke out. Protesters had followed his motorcade on Wednesday, sounding horns and singing in solidarity before clashes erupted, and Sonko was arrested.

One person was killed in clashes on Thursday in Bignona town, in the southern Casamance region, a police officer claimed. “We still don’t know the cause, it is under investigation.” Four police were also injured in the clashes. The central government has shut down the internet while two local television stations, Sen TV and Walf TV have also been shut down since Thursday for broadcasting ‘in loop’ images of the unrest.

This is the worst unrest seen in Dakar in years in a country known for its political stability. Sénégal is one of very few African countries to have never experienced a coup.

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