A Senegalese opposition politician has been charged and released on bail after days of protests left eight people dead and rocked the west African country, one of the region’s most stable democracies.
Opposition leader Ousmane Sonko has been accused of rape, an allegation he has dismissed as politically motivated. His supporters and other affiliated groups — who are angry at corruption, French influence in its former colony and the poor state of the economy — have taken to the streets in recent days and more demonstrations are planned for this week.
After a media blackout and internet shutdown, Senegal’s president Macky Sall is to address the nation Monday night, local media said.
“Sonko’s conditional release could lessen the worst of these civil unrest risks, but it may already be too late to stop the spread of anti-government sentiment,” said Eric Humphery-Smith, an analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
Sonko, a former tax inspector, was arrested on Wednesday last week for disturbing the public order while en route to court to respond to a rape accusation from an employee at a salon. He has denied the charge. The 46-year-old was fired from his job in 2016 after accusing the president’s brother Aliou Sall of tax irregularities. Two other political rivals of the president were charged with crimes that prevented them from running against him in the 2019 election.
Thousands of mostly young people brought the capital Dakar to a standstill during the past week as military tanks roamed the streets. Sonko is a prominent critic of French influence in Senegal, and businesses tied to the former colonial power have been targeted in recent days, including Total petrol stations, Auchan grocery stores and Orange mobile phone outlets.
France is seen as a staunch ally of Sall, and Paris is widely viewed as choosing to ignore what critics call his anti-democratic moves. Democracy in other former French colonies, such as Ivory Coast, Chad and Guinea, has eroded in recent years.
The focus of the demonstrations in Senegal has gone beyond Sonko to include wider socio-economic grievances. There have been sporadic protests over the past year against coronavirus restrictions, including a 9pm curfew, that are far stricter than in many of its neighbours and have sapped economic growth.
“The context is a deep economic crisis that followed the Covid-19 health and social crises, high rates of youth unemployment,” said Ebrima Sall, executive director of the Senegal-based NGO Trust Africa.
When people talk about the desperation of young people in Senegal, he said, “a figure often cited is that of the estimated 600 youth from this country who perished in the high seas as they tried to travel to Europe in boats”.
The UN, foreign embassies in Dakar and the Economic Community of West African States have all called for peace. Authorities should “take the necessary measures to ease tensions and guarantee the freedom to demonstrate peacefully,” the regional bloc said in a statement.
The protests are the largest in Senegal since 2011, when a popular street movement ousted then-president Abdoulaye Wade and propelled Sall into office. Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”), a collective of rappers and journalists, helped organise those protests and has now called followers to demonstrate against Sall’s rule, inequality, corruption and joblessness.