Lamine and three other young men, their noses and mouths covered with a white cloth, try to set fire to a pile of construction pallets and tires on a street in the Medina neighborhood of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. A driver tries to get around the obstacle, but is forced to turn around. “If you don’t want to fight for your country, go home!” Lamine shouts in Wolof, the national language. At the wheel, the middle-aged man makes a weary gesture. At the other end of the street, a gendarme throws a tear gas grenade and a police van begins to approach. “Macky Sall will be the first president we will forcefully remove from his palace,” adds the 17-year-old, looking for stones to throw at the agents.
In recent days, numerous streets and neighborhoods in Senegal’s main cities have been the scene of fierce clashes between young protesters and law enforcement. Last week, there were three deaths, a police officer and two minors, as well as around thirty injured. This African country, an oasis of social peace in a region convulsed by recurrent coups d’état and the advance of jihadism, has been experiencing frequent street riots for the last two years caused by a high-voltage political duel: President Macky Sall, in power since 2012, he is considering running for a third term in the February 2024 elections, a circumstance prohibited in the Constitution, while the main opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, relies on his popularity among young people to confront him from the streets.
“It is a very difficult time, in the recent history of this country we have never had so much unrest or so many police on the streets,” says Babacar Ndiaye, research director of the Wathi analysis center, who believes that the violence could escalate. “We do not know what can happen, the trajectory of events is uncertain. A lot of things revolve around Macky Sall’s decision to show up or not and I think he’s going to make that decision depending on the context. His environment is pressuring him to do it and it is true that he has not prepared any dolphin to succeed him. In any case, this enigma will be resolved in a few weeks, at the latest in September”, when the controversial process of signing support for candidacies established in Senegalese law begins.
The epicenter of the violence moved on this occasion to Ziguinchor, in the southern region of Casamance, the city of which Sonko is mayor. For more than a week, dozens of young people have stood guard next to barricades around their leader’s house and have thrown stones at the agents with the intention of avoiding their alleged arrest. This Tuesday, the opposition leader should have appeared before a judge in Dakar at the start of the trial against him for a rape complaint filed in 2021 by the young Adji Sarr, an employee of a Dakar massage parlor.
But the process had to start without him, after Sonko decided not to appear for the call. The opposition leader assures that she is “a girl who lies” and that everything is a political-judicial maneuver to exclude him from the presidential race. For more than 10 days she has been in Ziguinchor, almost 300 kilometers from Dakar. “It is no longer justice, it is judicial banditry, and for this reason I have made the decision, within the framework of my campaign of civil disobedience, not to collaborate anymore,” he said on Twitter.
Macky Sall, your predecessors served their terms and left Senegal in stability and peace. Do the same.
— Ousmane Sonko (@SonkoOfficiel) May 8, 2023
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Sonko has already been sentenced for defamation to six months in prison after a complaint by a minister, whom he accused of embezzlement of public funds. This sentence could already make him ineligible if confirmed by the Supreme Court. Every day of declaration in the court the riots are repeated, especially in the suburbs and more popular neighborhoods. For months, the main crossroads and avenues in the city of Dakar have been taken over by the police, alert to any movement.
On the hottest days, the authorities prohibit the circulation of motorcycles and schools and shops close. Last February, in the midst of serious disturbances, gendarmes forcibly removed Sonko from his vehicle to take him before the judge. The opponent denounces an assassination attempt with “a lethal gas” and directly accuses Macky Sall.
Outburst after Sonko’s first arrest
The first incidents broke out in March 2021, after Sonko was arrested. For six days, thousands of young people took to the streets, burned and looted dozens of French brand gas stations and supermarkets, blocked roads with barricades, attacked public buildings and confronted police with stones and Molotov cocktails, who responded with violence. Only the release of the opponent calmed the spirits after fifteen deaths. That day, Macky Sall understood that the former tax inspector and only deputy from the small Senegalese Patriots Africans for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (Pastef) party, which had come third in the 2019 presidential elections, represented a serious threat to its continuity.
The test came in the 2022 legislatures, where the opposition coalition led by Sonko fell just one deputy away from wresting an absolute majority from the presidential field. He is far from being an anti-establishment candidate, but his speech is disruptive and he has known how to read the expectations of a new generation: he criticizes neocolonialism and surfs the wave of anti-French sentiment that is sweeping the region; he denounces corruption, the element that has defined him since his beginnings as a union leader; and he calls for an independent judiciary so that there is accountability, perhaps what most worries power. All this connects with a youth that is increasingly better trained, but frustrated by the structural problem of the lack of employment and opportunities. “The majority of the population is under 25 years old and Sonko speaks to them directly through social media. He has a very effective communication strategy, which has far outperformed all his rivals”, adds Ndiaye.
Sonko’s defenders, galvanized by the words of their leader, believe in his innocence and accuse President Sall of having hatched a plot involving judges, police and journalists to break him. On the contrary, from the Government they assure that Sonko is immersed in an insurrectional project before which the State is not going to kneel and they ask him to appear before his alleged victim and the courts to answer for his acts. The trial, which was due to start last week, has been postponed until Tuesday and all of Senegal is preparing for new riots. The tension is also reflected in freedoms, in recent months at least a dozen journalists have been detained or threatened, while hundreds of young people and militants have gone to the police station for disturbing public order.
Some 170 civil society groups, leaders of an opposition in which not everything goes through Sonko, human rights activists and thousands of citizens, summoned by the F24 movement (February 2024), took to the streets on May 12 to demand an election in which all candidates can stand except Macky Sall, who on several occasions publicly promised that he would only serve two terms in power. Beyond the legal considerations, which will have to be resolved by the Constitutional Court, what many Senegalese do not forgive their president for is marking a “wax waxeet”, an expression in Wolof equivalent to breaking with the spoken word. Honor, a matter that is not minor in Senegal.
To try to overcome the crisis, President Macky Sall has finally managed to get at least part of the opposition to accept his offer of a political dialogue “with respect for the rule of law and the institutions of the Republic, for a united Senegal of peace and stability and social cohesion”. This process is scheduled to begin on May 30. Although it was born weighed down by the refusal of the tenacious opposition leader and his closest allies to participate in the talks – “Why dialogue?”, he asked a few weeks ago in a public intervention -, the truth is that other opposition parties, such as the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) of the incombustible Abdoulaye Wade, have accepted the proposal. Ousmane Sonko seems willing to run the risk of being isolated within an opposition that is beginning to show fissures and risking everything on his enormous popularity.
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