Senegal is on fire, and it seems nobody is taking active measures to quench the fire. From Dakar, the fire is spreading throughout the country and even across the borders, and the rule of law seems to have gone out of the window, as well as respect for human life.
Following the jail sentence of Senegal’s prominent opposition leader and the head of Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity (PASTEF), Ousmane Sonko on May 31st, demonstrations have broken out, leaving over a dozen people dead and hundreds of people injured.
Sonko was initially charged with rape and accusations of making death threats against an employee at a beauty salon, Adji Sarr, in Dakar in 2021. However, although he was acquitted by the court of the initial charges, he was sentenced in absentia for two years over what the court described as ‘corrupting the youth.’ As expected, the sentencing disqualifies him from running for president.
As expected, Sonko, who has been mayor of Ziguinchor, has rejected the verdict, insisting that it was politically motivated to prevent him from contesting in next February’s election. He had declared his interest in contesting for president again after coming third in the 2019 election that was won by Macky Sall, and he and his lawyer insist that the powers that be are trying to prevent him from clinching power.
Immediately after the verdict was announced, Sonko was placed on house arrest, with the possibility of being arrested anytime, according to the Justice Minister of Senegal, Ismaila Madior Fall.
Ismaila also announced that Sonko doesn’t have a right to contest the verdict since it was given in absentia. Followers of Sonko have not taken any of these occurrences lightly, hence the violence that has broken out.
The Youths, most of who support Sonko, have held onto his claims of the government trying to jeopardize his chances at the polls, and they have responded in anger.
The youths have had to deal with massive cases of unemployment throughout the country, hence their support for the opposition in the first place.
The youths are dissatisfied with Macky Sall’s leadership, and they are even more riled up by speculations that Sall aims to seek a third term, although he has made no such declarations. However, despite the fact that Senegal’s Constitution originally allows for two five-year terms, Sall has implied that a constitutional reform that took place in 2016 gives him the constitutional right to run for a third term.
As if the rumours of the third term bid are not enough to get the youths antsy, adding the sentencing of Sonko, all hell was let loose.
Since May 31st until now, there have been reports of demonstrators in Dakar blocking major roads, building barricades, burning tires, looting and destroying both public and private property, and even pelting police officers with stones.
The police have also reciprocated by firing loads of teargas grenades at the protesters in Dakar. In Mbour and Ziguinchor, protesters and security forces have continued to clash. Despite the deployment of the army on June 2, the clash continued the next day. Witnesses have even reported shootings in Dakar’s Pikine neighbourhood by alleged civilian gunmen.
According to reports, most of the casualties so far have been in the capital city of Dakar, as well as Zinguinchor, Sonko’s hometown, where his supporters have continued to clash with security forces, with hundreds of protesters arrested already.
In a statement released by PASTEF on June 4th, the party alleged that security forces and ‘militias’ have killed 19 people, calling on Senegalese citizens to defend themselves by all means and fight back.
On its part, the government has accused the opposition of destabilizing the country. The Interior Minister Antoine Diome, has even alleged that there was foreign influence in the violent breakouts.
While that remains unproven, the escalation has crossed Senegal’s borders beginning with the closure of Senegalese consulates abroad, in places like New York Bordeaux, Paris, and Milan where these consulates were attacked and serious damage was done.
This is not the first time such a violent outbreak is happening, but it seems the effects were not enough to prevent a new occurrence. In March 2021, Sonko was arrested ahead of a court appearance, leading to deadly protests, with 14 people reported killed and about 600 injuries reported.
There are palpable fears of tensions rising, especially as Sonko called on citizens to defend themselves. The leader of the opposition Rewmi party, Idrissa Seck, has warned the president to avoid running for reelection, otherwise, the violence and wanton killings might continue and escalate.
What is the government of Senegal doing amid all this violence? What are international bodies doing?
There is an urgent need to restore peace in the country and put an end to the loss of lives of innocent citizens. The strife and conflict in Senegal are definitely avoidable, but the government of Senegal seems bent on avoiding every sensible measure that can be taken while insisting that its might is right.
The government should order an unconditional release of all the people that have been arrested during their peaceful protests simply because they expressed dissenting political views and exercised their right to freedom of assembly. The government also needs to remove its arbitrary bans on social media and internet access.
Sall needs to make an official statement on the violence, and it has to be a peaceful one. He must call for dialogue and conversations to end the protests and killings.
The authorities must realize that we live in a free society where oppositions should naturally exist and be allowed to thrive, provided they don’t go against the rule of law. The government must stop clamping down on the opposition and every dissenting voice. The media should be free to do its job without threats and violent outcomes. Security forces must stop the arbitrary arrest and detainment of journalists and demonstrators likewise.
If Senegal’s government doesn’t do the needful, the bodies like the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and the United Nations need to push for the return of peace and dialogue.
All parties should be called to order and brought to the discussion table to avoid this deadly strife that has negatively affected the economy and lives of Senegalese and foreigners in the country.
The rule of law must be respected at all times, above all else. Only if things are done in accordance with the rule of law will peace be restored in Senegal and the country will be able to avoid an impending doom.