In Dakar, Senegal’s capital, tensions escalated on Saturday, June 3rd during clashes between police and supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. The conflict marked the third day of protests, triggered by legal charges against Sonko.
Sonko was acquitted on a 2-year-old rape charge in which he allegedly raped a woman employed at a massage parlor. He also allegedly made death threats against the woman. Sonko was, however, charged and convicted of corrupting youth, which means someone used a position of power to have sex with individuals under the age of 21. In Senegal, this act is a criminal offense with up to a five-year sentence and $6,000 fine. Sonko did not appear in court, being charged in absentia. The wave of protests was sparked on Thursday, June 1st when Sonko was convicted.
As the day transitioned to evening, the opposition supporters took to the streets, forming barricades and setting tires on fire. While the army maintained street patrols, law enforcement officers responded with tear gas and detained individuals suspected of inciting unrest.
The Senegalese government announced violent confrontations have resulted in at least 15 fatalities, which include two security officers.
Despite the two-year prison sentence handed down to him, his lawyer asserted that an arrest warrant had yet to be released. Sonko’s supporters perceive these legal hurdles as a political maneuver to compromise his prospects in the 2024 presidential election.
According to Senegalese law, Sonko’s conviction could disqualify him from participating in the next election. However, the government hinted at the possibility of Sonko requesting a retrial after his imprisonment.
Sonko supporters believe that the recent conviction is part of a government plan to prevent his participation in the upcoming Senegalese election as he is seen as current President Macky Sall’s primary contender.
The international community, including France and the United States’ State Department, have expressed deep concern over the violent clashes and have urged for a peaceful resolution, reminding Senegal of its long-standing democratic tradition. Spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “Senegal’s strong record of democratic governance, rule of law, and peaceful coexistence is something for which the Senegalese people can be rightfully proud. We urge all parties to voice their views in a peaceful manner.”
Rights organizations have criticized the government’s measures, including arbitrary arrests and social media censorship, with platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter suspended for almost two days.
Following the verdict, Sonko remained out of sight and silent. His party, PASTEF-Patriots, has encouraged its supporters to intensify their “constitutional resistance” until President Sall relinquishes his position. Government spokesperson Abdou Karim Fofana expressed concern over the damage caused by the persistent demonstrations, arguing that the protesters’ actions undermined the democratic process.