Senegal Opposition Leader’s Arrest Sparks Protests

In the past few days, the flag of Senegal has been held high in the air during protests in response to the arrest of the country’s opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, on what supporters say are fabricated charges. 

Sonko founded his own political party, Pastef-Les Patriotes, in 2014. He is especially popular with younger Senegalese people, who support his opposition to corruption within the Senegal government. 

On Wednesday, March 3, Sonko was arrested and charged with rape. The case, which was heard in a closed court hearing last month, has yet to be adjudicated. Protesters view the accusation and charges as part of a plot by Senegalese President Macky Sall to intimidate Sonko. In the seven years since Sall came into power, some in Senegal have raised concerns about his involvement in arrests of political opponents, including Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall. 

Many people in Senegal believe that Mr. Sall orchestrated the charges against Sonko to ensure the security of his own political future. Mr. Abdoulaye Fall, instructor in French, whose home country is Senegal, said, “My personal opinion is that the accusations against and arrest of Ousmane Sonko are purely motivated by political calculation and that the current president, Macky Sall, is looking for strategies to annihilate any viable opposition and run for a third term.” 

The arrest of Mr. Sonko, who challenged Mr. Sall in the 2019 presidential election, comes at a time of uncertainty over whether Mr. Sall plans to run for a third term. Though there is a two-term limit in the Senegalese Constitution, Mr. Sall launched a review of the constitution in 2016, raising suspicion over his intentions. 

At least five people have died in clashes with police since March 3. Protesters, mostly young supporters of Mr. Sonko, are angry about economic hardship, restrictions due to the pandemic, and a president they see as dictatorial and corrupt. After the protests began, the government blocked two private television channels that were covering them, and access to social media and messaging apps was restricted. 

Mr. Fall said, “My family is saddened by the unrest in Senegal and the lack of proactive leadership in the middle of this crisis. We are following the news closely through social media and we are deeply worried by the violent turn of events. We talk to friends and family [in Senegal] every day, and we pray that they are safe.” 

Protesters believe that Senegal’s hard-won democracy is in peril. Nearby countries in West Africa have seen presidents manipulate constitutions and legal courts to stay in power. For example, Alassane Ouattara, the president of Ivory Coast, won a third term in a disputed election last November after amending the Ivorian constitution to remove the two-term limit.  

Senegal, a country of 16 million people, is often seen as a pillar of stability in West Africa. Mr. Fall said, “I am afraid that Senegal, a country known for its social stability and often presented as a showcase of democracy in Africa, will go through cycles of violence with unpredictable consequences.”

Protests have continued through Thursday, March 11, though Mr. Sonko was released from police custody on Monday.