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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Senegal erupts in protests, with a rape charge only the spark

In Dakar, the capital, crowds of young people threw stones at the police, who were firing tear gas. In the residential neighborhood of Medina, a police van accelerated into a cluster of protesters, almost running them over.

By: New York Times |
Updated: March 6, 2021 11:33:52 am
A demonstrator holds up a Senegalese flag during protests against the arrest of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko in Dakar, Senegal, Friday, March 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Written by Ruth Maclean and Mady Camara

The most widespread demonstrations in Senegal in years continued for the third day Friday, an expression of anger at the president, Macky Sall, and outrage at the arrest of the country’s leading opposition figure, who has been accused of rape.

In Dakar, the capital, crowds of young people threw stones at the police, who were firing tear gas. In the residential neighborhood of Medina, a police van accelerated into a cluster of protesters, almost running them over. In Ngor, a fishing village abutting the city’s fanciest district, protesters lit fires in the streets.

One person died Thursday when security forces used live ammunition on protesters in Bignona, a town in the country’s south, according to the human rights organization Amnesty International.

The arrest of the opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, Wednesday was the trigger for Senegalese young people, many of whom support Sonko, to take to the streets. Sonko, who came in third in the 2019 presidential elections, has been accused of raping a young woman who worked in a massage parlor.

But protesters Friday aired a range of grievances: few job opportunities, pandemic-induced economic hardship and a president that they saw as arrogant, incompetent and dictatorial. “We’re so tired,” said Coumba Traoré, a young businessperson emerging from the demonstration downtown, noting especially her frustration with the 9 p.m. curfew imposed to curb the pandemic.

The young woman accusing Sonko of rape appeared in a closed court hearing last month, but her case has not been adjudicated. Sonko denies the charge.

Protesters see the case as part of a pattern of the government eliminating political opponents.

At stake, they say, is the country’s hard-won democracy.

They have seen how other presidents in the West African region and beyond have locked up their political opponents. But Senegal is home to a thriving civil society and press, and has a tradition of popular movements preventing a slide into autocracy.

That was how the current president, Sall, came to power in 2012: A youth movement thwarted the efforts of his predecessor to seek a third term.

But after nine years with Sall in power, “a deep crisis in our democracy” was exposed this week, Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese historian, wrote, adding that the event “boasts of being exemplary, by always comparing itself to less successful ones on the continent.”

Cheikh Oumar Cyrille Touré, a well-known rapper also known as Thiat, said in a televised debate Wednesday, “Nothing is working in this country, while they keep giving us political speeches.”

He was co-founder of the group Y’en a Marre (We’re Fed Up), which was instrumental in bringing Sall to power. But Touré was arrested Friday in the protests and, according to the Y’en a Marre Facebook group, violently beaten.

Two television stations, Sen TV and Walf TV, were taken off the air, accused by the government of calling for an uprising by showing images of insurrection.

On Thursday, protesters targeted the buildings that house two other media organizations, RFM and Le Soleil, both perceived as being pro-government.

Sonko was arrested Wednesday on his way to court. His convoy was stopped, and police asked him to take a different route. When he refused, he was arrested.

Amnesty International said that Sonko was arrested arbitrarily, and called on the government to stop arresting opponents and activists.

During Sall’s tenure, two of his major opponents, a mayor of Dakar and the son of the last president, have also been arrested and jailed.

Sonko’s supporters say that the Senegalese president is behind his arrest and the rape charges. They say he is trying to prevent one of his biggest political challengers from running in the next election, in 2024.

“That’s why he’s doing all this,” said Serigne Fallou Sarr, a biology student protesting Friday in Dakar.

He said he had no idea whether the rape allegations were true.

The voice of the woman who accused Sonko has been drowned out in a sea of accusations and conspiracy theories.

The woman, a young masseuse who said Sonko also threatened to kill her, told police that the politician, who has admitted that he was a frequent visitor to the massage parlor at which she worked, frequently asked her for sex and when she refused, strangled and raped her.

In an interview with France24 television that aired before this week’s protests, Sall denied any involvement with the rape allegations.

“We mustn’t mix the president up in things that don’t concern him,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “I think I have enough things to do without plotting such low things.”

Sall has not commented on reports that he might run for a third term, which his opponents say would violate the constitution.

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