By Vatican News staff writer
Widespread demonstrations broke out in Senegal in recent days as many flocked the streets in protest against the arrest of the country’s leading opposition figure who has been accused of rape.
Ousmane Sonko, a vocal critic of the governing elite in Senegal, was arraigned in court on Friday accused of disrupting public order and he also faces a rape allegation. Sonko, however, denies the rape charge.
The opposition leader’s arrest on Wednesday was the trigger for many Senegalese youths, among who Sonko is popular, to come out in protests which continued through Friday. Protesters hurled stones at the police and set fire to tires, cars and other property. Although tensions appeared to have eased by Saturday, the opposition collective which includes members of Sonko’s party called for further protests beginning on Monday.
In addition to calling for Sonko’s release, the young people also aired a range of other grievances including few job opportunities and a worsening economic atmosphere induced by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The protestors suspect that Sonko’s arrest is an attempt by the government headed by President Macky Sall to silence voices of opposition.
News reports indicate that at least five people have died during the protests in clashes with security forces in various parts of the country.
Tensions remain high in the country as Sonko is due to appear before a judge in the capital, Dakar, on Monday to face questions about the charges brought against him.
Senegalese police arrested Ousmane Sonko last week after scuffles with his supporters broke out while he was on his way to court to answer a rape charge filed against him by an employee at a beauty salon where he received massages.
Police said they then arrested him for disrupting public order when he refused to change his route to the court.
Sonko, who is the founder of Pastef-Les Patriotes political party, placed third in the nation’s general elections in 2019. Many fear that these charges might hinder his chances as a potential contender in the country’s 2024 elections.
Reactions to the protests
In a statement issued on Saturday, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS condemned the violence that occurred in several towns in Senegal leading to deaths, injuries and destruction of property.
ECOWAS, which includes Senegal, called on all parties to exercise calm and restraint and urged authorities to take measures to ease tensions and guarantee the freedom to demonstrate peacefully in conformity with the country’s laws.
In a statement on Friday, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Mohamed Ibn Chambas, also deplored the acts of violence. He called on all actors to exercise restraint and urged authorities and security forces to ensure the safety of demonstrators and properties in “a professional and peaceful manner”.