Reporter’s Notebook: Protests in Senegal ‘took me by surprise’

Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque reflects on the demonstrations that have rocked the West African nation following the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.

Supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was arrested on sexual assault accusations, celebrate his release in front of the court in Dakar [Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

Dakar, Senegal – It took me by surprise.

The series of loud detonations from rounds of tear gas, smoke billowing with armoured personal carriers moving swiftly through my neighbourhood.

Security forces wore helmets with beads of sweat dripping from their foreheads as a thick-grey smoke rose above.

My first thought was getting my kids to safety, and wondering if my wife had closed her shop and atelier. It was at nightfall that anxiety turned to fear. The normally quiet streets were filled with anger. My middle child panicked asking what is going on, unable to sleep as we heard in the close distance a crowd destroying our local supermarket.

Suddenly the news became close and personal.

The looters were men and women I know, destroying a supermarket I frequented.

They were people that work in the neighbourhood operating coffee stalls, the fruit and vegetable seller with his produce dangling from a basket on his head, the friendly coconut vendor, the soft-spoken maid, the well dressed English literature student who insists on greeting me in English on his way to class in the morning.

People so friendly now so angry. Supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was arrested on sexual assault accusations and released on bail under judicial supervision, celebrated his release in front of the court in Dakar

The arrest sparked protests and looting.

A smart, soft-spoken man whom I met on a few occasions, I first interviewed Sonko during the last presidential elections. I was impressed with his youthful, fresh energy and affable nature.

With a black belt in karate, Sonko resigned from his job as a career bureaucrat in the tax department, where he says he witnessed corporate corruption, to become a politician ready to fight the system.

He came third during the last presidential elections. His nationalist and pan-Africanist discourse appealed to young voters and the Senegalese diaspora. Critics accuse him of being disingenuous and having an Islamist agenda.

His immunity as an elected member of parliament was lifted after he was accused of rape. It was on his way to the police station for questioning – followed by hundreds of supporters – that police detained him. The state prosecutor accuses him of organising a public protest illegally and insurrection, on top of the rape charges.

Now on bail, he says the charges are politically motivated, accusing Macky Sall of using the courts to eliminate political opponents. Sonko says there is a distinct pattern:

March 3, 2013, Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, is arrested and charged with corruption.

March 3, 2017, Khalifah Sall, mayor of Dakar, is arrested and charged with corruption.

March 3, 2020, Ousmane Sonko, opposition leader, is arrested and charged with rape.

Sonko, a married and religious man, was a frequent customer of Sweet Beauty – a massage parlour in his neighbourhood. According to leaked police transcripts, he paid almost $100 for a massage on a regular basis. One of the masseuses accuses him of raping her multiple times and threatening her with a weapon.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, I asked him why he frequented the parlour? He said he has a back problem. I asked why not see a medical therapist? He answered the massage parlour is a legal establishment, and it is his right to go there. He denied he has committed any criminal offences, saying the true crimes are being committed by the state.

I watched security forces fire rounds of tear gas at men wielding baseball bats, then charge the protesters.

At the time of writing, the government says five people have been killed in the demonstrations. According to rights groups, at least 11 people have been killed, mostly young people shot by live rounds.

Some of those who died were as young as my children, 12, even 10-year-old.

During the looting, I watched children with their mothers picking up what they could in the supermarkets. A can of beans, some eggs and bread, enough for a meal.

Senegal is facing a deep economic crisis because of the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Restrictive measures and curfews have brought an onslaught of poverty in places where people were previously gainfully employed.

Sonko has been an outspoken critic of the government’s relationship with France, the former colonial power. Sonko wants to see an end to the CFA, a common currency shared with 14 former French colonies. He has also accused the state of protecting France’s corporate interests instead of the Senegalese people.

While France has a military presence in Senegal, I saw Senegalese soldiers protect French multinationals. Auchan, a French supermarket chain, was a specific target for looting. Sonko says the chain is driving fruit and vegetable sellers out of work.

When the French supermarket chain arrived in Senegal, I was happy to see a familiar brand but sensed trouble. I was born in Lille in northern France where Auchan was at the time a small supermarket founded by a visionary man called Gerard Mulliez, now one of the richest man in France worth an estimated $25bn.

Auchan drove out of business the local butcher, boulangerie and fruit and vegetable shops. People preferred the one-stop shop where prices where low and all items could be found under one roof.

I met Gerard Mulliez in early 2000. I was at my brother’s Sunday lunch at his house. Mulliez, a small, charismatic man with a cigar in his mouth, was proud of being a high school dropout who built a business empire.

The success of Auchan was not solely driven by low prices but the idea that employees could buy into the company and provide food and services at an affordable price. While Mulliez has a fear of aeroplanes and rarely travels abroad, his supermarkets can be found on five continents of the world.

In Senegal, Auchan opened 14 supermarkets in the capital. The one in my neighbourhood is now cemented up, it looks unlikely to open anytime soon.

On the roads are the remains of days of protests: burned tyres, broken concrete, and a sense of unease.

The violence broke the peace and stability so many, including myself, took for granted. Unaware of the growing discontent from my place of privilege, in some ways, I feel I have failed as a journalist to sense the suffering of the people I see every day – a people ignored wanting now to be heard.

Source: Al Jazeera