Senegal opposition leader trial kickstarts rocky election season
Opposition leader Sonko’s trial on Thursday could mark the start of political unrest or strengthen the incumbent president’s grip, analysts say.
Dakar, Senegal – Prominent opposition leader Ousmane Sonko is scheduled to face charges of libel in a Dakar court on Thursday. If found guilty, the political leader could be barred from running in the 2024 presidential elections.
Originally set for March 16, the hearing was postponed to March 30 after state security services forcibly removed Sonko from his vehicle and escorted him to court on the day of the hearing. Shortly after, clashes erupted between police forces and Sonko’s supporters.
Sonko, 48, said he inhaled a harmful substance during the altercations which impaired his eyesight and breathing, claiming the altercation amounted to an assassination attempt.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Senegal’s Attorney General Ibrahima Bakhoum said a suspect had been arrested in relation to the case.
Yarga Sy, an airport security agent, allegedly gave Sonko a scarf soaked with a harmful substance. The substance was in fact vinegar, said Bakhoum.
The incident has escalated tensions in Senegal as the country braces for potential unrest ahead of Sanko’s court hearing on Thursday. Ousseynou Fall, one of Sonko’s lawyers was suspended by the Senegalese Bar Association on Wednesday after a complaint by a case judge and will be unable to appear in court.
“The ongoing tensions have led to a worsening of the situation, fueling political violence as the opposition rallies around the Sonko…case,” said Alioune Tine, Senegalese political analyst and founder of think tank AfrikaJom Centre.
The opposition leader faces libel charges brought against him by Senegal’s Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang after accusing him of stealing 29 billion CFA francs ($47 million) from a government agency. Sonko also faces separate charges of raping a beauty salon employee and making death threats to her in 2021.
He denies the accusations and claims incumbent President Macky Sall is using the judiciary to quash his presidential run. A presidential spokesperson denied commenting on Sonko’s court hearing.
A former tax inspector who transitioned to politics and became the leader of the Pastef opposition party, Sonko became even more popular after finishing third in the 2019 presidential election, becoming Sall’s foremost political opponent.
Stifling opposition with the judiciary
Previous opposition figures such as former Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, were both charged with corruption and barred from running against Sall in 2019.
The opposition coalition has argued that these disqualifications are part of a broader pattern in which the ruling coalition is leveraging the judiciary to sideline opposition candidates and clear the path for the incumbent president’s reelection.
Senegal has enjoyed relative political stability since it gained independence from France in 1960. Unlike many of its neighbours, it has avoided military coups, earning it a reputation as a beacon of democracy in the region. Despite these credentials, the country has experienced significant political turbulence ahead of the election.
In the past few months, there has been a wave of opposition arrests, including El Malick Ndiaye, spokesperson for Sonko’s Pastef party. He was accused of spreading fake news and spent five days in prison before being released with an electronic ankle bracelet.
Thus, there are concerns that a potential Sonko disqualification or another Sall presidential run could signal a descent into chaos.
“Our current political situation is the most dangerous since decolonisation,” Cheikh Fall, a Senegalese political activist, told Al Jazeera, “Macky Sall is the one and only person responsible for this situation.”
Amnesty International has warned about the increased violence with which security forces have cracked down on protesters ahead of the 2024 elections.
“An escalation of tensions, and further violent clashes between opposition supporters and security forces may damage Senegal’s democratic reputation,” said Renna Hawili, a Dakar-based analyst with geopolitical consultancy Control Risk.
A controversial third term
In 2016, the Senegalese constitution was amended, restricting the length of presidential terms to five years. An earlier amendment in 2001 had limited consecutive terms to two.
But now there is uncertainty about whether Sall will be running for a third mandate.
The president is yet to confirm or deny any such ambitions but he recently discussed the possibility in an interview with French magazine L’Express. He stated that should he choose to run, it would be constitutional as his first term extended beyond the scope of the reform, lasting for seven years rather than five.
“Legally speaking, the debate has been settled for a long time,” said Sall, who claims he consulted the Constitutional Council before the 2016 amendment. “Now, should I run for a third term or not? It’s a political debate, I admit.”
If he does run, it would be a “political bomb” that would further deteriorate the country’s already tense political situation, Tine said.
The issue of tenure elongation is an old one in Senegal – and indeed West Africa.
In 2012, Sall’s predecessor Wade also attempted to circumvent the 2001 amendment and run for a third term. Like Sall today, he claimed that because he had been elected before the amendment, it did not apply to his first tenure. That triggered violent protests.
Sall was an opposition leader then and, buoyed by his support of anti-Wade protests, gained the popularity that helped him eventually become president.
At the time, he said he would not allow presidents to run for more than two terms, which led to the law signed four years later.
Calls for protests
Sonko’s trial comes less than a year before the 2024 presidential elections. If found guilty on Thursday, he will be disqualified from running in the next election, which could tip the scales in favour of the incumbent.
But there is a growing sense that the trials have galvanised the opposition and led to a significant shift in the political landscape as more youth, frustrated by rising unemployment, flock to Sonko.
The Yewwi Askan Wi coalition, translating to “Liberate the People” in the local Wolof language, led protests in Dakar on March 29 and has planned nationwide demonstrations for Thursday – and April 3. These protests are scheduled to take place despite a lack of government authorisation.
Whether Sonko’s trial will mark the start of a new era of political unrest or whether it will strengthen the grip of the incumbent president will become apparent on Thursday, analysts say.
“It is the first time that our collective actions since independence have allowed us to build such a solid democratic system,” said Fall the activist, “but that is in danger of crumbling like a house of cards”.