About 5,000 supporters of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko gathered in the capital, Dakar, on Tuesday for a three-day protest to show support for the aspiring presidential candidate, who faces a libel case set to resume this week.
The protests are expected to continue on Wednesday across the nation, but return to Dakar on Thursday.
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The demonstrations are the latest expression of growing tensions in Senegal in the run-up to a 2024 election that could see President Macky Sall vie for a controversial third term, which the opposition says is unconstitutional.
Sall, 61, has neither confirmed nor denied that he plans to run, amid widespread speculation. The poll would pit him against Sonko, who came third in the 2019 presidential elections and has since gained support, particularly among disillusioned urban youth.
Hundreds of Sonko supporters milled around an empty field in Dakar’s Yoff neighbourhood on Tuesday waiting for the demonstration to kick off. Some waved Senegalese flags and photos of Sonko.
There was a heavy security presence, including dozens of anti-riot vehicles.
Police are quick to crack down on protests in Senegal. The last pro-Sonko protests, which broke out after he left court last month, were dispersed with tear gas.
“We are sick of this repression, no one can protest in Senegal. Macky (Sall) cannot be a candidate,” said Codou, a protester who travelled from the nearby city of Thies.
Sall’s opponents accuse him of seeking to weaken the competition with false accusations and political trials before the election. The government denies this.
Sonko, 48, is due in court on Thursday to resume hearings for a trial on libel charges for allegedly accusing the minister of tourism of embezzlement.
He is also facing trial on charges of rape and making death threats to a beauty salon employee in 2021. Sonko denies wrongdoing.
Senegal has long been seen as a beacon of democracy in West Africa. But critics have become frustrated with Sall’s crackdown on dissent and his perceived failure to improve economic livelihoods for the majority of people.
At protests in June 2022, cries of “Macky Sall is a dictator” rang out in Dakar as citizens called out the wide-ranging powers vested in the presidency, and the yearslong pattern of political opposition being stymied, always on seemingly technical grounds.
The resulting crackdown on the protests earned rebukes from the United Nations special rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly as well as Amnesty International, which in a statement said that arbitrary arrests along with “repeated bans on demonstrations, together with the deaths of people during such protests, represent a real threat to the right to protest in Senegal”.
Deadly clashes broke out across the country in 2021 when Sonko was arrested over sexual assault allegations.