Senegal’s top opposition leaders released from prison as elections loom

Freedom for Ousmane Sonko and Bassirou Diomaye Faye could dramatically alter the election race.

People celebrate the release of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye. They are holding pictures of the men, and a banner reading SENEGAL. They look happy.
Thousands took to the streets to celebrate Sonko's release [Seyllou/AFP]

Senegal’s top opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, has been released from prison, triggering jubilant celebrations outside the prison as well as across Dakar, the capital.

State broadcaster RTS reported Sonko was freed along with key ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye late on Thursday.

Their release comes after a crisis triggered by President Macky Sall’s decision to postpone the February 25 presidential vote and was expected following last week’s passage of an amnesty law for acts committed in connection with political demonstrations since 2021.

The election, which authorities wanted to postpone for 10 months, is now due to take place on March 24.

“They came out in front of us,” said lawyer Cheikh Koureyssi Ba.

Sonko was at the heart of a bitter two-year standoff with the state and has been in prison since July.

The legal case against him, along with rising economic and social tensions, led to deadly unrest between 2021 and 2023.

Sonko came third in the 2019 presidential election but was barred from running as a candidate in this year’s poll.

News of his release brought thousands of supporters onto the streets of Dakar, chanting Sonko’s name on the street outside his house. Some lit flares, danced or blasted their motorbike and car horns.

“We’ve been waiting for this day for so long. Prayed for it,” said 52-year-old health worker Fatima, who gave only her first name. She had rushed to join the crowd when she heard Sonko and Faye were free.

“I believe Sonko can change the country,” she said.

The opposition leader is popular among young people and his fiery campaign to tackle corruption has resonated in a country where the cost of living is rising and many people are struggling.

“It’s a joy. It’s incredible. They released Ousmane Sonko!”, said 31-year-old Mamadou Mballo Mane.

After he was disqualified from contesting the election, Sonko endorsed Faye to replace him on the ballot.

Faye, who was jailed in April 2023, has been unable to address voters in person since campaigning kicked off on March 9.

Incumbent Macky Sall is not standing for re-election this year. His last-minute decision to defer the February presidential vote led to unrest in which four people were killed.

Bouts of unrest since 2021 have left dozens dead and led to hundreds of arrests in a country often viewed as a pillar of stability in West Africa, where there have been dozens of coups and attempted coups in recent decades.

Sonko has always maintained there was a plot to keep him out of the 2024 election, while his camp and the government have traded blame for the violence.

He had been jailed since the end of July on a string of charges, including provoking insurrection, conspiracy with terrorist groups and endangering state security.

His political party was also dissolved.

Source: News Agencies