New clashes in Senegal after opposition leader charged with rape

Protesters waved the green, yellow and red Senegalese flag and torched a car during the rally while denouncing the accusation against Sonko as politically motivated.

A Senegalese gendarme patrols and clears the streets of Dakar after supporters of Senegal's opposition leader Ousmane Sonko gathered and violent protests broke out in the capital, on 3 March 2021. Picture: AFP

DAKAR - Senegalese protesters torched a car and hurled rocks at police in the country's capital on Monday, prompting security forces to fire tear gas, in new clashes after the country's opposition leader was charged with rape.

Usually considered a beacon of stability in a volatile region, deadly clashes between opposition supporters and security forces have rocked the West African state since last week.

Thousands of supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko rallied in a central square in the capital Dakar on Monday, some waving Senegalese flags, after a court laid charges against him.

Protesters who allege the accusation against Sonko is designed to smear him threw rocks at riot police and torched a Peugot car, before they were cleared from the square.

"We cannot allow (President) Macky Sall to flout democracy and imprison his opponents," said Rama Diop, a 30-year-old protester.

"Ousmane Sonko represents only a hope for a better future," she added.

Considered a challenger to the incumbent president, Sonko is a government critic popular with young Senegalese. He too denounces the charge against him as politically motivated.

Following his arrest on Wednesday, at least five people, including a schoolboy, were killed in nationwide clashes.

On Monday, military vehicles topped with machine guns were stationed in areas in Dakar where recent clashes took place.

The show of force came after an opposition collective known as the Movement for Defence of Democracy over the weekend called for three days of massive demonstrations.

VIOLENT BACKLASH

The unrest in Senegal began on Wednesday after police arrested Sonko on charges of public disorder after scuffles with his supporters broke out.

The 46-year-old opposition leader had been making his way to court for the rape case, accompanied by supporters.

But the move sparked a violent backlash, with protesters looting shops and throwing stones at police, highlighting longstanding grievances over living standards and inequality.

The clashes had abated by Saturday but calls from the opposition to take to the streets fed concerns the violence could escalate.

Schools in the capital have been ordered closed for a week.

Senegal's neighbours and the United Nations have expressed concerns about political tensions in the country and urged calm.

Religious leaders in the majority-Muslim nation of 16 million people also called for peace over the weekend.

Sall, who has yet to formally respond to the anger in the country, is due to make a national address at 8pm (2000 GMT).

Sonko, for his part, will also make a statement from his party headquarters in the capital at 6pm.

RAPE CHARGE

Sonko's legal troubles emerged in February when an employee at a beauty salon where he received massages filed a rape accusation against him.

The opposition leader accused Sall of engineering the complaint in order to sideline him from politics. Sall denies the claim.

The rape charge nonetheless comes amid uncertainty over whether the 59-year-old president will seek a third term.

Senegalese presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, but some fear Sall will seek to exploit constitutional changes approved in a 2016 referendum to run again.

Other West African presidents - such as Guinea's Alpha Conde or Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara - have used constitutional changes to win third terms.

To Senegal's opposition, Sonko's case also fits into a perceived pattern of court cases targeting Sall opponents.

The Sonko affair has drawn analogies with Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade, who was prevented from running in the 2019 election after being convicted for graft.

Download the Eyewitness News app to your iOS or Android device.