Senegal opposition leader released as new clashes erupt

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Riot police in armed personnel carriers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds in Senegal’s capital on Monday hours after authorities freed opposition leader Ousmane Sonko from custody following days of violent protests in one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.

Upon his release, the 46-year-old politician blamed his arrest on President Macky Sall, accusing the incumbent leader of seeking to sideline his future political prospects before the country’s 2024 election. While Sonko publicly accused the president of plunging Senegal into an unprecedented crisis, the opposition leader said his goal wasn’t to force Sall from power.

“We don’t want to take responsibility for undermining our democracy,” he tweeted late Monday. “But let’s be clear, the revolution is on the march toward 2024.”

At least eight people have died since the unrest began last week, according to Amnesty International, marking the worst unrest to hit Senegal in nearly a decade.

Sonko is widely seen as the president’s greatest potential political challenger in the next election, and the protests that began Wednesday have been accelerated by broader, long-standing grievances with Sall’s administration.

The two men addressed the nation in back-to-back remarks Monday night: first Sonko, then the president.

Sall told Senegalese families he knew they were suffering amid COVID-19’s economic downturn, and that the ensuing poverty was only further fueling discontent with his government. He agreed to reduce the nightly curfew that many merchants blame for deepening their hardships.

“I understand your concerns and the anger you feel about the hard life you have to live in, mainly due to the unemployment accentuated by COVID-19,” Sall said. “But when you ransack a business you don’t create jobs, you destroy them.”

Some Sonko supporters, though, indicated that they would still push ahead with their civil disobedience even after their leader was granted conditional release by a judge Monday. Throngs of boisterous supporters descended on the courthouse downtown waving Senegalese flags and then made their way to his residence next.

Demonstrators have sought to undermine Sall’s business ties with former colonizer France, attacking more than a dozen supermarkets opened by French retailer Auchan. Total gas stations also have been targeted by the protesters in Dakar.

The sight of burned-out cars and boarded-up shops is a rarity in Senegal, which has never suffered the military coups and dictatorships that have destabilized so many of its neighbors in West Africa over the past half-century.

The demonstrations first began Wednesday before Sonko’s initial court appearance for questioning on accusations of rape. He was detained on the way to the courthouse and arrested for disturbing public order after hundreds of his supporters clashed with police who were blocking unauthorized protests. He now has been charged with rape and making death threats.

Sonko, a populist who has railed against corruption and poverty, finished third in the 2019 presidential election with just over 15% of the ballots cast, drawing strong support from younger voters. His message of greater economic independence for Senegal has attracted an even wider audience amid the financial hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic amid curfews and other movement restrictions.

Sonko also called Monday on the president to publicly renounce a third term in office. After easily winning reelection in 2019 with more than 58% of the vote, his opponents fear he will seek to extend his mandate with a third term, as presidents in neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast did last year. Sall, though, hasn’t commented publicly on his intentions yet.

While Sall has been credited with infrastructure and development projects, his critics say that progress has come alongside the sidelining of political rivals. Two other rising political stars have previously faced charges their supporters said were politically motivated.

Karim Wade, the son of the president Sall defeated in 2012, was once widely seen as the heir apparent before he was charged with corruption the following year. He ultimately spent three years in jail before going into exile abroad in Qatar. Former Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall, seen as a top contender at one point for the 2019 election, was arrested in 2017 on corruption charges and later pardoned after the vote took place.

The leaders of Senegal’s influential Muslim brotherhoods have urged protesters to show restraint in the days ahead.

“Every Senegalese has the right to express themselves on the situation in the country, but with respect for institutions and without the destruction of public or private property,” said Serigne Mansour Sy. “We call for peace and serenity.”

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