Senegalese President Macky Sall is facing growing pressure to address this week’s deadly unrest and engage in dialogue as the country braces for more protests.
At least five people, including a schoolboy, have been killed in days of clashes that erupted after the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko on Wednesday, in what is the country’s worst political violence in years.
People torched cars, looted shops and hurled stones at police during the protests, which have highlighted longstanding grievances over living standards and economic exclusion.
The unrest has alarmed the United Nations and Senegal’s neighbours, which have appealed for all sides to show restraint.
Sall has yet to publicly address the situation, however.
On Sunday, Senegal’s government ombudsman Alioune Badara Cisse urged Sall to speak out ahead of a planned new round of opposition demonstrations from Monday.
“Senegalese people want to hear you,” Cisse told a news conference in the capital, Dakar. “Why the devil wouldn’t you talk to them?”
“Do it before it’s too late,” added Cisse, who formerly served as a foreign minister under Sall but whose role as ombudsman is to mediate between government institutions and to safeguard human rights.
Sonko, 46, a fierce critic of the governing elite in Senegal, was arrested on Wednesday on charges of disturbing public order. Scuffles between opposition supporters and security forces had broken out while Sonko was on his way to court in Dakar to answer on a separate rape charge – which he says is politically motivated.
On Saturday, the opposition collective which includes Sonko’s Pastef party called for three more days of protests starting Monday, urging people to “massively descend onto the streets”.
Tension was already expected to be high in Dakar on Monday, where Sonko is due in court to answer questions about the rape charge, and the government has ordered schools closed for a week.
On the highway a military battalion moving towards the capital ahead of Monday’s protests as government mediator calls for dialogue
— Nicolas Haque (@nicolashaque) March 7, 2021
Clashes first broke out after the arrest of Sonko and escalated into nationwide protests which only abated on Saturday.
Large queues formed for petrol and groceries on Sunday, during what is expected to be a brief respite in the unrest.
A schoolboy was killed when a demonstration on Saturday in the southern town of Diaobe turned violent, adding to four reported dead by the authorities on Friday.
The education ministry said on Sunday schools in Senegal will shut until March 15. Many shops, petrol stations and banks were closed for days this week.
The influential League of Imams and Preachers of Senegal, meanwhile, on Sunday called for the release of Sonko and a “return to calm”.
The economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a nightly curfew to contain its spread has only stoked frustrations in the country where most people work in the informal sector. Senegal is often heralded as a haven of calm in West Africa, but about 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
“We have to stop having a two-speed Senegal,” said Cisse, adding that it was inevitable “the lid would pop off” eventually.
Ndeme Dieng, an opposition member who tried to calm tempers during the demonstrations, said the vast majority of protesters were jobless youths.
“The gloomy economic situation has made people go out into the streets and show that they’re fed up,” he said.
‘People are fed up’
Sonko is a devout Muslim popular with youngsters and came third to Sall in the 2019 election.
But his political future was suddenly clouded last month when the rape charges were filed against him by an employee at a salon where, he said, he went to receive back massages.
The allegation comes amid uncertainty over whether Sall, 59, will seek a third term in office.
Senegalese presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, but Sall launched a constitutional referendum in 2016, which some fear he will exploit to run again.
Other presidents in West Africa – such as Guinea’s Alpha Conde or Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara – have used constitutional changes to win third terms.
On Saturday, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, which includes Senegal, urged all parties in the country to exercise restraint and remain calm.