Since the arrest on Wednesday of the opponent Ousmane Sonko, we are witnessing a veritable arm wrestling between the ruling power in Senegal and the opposition. Following his arrest in Dakar, clashes broke out in several cities in Senegal to demand his immediate release.
Ousmane Sonko was going to court by summons where he was to be heard on charges of “rape and death threats”.
Sonko’s arrest is the latest episode in a case that has been stirring Senegalese politics for the past month, with the 2024 presidential election as a backdrop. The protests resulted in two deaths and scenes of urban guerrilla warfare in front of the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, vandalized supermarkets and gas stations, burned vehicles, sacked state services, and ransacked media headquarters.
An opposition front composed of political parties and civil society movements is calling on Senegalese to come out and demonstrate against what it calls “injustice.
An accusation of rape leading to popular uprisings
At the beginning of February, a 20-year-old masseuse, an employee of a beauty salon where Ousmane Sonko was going to get a massage to “relieve his back pain”, filed a complaint against him. She accuses him of “rape and death threats”. The National Assembly lifted his parliamentary immunity last week.
In a series of public statements, Sonko denied the charges against him and claimed that it was a plot hatched by President Macky Sall. He denied any involvement “in this private affair.
In addition, the politician confirmed that he went to the massage parlour and that he was in contact with the girl but in the presence of another person.
After initially refusing to comply with the summons of the examining magistrate because he considered the procedure for lifting his parliamentary immunity illegal, Ousmane then changed his mind, but expressed his mistrust of a Senegalese justice system that “never decides in any other direction than the will of the prince”. Wednesday it was accompanied by a crowd of activists that his procession stopped halfway after security forces asked him to change his route. “Faced with his refusal,” according to the prefect of Dakar, he was arrested and placed under arrest for disturbing public order and participating in an unauthorized demonstration.
Amnesty International described this arrest and that of 17 other members of his party, Pastef-Les Patriotes (Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity), outside his residence last week as “arbitrary”.
The case has drawn comparisons with the troubles of Karim Wade, son and former minister of former President Abdoulaye Wade, and Khalifa Sall, the deposed mayor of Dakar, both of whom have been convicted of financial wrongdoing and prevented from running for the 2019 presidential election.
What does Ousmane Sonko represent?
President of the PASTEF party and deputy since 2017, Ousmane Sonko represents for his activists the hope of a profound change. He has based his political ideology on a radical opposition to what he calls “the system”.
In a low-quality video filmed during a meeting with activists and shared on social networks in 2018, he states: “There is enormous potential and real capacity in this country. It is unacceptable to see such a level of suffering of the people” and adds: “our politicians are criminals. Those who have ruled Senegal from the beginning deserve to be shot”.
This declaration created controversy and pushed the leader of Pastef to rephrase his words: “I limited myself to saying those who have managed this country, not necessarily the presidents. He cites Thomas Sankara as his model in politics while braiding laurels to Rwandan President Paul Kagame for his governance.
In 2014, he created his political party Pastef and began to nurture presidential ambitions. He attacks President Macky Sall, whose governance he questions. In 2016, he was removed from the civil service for failing to fulfill his duty of reserve. Ousmane Sonko came third in the 2019 presidential election with 15.67% of the vote, behind outgoing President Macky Sall and former Wade Prime Minister Idrissa Seck.
During the election campaign, Pastef’s leader was nicknamed the “Senegalese Trump” because of his nationalist ideology, his opposition to the influence of foreign powers in Senegal’s domestic politics and his often radical discourse.
His arrest creates a vacuum in the opposition. Indeed, Idrissa Seck joined Macky Sall in 2020 with his appointment as president of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council. This is why Ousmane Sonko is seen today as the last major opponent to Macky Sall, the president’s last serious challenger.