…By Paul Ejime
After days of violent street protesters by supporters of detained Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko that resulted in at least five deaths, there are fears that three more days of demonstration called by the opposition and civil society groups from Monday could plunge the country into prolonged political turmoil.
Regional economic bloc, ECOWAS in its second statement in the last two days, has expressed serious concerns over the situation in Senegal and called for calm and restraint from both sides.
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and at least a dozen foreign diplomats in Dakar have equally weighed in, calling for a return to order, and so has Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the Special Representative and Head of the UN Office West Aftica (ONUWAS).
Government and private properties, including police stations, grocery shops and filling stations belonging to French interests in the nation’s capital Dakar and several other cities have either been looted, burnt or destroyed during the violent protests.
Two pro-government media organs – a TV channel and newspaper house were also attacked by the protesters, who have clashed several times with anti-riot police.
For it’s part, the government has responded with a heavy hand to what it described as an insurrection, by restricting internet access and also suspended two private broadcasting stations for 72 hours over alleged bias reporting. It also accused Sonko of inciting violence.
The protests began last Wednesday following the arrest of Sonko, 46, an MP, who has since been charged and held in custody for alleged rape of a beauty salon employee.
The former tax inspector seen as the main opposition leader is from Senegal’s southern Casamance region, which has been fighting for self-determination for decades.
Sonko came third in the 2019 presidential election. He has dismissed the rape charges against him as politically motivated, and a ploy to scheme him out of the 2024 presidential race by the government of President Macky Sall.
Critics have accused Sall himself of planning tenure elongation. He was first elected to office in 2012, won reelection in 2019, with an alleged ambition for third-term presidency.
It is believed that the ongoing protests, similar to those of 2012, go beyond the Sonko affair, but reflects public disenchantment with the government against the background of biting poverty and socio-economic frustration, especially over growing youth unemployment and the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some protesters have also vowed their determination to “liberate” Senegal and other francophone African countries from the grip of France.
Senegal’s self-acclaimed mediator of the republic, Mr Alioune Cisse on Sunday urged President Sall to address the nation on the unrest.
Meanwhile, a section of the Senegalese media has reported that the Dakar government plans to withdraw the host country agreement with international NGO, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), over alleged funding of opposition groups, including Y en Marre (Enough is Enough). However, the OSIWA Dakar office has in a statement reiterated its neutrality and partnership, noting that it had not received any official correspondence as reported by the media.
Senegal has been one of the relatively stable countries in the politically restive ECOWAS region.
But it risks joining the growing list of nations battling third-term instability in the region, including Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea.