Looters hit a French retailer in Senegal’s capital Dakar Saturday, after days of clashes between opposition supporters and the police, underscoring frustrations over foreign economic influence in the poor country.
The clashes broke out on Wednesday after police arrested opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, a fierce critic of governing elites and of perceived foreign exploitation of the country’s resources.
Unrest continued through Friday across the West African state, with protesters in Dakar torching cars and hurling stones at police.
Tensions appeared to have had calmed by Saturday, after at least four people died nationwide.
Looters returned to a branch of the Auchan supermarket chain in an upscale Dakar neighbourhood for a second day on Saturday to carry off more merchandise.
Some told AFP that they were driven by poverty.
“We are not looters. We don’t have the means to pay for ourselves,” said one woman, who was rummaging among products thrown on the floor, alongside empty shelves.
Shop staff, worried for their own livelihoods, looked on in dismay.
“They say they don’t want the French to come and work here,” said one 35-year-old employee, who declined to be named.
“But we are the ones who earn our living by the sweat of our brow”.
A former French colony of 16 million people, Senegal is often touted as an oasis of stability in an otherwise volatile part of the world.
But the protests this week have highlighted longstanding grievances over living standards and economic exclusion.
Around 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line, according to a World Bank benchmark.
On Saturday, a collective which comprises the leading opposition party Pastef meanwhile called for another three days of protests from Monday, urging Senegalese people to “massively descend on the streets”.
Ndeme Dieng, an opposition member who tried to calm tempers during the demonstrations, said that 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.
On top of everyday pressures, coronavirus restrictions have also damaged livelihoods in a country where most people work in the informal sector.
Sonko’s sharp-tongued attacks on the government, and message of economic nationalism, have therefore resonated.
The 46-year-old leader of the Pastef party is a devout Muslim popular with youngsters, and is considered a key challenger to President Macky Sall.
He came in third to Sall in the 2019 elections.
But his political future was suddenly clouded last month when rape charges were filed against him by an employee at a salon where, he said, he went to receive back massages.
He denies the accusations and accuses Sall of conspiring to sideline him from politics.
The unrest in Senegal broke out this week after Sonko was arrested on his his way to court to answer to the rape charge.
Auchan said on Friday that 14 of its 32 outlets were targeted. Its supermarkets are now closed across the city.
Many people in Senegal are critical of France’s perceived stranglehold on the economy.
French firms such as Auchan or Total are ubiquitous, for example. And 60 years after independence, the former colonial power remains Senegal’s largest trading partner.
Political ties have also remained strong, but this has meant that some opponents of President Sall see France as his principal backer.
Papa Samaba Diouf, a spokesman for Auchan in Senegal, said on social media that ransacking supermarkets was not a blow to France.
“It was the Senegalese people who were attacked,” he said, noting that the company employs thousands of locals and also buys produce from Senegalese farmers.
The Auchan employee at the looted supermarket in the upscale Dakar neighbourhood characterised the situation as a “disaster”.
“We know that it is foreigners who have invested here, but it is us Senegalese who are working,” he said.
Still, he said he understood the frustrations.
“People are hungry, and it shows,” the employee said. “It’s hunger and misery.”