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Four young demonstrators supporting the opponent Ousmane Sonko lost their lives during clashes with the police in Dakar. The Senegalese authorities have promised to “restore order”, while the UN called for “to avoid an escalation”.

On March 5, 2021, the Senegalese authorities promised to “restore order” after scenes of urban guerrilla warfare which officially killed four people between the police and young demonstrators. They demand the release of the opponent Ousmane Sonko, whose arrest released an accumulated exasperation at the harsh living conditions.

Tensions, sensitive for two days in a country usually considered an island of stability in West Africa, intensified without any apparent prospect of appeasement, the justice having kept Ousmane Sonko in custody.

“Avoid an escalation”

Several districts of Dakar and towns in the interior have been the scene of clashes on a scale unknown for several years, although the police response seems to be limited mainly to anti-riot means.

In the evening, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “very concerned” and called “to avoid an escalation”. His spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric spoke about the situation: “The demonstrations must remain peaceful and the security and police forces must […] allow these demonstrators to express their opinion and will, ”he said.

“The government regrets the loss of four human lives”, had meanwhile declared live on television, on the evening of March 5, the Minister of the Interior Antoine Félix Abdoulaye Diome, while the balance sheet was until then of a young man killed the day before in the south of the country.

The minister accused Ousmane Sonko of being responsible for the situation by having “launched calls for violence” and “insurrection”. He condemned “acts of a terrorist nature” and called for “calm, serenity and appeasement”.

Based on the current vaccination campaign, Antoine Félix Abdoulaye Diome also spoke of the “prospect of reducing the curfew” which, since January, has worsened the often already precarious situation of many Senegalese.

The Senegalese capital under very high tension

In Dakar, the battle left behind the startling spectacle of streets emptied of people and vehicles, to the very outskirts of places of power, and strewn with projectiles of all kinds, between the shops that were all closed.

In the popular district of the Medina, groups of young people chanting “Free Sonko!” harassed the large number of police officers with stones, in the clouds of tear gas and the blasts of stun grenades. The same incidents happened a little further away near the Place de la Nation. Armored vehicles had been positioned near the presidency and its entrances cordoned off.

In Mbao, in the outer suburbs, looters were seen coming out with their arms laden with goods from an Auchan supermarket, of which at least 14 stores were attacked and 10 “looted”, according to the management of the French group.

A political arrest?

The arrest on March 3 of Ousmane Sonko – who came third in the 2019 presidential election and expected to be one of Macky Sall’s main competitors in 2024 – angered his supporters, but also, according to many Senegalese, brought to its height the frustrations caused by living conditions since the Covid-19 pandemic. In the crowd, many expressed their resentment against President Macky Sall.

On the evening of March 4, demonstrators attacked the premises of the daily The sun and RFM radio, considered close to power. Many French brands have been attacked, France being readily seen as supporting President Sall. French schools in the country have closed, as has the Air France agency.

Ousmane Sonko’s custody is due to end on Sunday March 7. He will be presented to the judge again the next day, according to his lawyers. The politician was officially arrested for disturbing public order, as he marched in a procession to the court where he was summoned to respond to charges of rape brought against him by an employee of a beauty salon in which he was going to get massaged to, he said, relieve back pain.

The 46-year-old MP – who refutes these accusations – would be the subject of an “attempted liquidation for the purpose of eliminating a political opponent”, according to one of his lawyers, Abdoulaye Tall. A personality with an anti-system profile, the deputy shouts at the plot hatched by President Sall to remove him from the next presidential election. Macky Sall denied at the end of February, but has remained silent on the affair since.

Restrictions on social networks and messaging apps, affecting the sharing of photos and videos, have been noted. The authorities also suspended Thursday two TV channels, guilty according to them of broadcasting “loop” images of violence. The NGO Reporters Without Borders condemned an “unprecedented wave of press freedom violations in recent years in this West African country”.

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