Senegal Opposition Leader Charged With Rape And Released On Bail

Senegal’s opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was arrested this month after being charged with rape on Monday, March 8th. After multiple violent protests pending his rape trial, his lawyer announced that he has now been released on bail under judicial supervision. Sonko claims that the rape allegations against him were politically motivated. Speaking at a press conference in Dakar on Monday evening, Sonko called for a larger anti-government protest but urged them to be peaceful. By Saturday, the demonstrations had decreased, but the calls for new protesters led to concerns the violence could escalate.

Senegal is considered one of West Africa’s most stable democracies, but the protesting against the government to release Sonko has now sparked violence between the citizens and security forces. Amnesty International reported the death of at least eight protesters due to clashes between the people and security forces, and another 235 demonstrators have been injured, according to the Senegalese Red Cross. On Monday morning before beginning their march, hundreds of people gathered outside the court in Dakar, waving flags and chanting “Free Sonko,” and his release was met with jubilation by his supporters. Al Jazeera’s reporter stated: “There is a sense among these protesters that they were able to release Sonko themselves; that they challenged the power of the presidency and they see his release as their personal victory.” Sonko himself denies all allegations and says it is an attempt by President Macky Sall to kneecap a political rival, which the government has rejected. In response, security forces in Dakar fired tear gas as a solution to break up groups of Sonko supporters. As protesters were blocking the streets and throwing objects against the police, the security forces also shot non-lethal ammunition to contain the demonstrators. According to Al Jazeera, the army is still patrolling the central streets of Dakar with military vehicles and machine guns in regions where recent clashes took place. 

The protests seem to be fueled by something bigger than Sonko’s arrest. During the demonstration, one of the protesters yelled “This is not only about Sonko. We want Macky to resign,” implicating the citizen’s frustration with the current President Macky Sall. The security forces are aiming to control the violence, which has forced schools in the capital to keep closed for a week until the situation is maintained. These solutions are temporary, but fighting fire with fire has never been particularly efficient. Violence is not the solution and the security forces must recognize that they are doing more harm than good. Due to the freedom of speech, the protesters have a right to protest, but only as long as it is peaceful. Additionally, the focus has completely shifted from Sonko’s criminal charge to the dissatisfaction with the present leadership. The issue is larger than this one case, and it is significant that the government takes action against violence and to better control the clashes.

Last week, a beauty salon employee came forward accusing Sonko of raping her, quickly leading up to his arrest. Demonstrations began immediately after, illustrating long-standing grievances over living standards, unemployment, corruption, and inequality in the country. Political pressure has risen on President Sall, as he has been accused multiple times of unrightfully invalidating political rivals and many citizens believe his ambition is to extend his rule beyond the two-term limit. In addition, two other rivals of President Sall have previously been accused of criminal activity which prevented them from running for president in the election of 2019, which has made the public skeptical of the accusations against Sonko. Al Jazeera reports how these situations are rare in Senegal, especially people of these numbers intensely advocating on streets and public places. Amnesty’s West Africa researcher Ousmane Dialo, has described the political advancements in the past years as a turning point for Senegal. He further explains how protests that have taken place are not only to show support for Sonko but a result of the citizens’ need for change in recent socio-economic policies that have affected the most vulnerable population. Additionally, through these protests, the youth are raising questions about the degradation of political liberties and civic freedoms. 

Conclusively, the protesters are not necessarily defending Sonko, but rather defending the democracy and the history of stability that Senegal is portraying. Although the leader has been charged with a serious crime, the people are raising a question about the validity of the crime due to dissatisfaction and mistrust of the current leadership. In this situation, it is essential to recognize why you are demonstrating and not encourage violence, criminal activity, nor sexual assault in any way. Protesting against the decline of democracy and questioning the intentions of the leadership when the security of society feels threatened is necessary at times, but avoiding clashes is essential.

Olivia Berntsson