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What's happening in Senegal?

Over the past week, thousands of people have taken to the streets in deadly demonstrations against the arrest of a key opposition leader – and what they believe is the president's attack on the country's democracy. The protests, which have hit the country worst in nearly a decade, have resulted in the deaths of at least eight people.

"We are on the verge of an apocalypse," warned Alioune Badara Cissé, a senior Senegalese official, during a press conference as protests stalled cities and gas stations and shops were reportedly destroyed and set on fire. The unrest in Senegal – a country widely seen as a beacon of democracy and stability in West Africa – is a worrying sign for the entire region.

What sparked the protests?

Protests broke out across Senegal on March 3, when Ousmane Sonko, one of the country's most prominent opposition leaders, went to court to counter rape allegations. Sonko, who was charged with rape in February, has denied the charges, insisting that the allegations are fabricated and intended to disrupt his political career. (If convicted, he will not be allowed to run in the 2024 election.)

On the way to the court appearance, Sonko was arrested for disrupting public order and participating in unauthorized protests after hundreds of his supporters faced police. After his arrest, protesters took to the streets to voice their complaints about the situation and the conduct of current President Macky Sall.

Why did an arrest cause all this unrest?

Sonko's arrest – and his allegations of political sabotage – have raised suspicions that Sall is trying to silence the opposition ahead of the 2024 elections. Sonko is a fierce critic of the Sall government and is widely recognized as one of the presidential’s pre-election political challengers. It is particularly popular with young people interested in its populist platform of radical opposition and greater economic independence. He finished third in the 2019 presidential election and garnered around 15 percent of the vote.

"The popularity of (Sonko) has fueled street movements against the perceived corruption and inequality of the Macky Sall administration," Geoff Porter, president of North Africa Risk Consulting, told Foreign Policy.

Are the protesters' concerns justified?

It is not the first time that Sall has excluded political rivals from the elections by arresting them. In 2019, two major opposition members were charged with being politically motivated. One of them – Khalifa Sall, former mayor of Dakar – was arrested two years before the 2019 elections and only pardoned after the vote, which further fueled speculation that the president was deliberately targeting rivals.

"There is a suspicion that Macky Sall is using the judiciary to marginalize his political opponents, but not the judiciary to pursue legitimate corruption cases involving his allies," Porter said.

Protesters also fear Sall will amend the constitution to run for a third term and bypass the country's two-term limit. Although Sonko publicly urged Sall to turn down a possible third term, Sall has not made an official statement, and opponents fear he will follow in the footsteps of nearby Guinea and Ivory Coast, whose presidents each extended their presidential mandates last year.

And these grievances were only exacerbated by Senegal's economic problems. The economic gains the country has seen in recent years have been unevenly distributed – something that only worsened with the pandemic.

What about the rape allegations against Sonko?

One potential problem is that Sonko's rejection of the rape charge – and the protesters' response to the allegation – could deter sexual assault victims from stepping forward. This is particularly worrying in Senegal, where rape has only recently been prosecuted as a serious crime. "Politicizing the (Sonko's) sexual assault charge can reduce the severity of his victim's allegations," Porter said.

But Sonko is out of jail. What's happening now?

Sonko was released on bail on Monday, but it did little to suppress the demonstrations. Hours later, armed riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters in Dakar, and a coalition of activists and opposition groups promised to continue the protest for three days.

Over the past week, demonstrations stalled Dakar and closed gas stations, shops and banks across the city, which were reportedly destroyed and set on fire by some protesters. The protests have forced schools to close: On Sunday, the Ministry of Education announced that schools would remain closed until March 15. The government also temporarily banned two television channels and restricted platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube as protests escalated. Around 100 protesters have reportedly been arrested since March 3.

The protests also sparked anti-French sentiment. Protesters reportedly targeted French companies and set fire to over a dozen French gas stations and supermarkets. Experts say the tactic is driven by the belief that Senegal, a former French colony, was a vehicle for France's economic interests under Sall's administration.

"There is a perception among protesters that the French community, French business community and the French government control the Senegalese economy too tightly," Porter said. "They dominate certain import markets and control the prices of those imports, making many imports out of reach for the average Senegalese."

In response to the growing conflict, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres appealed to both the police and the demonstrators to avoid further violence and to engage in talks. “Everyone, all political leaders, all interest groups in Senegal have a role to play. You have to enter into a dialogue, ”his spokesman Stéphane Dujarric told reporters on March 9th. The African Union also condemned the violence and cases of looting.

What happens now

On Thursday, Sall declared a day of national mourning and announced that he would lift the COVID-19 restrictions that had sparked some of the unrest. But the answer is a bit "deaf," said Porter. None of Sall's actions addresses the protesters' complaints – and several protesters died by the Senegalese security forces directed by Sall.

"I think there is a chance the demonstrations will continue until the perpetrators of these murders or deaths are prosecuted or Macky Sall comes up with a more sincere apology and a better plan that goes beyond simply easing the curfew on the pandemic by several Hours, "said Porter.

Meanwhile, Sonko and his supporters seem to be around for the long term. "We don't want to take responsibility for undermining our democracy," tweeted Sonko. "But let's be clear, the revolution is on its way towards 2024."

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