Tensions in Senegal reached a tipping point Friday over the government’s decision to keep the opposition off the ballot in planned legislative elections. Thousands took to the streets to show support for opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and to demand President Macky Sall allow his opponents to run.
Plumes of smoke billowed into the air throughout Dakar’s southern neighborhoods Friday as demonstrators set fire to tires and plastic bins. Tear gas canisters rained down from the sky, causing protesters to scatter. As they reemerged, they chanted: “Macky Sall is a dictator!” and hurled rocks at police officers.
Graduate student Maimina Aidara was among them.
“What Macky Sall is doing to Senegal is an injustice. What he’s trying to do is not right,” he said. “We, the people here in Senegal, are suffering. We’re suffering. We’re really suffering. We want Macky Sall to leave office. The protests will continue every day, God willing, until the elections. Macky Sall will step down.”
Anger has mounted since Senegal’s constitutional council invalidated the opposition’s list of candidates for the July 31 legislative elections, preventing opposition leader Sonko and other opponents from running.
The result of the elections will determine the makeup of Senegal’s 165-member National Assembly, currently dominated by the president’s coalition.
On Friday, police were seen barricading Sonko’s house, preventing him from attending Friday prayers and from the demonstration.
Sonko came in third in the 2019 presidential election and is a candidate for 2024.
Sonko was arrested last year on what many believe were dubious accusations of rape. The incident ignited a week of rioting that led to the deaths of 14 people.
Two deaths were reported at Friday’s demonstration, according to Agence France-Presse, and three opposition members were arrested.
West Africa has suffered a string of coups in recent years and any indication of instability in Senegal could have ramifications for the entire region.
Hawa Ba is head of the Senegal office at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.
“We are in a very volatile subregion. Democracy is at risk, and Senegal is supposed to be a beacon of democracy,” said Ba. “It’s supposed to be a country that’s pulling the region and the continent upwards. And what we are witnessing is Senegal’s democracy sliding back since a few years now.”
Ba called on international bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union to pressure Senegal to abide by democratic norms. The African Union is led by Macky Sall.
Though many protesters at Friday’s demonstration said they attended in support of Sonko, others had more general motives.
Seydina Halifa Ababacar said his main concern was inflation. The price of items such as rice and cattle have increased, he said, and with Eid al-Adha around the corner, he is worried the price of sheep will, too.
“They’ve increased prices on everything. Our families are suffering,” he said. “I came here to fight for my future and for that of my children. I’m not here for Ousmane Sonko – all politicians are the same. If we don’t [throw rocks at police officers] there will be no solution. Protesting is a right.”
The protest took place despite a government ban. A June 8 protest had also been banned but was ultimately allowed to proceed.
Protests are expected to continue throughout the weekend, with or without authorization.