Senegal’s government said on Friday it had sent the military to the capital, Dakar, and other cities and shut down social media platforms in response to Thursday’s deadly clashes between protesters and security forces – a a new rise in tension rarely seen in the West. African country.
Demonstrators took to the streets across the West African nation on Thursday shortly after a court convicted a leading opposition figure, Ousmane Sonko, on charges of “harming the youth,” while acquitting him in large numbers. He faces charges of rape and making death threats. Mr. Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison in a case his supporters said was politically motivated.
Shortly after the verdict, demonstrators clashed with security forces, resulting in the deaths of at least nine people, according to the government.
Periodic demonstrations have erupted in Senegal since the arrest of Mr. Sonko in 2021 after a massage parlor employee accused him of rape. But Thursday’s violence took tensions in Senegal, a largely peaceful country, to a new high. Protesters clashed with security forces in several Dakar neighborhoods, and parts of the city’s main university were damaged. Supermarkets, trains and gas stations were also set on fire in many cities.
Senegal’s interior minister, Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome, said Thursday’s deaths occurred in Dakar and in Ziguinchor, a southern city where Mr. Sonko is the mayor. In 2021, at least 14 people died in protests following his arrest.
On Friday, calm returned in most areas, although occasional confrontations broke out in some neighborhoods of Dakar where the damage from Thursday was being cleaned up. However, schools and many businesses remain closed.
Abdou Karim Fofana, the government spokesman, said the military had been sent to maintain order. He declined to say how many troops have been mobilized or where.
The government also blocked social media outlets, which Mr. Diome, the interior minister, said was necessary to prevent calls to violence and hatred from spreading.
Until Friday, the fate of Mr. Sonko remains unclear. Security forces stationed around his house in Dakar, where he also maintains a residence, prevented him from leaving for several days. They also, without warning, threw tear gas at journalists, lawmakers and residents who were walking nearby.
Mr. Sonko, a 48-year-old former tax inspector popular with the youth, accused the president of using court cases to sideline him. In return, the government of President Macky Sall accused Mr. Sonko called for an insurrection and threatened public order in Senegal. His arrest could come at any time, Ismaïla Madior Fall, the justice minister, told reporters on Thursday.
Political and human rights observers are closely watching the latest developments in Senegal as the country is set to hold its next presidential election in February, a contest seen as an attempt at a coup. that region.
Currently, the sentence prohibits Mr. Sonko to run the election. He was not allowed to appeal the verdict because he was not in court for the trial. But two of his lawyers and Mr. Fall, the minister of justice, said that Mr. Sonko could get a new trial if he surrenders or goes to jail.
Senegal has long boasted a culture of peaceful dialogue, political pluralism and the absence of coups since gaining independence from France in 1960. But human rights defenders and political observers have raised questions about the arrests of journalists and dozens of political opponents in recent years, as well as criminal charges filed against major opposition figures, including Mr. Sonko.
“There are expectations in Senegal’s democratic culture that the judiciary should be independent,” said Catherine Lena Kelly, an expert on Senegalese politics at the African Center for Strategic Studies, a research group that is part of the US Department of Defense. United States. “But there have been complaints during Sall’s presidency about what some citizens consider to be the state electorate charging opposition leaders with criminal offenses.”
On Friday, many Senegalese took to social media despite the ban to express their concerns about the escalation of violence. Some of the most powerful messengers are the players of Senegal’s national soccer team. Most of them play abroad, but they are widely respected after winning the last Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s major tournament.
“A lot of blood has been shed in the last two years,” star player Sadio Mané wrote to his 14 million followers on Instagram, urging those behind the violence to restore peace.
Whether Senegal’s messages will be heard while social media is shut down remains to be seen.
Babacar Ndiaye, a political analyst in Senegal, said that to his knowledge, the social media blackout is the first in the country.
“It was shocking to say the least,” said Mr. Ndiaye, the director of research and publications at Wathi, a research organization based in Dakar. “Social media has always been a space of free expression in Senegal, including yesterday when people exchanged information in real time about the clashes and the response of law enforcement.”
On Friday afternoon, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and WhatsApp did not work, and many Senegalese people switched to virtual private networks, avoiding such restrictions by masking the location of a user.