In a dramatic turn of events in Senegal’s politically charged atmosphere, opposition figurehead Ousmane Sonko, leading the Pastef party, was apprehended this past Sunday. This arrest occurred as Sonko was at the helm of a convoy of supporters journeying from his birthplace, Zighinchor, situated in the Casamance region, to the nation’s capital, Dakar.
The intervention by security forces brought an abrupt cessation to Sonko’s planned cross-country journey. Initiated a mere two days prior to his arrest, his march had been closely shadowed by law enforcement. The situation escalated into violence, with a life tragically lost amidst clashes that ensued between the security forces and Sonko’s followers.
Minister of Interior, Antoine Diome, confirmed the casualty on Senegalese Radio and Television (RTS), noting it occurred in Kolda. Diome emphatically questioned whether the state should stand by passively amidst such turmoil, adamantly responding in the negative. He criticized Sonko for not seeking the requisite prior permission to organize his procession, which he referred to as a “freedom caravan.”
In a clarifying remark, Diome insisted that Sonko wasn’t arrested per se, but instead was “dropped off” at his residence in Dakar. This explanation, however, has been met with skepticism and concern, particularly from members of Sonko’s party.
One such member, Sekouna Diatta, who serves as the Mayor of Mangagoulack, a rural town in Casamance, reported to RFI that the police had deployed tear gas against individuals who had gathered to witness the convoy’s progress. Diatta expressed strong condemnation for the state’s actions, emphasizing that they were merely Senegalese citizens utilizing a public road.
Compounding the existing political tension, Sonko is in the midst of a rape trial that might preclude him from participating in the upcoming presidential race. A prosecutor has recently recommended a 10-year prison sentence for Sonko, who is accused of raping and threatening an employee of a beauty salon in Dakar, 20-year-old Adji Sarr. She alleges Sonko assaulted her on five separate occasions.
The verdict on these charges is anticipated on June 1st. Sonko, for his part, has fervently denied these accusations. He maintains that his visits to the salon were solely for the purpose of receiving massages to alleviate chronic back pain. Moreover, Sonko views the charges as politically motivated, orchestrated by President Macky Sall as a stratagem to disqualify him from the 2024 presidential election. Sall, in turn, has refuted these allegations.
Adding to the spectacle, Ousmane Sonko had been actively documenting his journey via social media during the initial two days. However, his updates ceased on the day of his alleged arrest.
His party, Pastef, issued a stern warning, vowing to respond decisively should any harm befall Sonko or should he be subjected to imprisonment or house arrest. They view these developments with particular concern given Sonko’s widespread popularity, especially among the youth who make up half of Senegal’s burgeoning population.
These incidents add to an already charged atmosphere, with Senegal and its citizens closely following these developments and eagerly awaiting the court’s verdict on June 1st.