Clashes in Casamance: Tensions rise in Senegal ahead of rival Sonko’s trial

Senegalese police and supporters of Ousmane Sonko protested on Monday in Ziguinchor (south) on the eve of the rival’s scheduled appearance in court for rape, in what they say is a conspiracy of power to remove him from the presidential election.

The Sonko affair, a soap opera on the frontiers of politics and the works that kept Senegal in suspense for more than two years, has once again raised tensions and raised fears of an outbreak of violence.

Police reported the accidental death of a policeman after being crushed by an armored vehicle stationed in Ziguinchor. The media reported several injuries among the protesters.

Mr Sanko, chairman of the Pestaf-les Patriotes party and third in the presidential election in 2019, is due to appear before a criminal chamber in Dakar on Tuesday over rape and death threats against an employee of a beauty salon in the capital. Opening of trial or simple preliminary enquiry? Confusion persisted on Monday, with complete uncertainty about the intentions of Mr Sonko, speculated to be in Ziguinchor, whether to go to court or not.

Mr Sanko, 48, has always denied the rape allegations and cried foul to bar him from running for the presidency in 2024. A conviction would further thwart his candidacy. If he refuses to appear before the court, which he considers instrumental, he risks being arrested.

Young people rallied on Monday in Ziguinchor, the city of Casamance of which he is mayor from 2022 and where he retired a few days ago, several hundred kilometers from Dakar.

An AFP correspondent said groups occupying the street strewn with projectiles threw stones at police, who responded with tear gas.

– “Everything is artificial” –

Mr. Sonko’s supporters set up roadblocks and burned tires on various roads using stone blocks and logs.

Media reported that many supporters of all ages gathered near his home in Ziguinchor on Sunday evening to form a human shield against the attempted arrest.

Mr. Sonko himself has been silent for several days. He has previously stated that he is in “civil disobedience” in the face of the harassment he claims to be the subject of. He was given a suspended six-month prison sentence in May for defamation charges against a minister, in what he says was another dirty trick. This sentence alone can deprive him of his eligibility.

Supporters of Senegal’s rival Ousmane Sonko demonstrate in Dakar May 12, 2023 (AFP – John Wessels)

The texts said Mr Sonko must appear at the court registry the day before his trial. Failing to do so, the court can bring him by force or prosecute him in absentia.

Mr Sonko said he would no longer respond to court summons without a guarantee of his safety. He claims that members of the security forces attempted to assassinate him.

Two of his lawyers told AFP they had not received any summons for the trial. “Everything is trickery for a decision in absentia. We have seen violence on the population around their home (in Ziguinchor), which reinforces the absence of security”, declared May Sire Claydor Lee, one of them.

Mr Sonko’s appointments with the justice system have regularly led to incidents or paralyzes Dakar. His detractors accused him of relying on the streets to escape justice, or of being an agitator promoting a “rebel” project.

His arrest in 2021 helped spark several days of rioting that left at least 12 dead.

Mr Sanko’s case, which is popular among those under the age of 20, who represent half the population, has monopolized public debate for two years over the intention of President Mackay Sall. The latter, elected in 2012, re-elected in 2019, maintains ambiguity over a new candidacy in 2024. The prospect of a third term on his part has many opponents, who say it is unconstitutional.

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