Pressure mounts on president as Senegal prepares for new protests | Political news

Senegalese President Macky Sall faces increasing pressure to address this week’s deadly unrest and engage in dialogue as the country braces for more protests.

At least five people, including a schoolboy, have been killed in the days of clashes that erupted after opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was arrested on Wednesday, in what is the country’s worst political violence in years.

People torched cars, looted shops and threw stones at police during the protests, which highlighted long-standing grievances over living standards and economic exclusion.

The unrest alarmed the United Nations and Senegal’s neighbors, who called on all parties to show restraint.

Sall has yet to publicly address the situation, however.

Senegalese government mediator Alioune Badara Cissé on Sunday urged Sall to speak out ahead of a new round of opposition protests scheduled to start on Monday.

“The Senegalese want to hear from you,” Cissé said at a press conference in the capital, Dakar. “Why the hell don’t you talk to them?”

“Do it before it’s too late,” added Cissé, a former foreign minister under Sall, but whose role as ombudsman is to mediate between government institutions and protect the rights of the man.

Sonko, 46, a fierce critic of Senegal’s ruling elite, was arrested on Wednesday for breach of public order. Scuffles between opposition supporters and security forces erupted as Sonko went to court in Dakar to face another rape charge – which he said is politically motivated.

On Saturday, the opposition collective which includes Sonko’s Pastef party called for three more days of protests from Monday, urging people to “take to the streets en masse”.

Tension was already expected to be high in Dakar on Monday, where Sonko is due to appear in court to answer questions on the rape charge, and the government has ordered schools closed for a week.

Clashes first erupted after Sonko’s arrest and turned into nationwide protests that did not subside until Saturday.

Large queues formed for gas and groceries on Sunday, during what should be a brief respite from the unrest.

A schoolboy was killed when a protest on Saturday in the southern town of Diaobe turned violent, adding to four deaths authorities reported on Friday.

The education ministry said Sunday schools in Senegal will close until March 15. Many stores, gas stations and banks have been closed for days this week.

The influential League of Imams and Preachers of Senegal, meanwhile, called Sunday for the release of Sonko and a “return to calm”.

The economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a nighttime curfew to contain its spread has only fueled frustrations in the country where most people work in the informal sector. Senegal is often touted as a haven of peace in West Africa, but around 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

“We have to stop having a two-speed Senegal,” Cissé said, adding that it was inevitable that “the lid would come off” eventually.

Ndeme Dieng, an opposition member who tried to calm things down during the protests, said the vast majority of the protesters were unemployed youth.

“The gloomy economic situation has made people take to the streets and show that they have had enough,” he said.

‘People are fed up’

Sonko is a staunch Muslim popular with young people and came third behind Sall in the 2019 election.

But his political future was suddenly darkened last month when rape charges were filed against him by a worker at a salon where, he said, he went for a back massage.

The allegation comes amid uncertainty as to whether Sall, 59, will seek a third term.

Senegalese presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, but Sall launched a constitutional referendum in 2016, which some fear he will exploit to run again.

Other presidents in West Africa – like Alpha Condé of Guinea or Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire – have used constitutional changes to win third terms.

On Saturday, the Economic Community of 15 West African States, which includes Senegal, urged all parts of the country to restraint exercise and keep calm.

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