Senegal Braces for 3 More Days of Protests as Crisis Deepens

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) -- Supporters of jailed Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko have called for three more days of protests starting Monday following violent demonstrations last week that threatened to erode the country's reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies.

Sonko, seen as President Macky Sall's greatest potential political threat in the upcoming 2024 election, was arrested last week following a rape allegation. His supporters maintain that the charge is aimed at derailing Sonko's political future and the ensuing protests have been accelerated by broader, long-standing grievances with Sall's administration.

The violence is the worst unrest to hit Senegal in nearly a decade, as demonstrators have sought to undermine Sall's business ties with former colonizer France. In recent days crowds have set fire to more than a dozen supermarkets opened by French retailer Auchan, and have targeted Total gas stations.

The sight of burned-out cars and boarded-up shops is a rarity in Senegal, which has never suffered the military coups and dictatorships that have destabilized so many of its neighbors in West Africa over the past half-century.

The opposition coalition known as M2D has urged peaceful protests this week, urging the president "to take concrete action to meet the democratic demands of the Senegalese people." Chief among those is the release of Sonko, the jailed opposition leader.

The demonstrations began Wednesday before Sonko's court appearance for questioning on accusations of rape. He was detained on the way to the courthouse and arrested for disturbing public order after hundreds of his supporters clashed with police who were blocking unauthorized protests.

Sonko is now charged with rape and making death threats, according to his lawyer. Sonko is expected back in court on Monday.

Sonko, 46, finished third in the 2019 presidential election with just over 15% of the ballots cast, drawing strong supporter from younger voters. However, his message of greater economic independence for Senegal has attracted a wider audience amid the financial hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic amid curfews and other movement restrictions.

Sall easily won re-election in 2019 with more than 58% of the vote. His opponents fear he will seek to extend his mandate with a third term as presidents in neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast did last year though Sall has not commented publicly on his intentions yet.

While Sall has been credited with infrastructure and development projects, his critics say that has come alongside the sidelining of political rivals. Two other rising political stars have previously faced charges their supporters said were politically motivated.

Karim Wade, the son of the president Sall defeated in 2012, was once widely seen as the heir apparent before he was charged with corruption the following year. He ultimately spent three years in jail before going into exile abroad in Qatar. Former Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall, seen as a top contender at one point for the 2019 election, was arrested in 2017 on corruption charges and later pardoned after the vote took place.

The leaders of Senegal's influential Muslim brotherhoods on Sunday urged protesters to show restraint in the days ahead.

"Every Senegalese has the right to express themselves on the situation in the country, but with respect for institutions and without the destruction of public or private property," said Serigne Mansour Sy. "We call for peace and serenity."