Sat. Feb 24th, 2024
Gendarmes remove a Kiosk overturned by protestors to block the road at Yarakh after opposition leader Ousmane Sonko has been detained, in Dakar, Senegal, July 31, 2023. REUTERS/Ngouda Dione

Supporters of the opposition leader Ousmane Sonko took to the streets of Dakar and Ziguinchor on Monday, clashing with police and denouncing a plot to remove their candidate from the political arena before the presidential election in February 2024.

By dissolving the party of his main opponent, Senegalese President Macky Sall knew he was taking a perilous decision, at the risk of inflaming the streets. The announcement came in the late afternoon of Monday, July 31, through the voice of Interior Minister Antoine Félix Diome: the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) party has been dissolved by decree.

With this move, the authorities intend to deal a fatal blow to Ousmane Sonko, the ruling party’s most serious rival in the run-up to the February 2024 presidential election. A few hours earlier, the president of PASTEF had been detained in the Sébikotane prison.

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The dissolved party had “frequently called on [its] supporters to stage insurrectionary movements” resulting in “numerous casualties and injuries, as well as acts of ransacking and looting of public and private property”, explained the minister of the interior. This was a reference to the unrest in Senegal in March 2021 and June 2023, which left over 40 people dead, following the arrest and subsequent sentencing of Sonko on June 1 to two years of imprisonment in a case in which he was accused of rape.

Read more Senegalese opposition leader’s lawyer actively sought after surprise appearance

Shortly after the announcement of the dissolution, demonstrators, most of them young, took to the streets of the capital, burning tires and blocking roads. Clashes broke out with the police. In Ziguinchor, a town in the south of the country and Sonko’s stronghold, two people died from their injuries, according to the Interior Ministry.

Hunger strike

Fearing that the demonstrations could spiral out of control, the government extended a ban on motorcycles in the Dakar region and temporarily suspended Internet access on cell phones and during certain hours, due to the “dissemination of hateful and subversive messages” on social media. Amnesty International condemned this “attack on freedom of information,” and called on the authorities to “restore the Internet,” in a message on social media.

Supporters of the mayor of Ziguinchor denounced a plot to remove their candidate from the political arena in the run-up to the February 2024 presidential election. Convicted of defamation in May and the corruption of youth in June, Sonko was arrested on Friday, July 28, in connection with a third case. Brought before an examining magistrate on Monday, he was charged and placed under a committal order; a procedure in which he is being prosecuted on eight counts, including calling for insurrection, criminal association, undermining state security, plotting against state authority and cell phone theft.

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“I’ve just been unjustly placed under a committal order. If the Senegalese people, who I’ve always fought for, surrender and decide to leave me in the hands of Macky Sall’s regime, I will, as always, submit to divine will,” Sonko wrote on social media. According to his lawyers, the opposition leader was continuing the hunger strike he began on Sunday. However, Sonko has one less argument to mobilize his supporters over the long term: After months of controversy, Sall finally announced in early July that he would not seek a third term in office.

Sonko is not the only PASTEF head to be targeted by the courts. Bassirou Diomaye Faye, the group’s secretary general and number two, is still in prison for a social media post put up in April, in which he criticized the behavior of certain magistrates, while Birame Souleye Diop and El Malick Ndiaye, two important leaders of the party, are both under judicial supervision respectively for offending the leader and spreading false news. According to PASTEF, 700 supporters have been arrested in the country since June 1.

‘An attack on civil and political rights

“This dissolution comes as no surprise, but the latest episode in a gruesome series of attacks on Senegalese democracy,” denounced Ousseynou Ly, member of PASTEF’s communication unit, assuring that all possible avenues of appeal before national and international institutions to overturn this decision by the authorities were already being explored. “PASTEF has never taken part in an election on its own, it has always evolved as part of a coalition, as recently in Yewwi Askan Wi. We don’t need a political party legally recognized by the State to participate in an election,” he argued, optimistically.

According to Pape Mahawa Diouf, spokesperson for the Benno Bokk Yaakaar presidential coalition, the dissolution of PASTEF is not, “an imperative of national security,” all the more necessary to “preserve the Senegalese democratic model” as West Africa has been marked in recent years by several coups d’état, in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and, more recently, Niger.

Seydi Gassama, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Senegal, pointed out that the last political party to be dissolved in the country was the African Independence Party, in 1960. “Since then, even during the Abdou Diouf era [president from 1981 to 2000], no party had suffered this fate, even Abdoulaye Wade’s party when he was an opponent,” he stressed. The decision facing PASTEF is, therefore, the human rights advocate argued, “an attack on the freedom of association and on civil and political rights.” Even if he has declared that he will not stand for a third term in 2024, “[Senegalese president] Macky Sall wants to ensure that his party remains in power and that he is not replaced by Ousmane Sonko,” Gassama said.

LE MONDE

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