By Lisa VIVES
FOR centuries, Senegal was called the ‘country of teranga’ or ‘country of hospitality.’ This week, the mask of hospitality was lifted to expose the frustration of thousands of young Senegalese fed up with government corruption and what was called ‘wealth hoarding by the political class.’
Protestors are also demanding the release of political prisoners and reform of the criminal justice system.
“Trop c’est trop! Enough is enough! We won’t move back,” read one online tweet under the hashtag #Free Senegal as demonstrators clashed with police, converting Dakar into a war zone, according to an observer.
“I don’t think things will be calm. People are rising up,” 24-year-old fashion worker Souleymane Diallo told Reuters. The spark for the protest was the arrest of a prominent opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, in what protestors claimed was a trumped up charge.
At least five people have died in the protest which started last Wednesday. It has been called one of the worst outbreaks of political unrest in years but not unexpected in a country lacking opportunities for youth.
Shops, gas stations and banks are closed, and long lines formed for gas and groceries on Sunday.
Independent radio and television stations saw their signals cut while pressure mounted on President Mackey Sall, whose is said to be considering to extend his rule beyond the allotted two-term limit.
Sonko has accused President Sall of trying to remove potential opponents ahead of the 2024 polls. Two other opposition leaders were excluded from the 2019 election after being convicted on charges which they say were politically motivated.
“In an effort to silence the people,” wrote ‘Aisha Fall’ on Twitter, “the Senegalese government has restricted access to social media platforms… Educate yourself about Senegal’s current situation…”
The economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a nightly curfew to contain its spread and a ban on mopeds and motorcycles have only stoked frustrations. But the rape charge has created a gender gap in the protest movement. Some have called Sonko’s accuser a liar and a tool of the government and she is reportedly receiving death threats.
“When a woman speaks out and says that she was raped, we need to listen to her seriously,” said Coumba Touré, of Africans Rising, a pan-African group focused on social justice.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has raised concerns about opposition leaders facing unfair trials, lengthy detentions and uneven access to lawyers. The opposition Movement to Defend Democracy (M2D) coalition called for three days of nationwide protests beginning on Monday.
“M2D … calls on the Senegalese people to pursue its mobilization and peaceful struggle by using all of its constitutional rights to reject the dictatorship of Macky Sall,” the group said.