Senegalese President Macky Sall has declared a day of national mourning in memory of those killed in recent unrest sparked by the arrest of an opposition politician accused of rape. Sall also announced lifting of COVID-19 restrictions that had angered people.
The health emergency declaration due to the coronavirus pandemic, which led to restrictions, including a curfew in the capital Dakar, would be lifted at midnight on March 19, the president said in a statement on Wednesday.
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The recent protests also railed against the COVID-19 measures. Senegal has recorded more than 36,000 coronavirus cases and 935 deaths.
At least five people were killed in recent clashes between opposition supporters and security forces sparked by the March 3 arrest of Ousmane Sonko, a government critic popular with the country’s youth.
The violence, which the opposition says claimed 11 lives, came as a shock in a country often seen as a haven of stability in an otherwise volatile region.
Tensions only began to ease on Monday after a court freed Sonko from detention.
Charged with rape
The 46-year-old opposition politician was nonetheless also charged with rape, in a case which he claims was part of an effort to smear him.
An opposition collective that includes Sonko’s Pastef les patriotes party has called for a day of mourning on Friday, urging people to wear white to commemorate protesters who had died.
The collective known as the Movement for Defence of Democracy, or M2D, has also urged supporters to gather for a peaceful demonstration in Dakar the following day to press for the release of what it described as political prisoners.
The 46-year-old opposition politician rose to prominence during the 2019 presidential election. He received just over 15 percent of the vote, finishing third, but his speeches condemning government corruption and poverty struck a chord with many Senegalese. Given his young age and skills as an orator, observers said it likely would not be his last run for president.
The Senegalese politician was arrested after an employee of a beauty salon accused him of raping her. His supporters say the Senegalese president is trying to derail the opposition leader’s political future. If Sonko is convicted, he faces up to 10 years in jail and would be barred from taking part in the 2024 election.
Critics note it is not the first time a perceived opponent of the president has faced criminal charges ahead of national elections.
In 2013, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade was charged with corruption. Karim Wade, who many thought would one day run for the presidency too, ultimately served three years in jail before going into exile in Qatar. In 2017, Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall was arrested on corruption charges and not pardoned until after the 2019 election had taken place.
The government has denied the opposition allegations.
After Sonko’s arrest last week, protesters torched cars, looted shops and threw stones at police, highlighting longstanding grievances about living standards, unemployment, corruption and inequality.
The protesters see Sonko’s arrest as just one example of corruption in a government beset by greed. They have hit out at French retailers whom they believe have profitted at a time when many Senegalese are suffering from the global economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Auchan chain has been particularly singled out because it already was being blamed for putting smaller merchants out of business since it opened stores across Senegal back in 2019.