Senegal: Chaos, General Disenchantment and Calls for President Macky Sall’s Resignation Rock Dakar

Catholic Bishops in Senegal are calling for calm following a wave of violent protests in the wake of the arrest of opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko.

The 46-year-old was arrested March 3. He had headed to court in a motorcade to answer “rape” and “death threats” allegations levelled against him by an employee of a beauty salon where the opposition leader used to do his massage.

Sonko, who came third in the 2019 Presidential Election and is seen as the likely challenger in 2024 has denied the charges, saying they are politically motivated to stop his presidential ambitions.

Authorities however arrested him on accusations that he was disturbing public order. The arrest sparked a wave of violent protests across the nation, resulting in the deaths of at least five people.

Stores were ransacked, public buildings destroyed, tires burnt on the roads and some media houses attacked. Authorities finally released Mr. Sonko on March 8, but the release has not stopped the violence.

The protests go beyond Sonko, though. Shouts of “free Senegal” and “Macky out” have drowned cries of “free Sonko.”

Despite the release of Opposition Leader Ousmane Sonko, violence continues in Senegal (C) BBC

At the root of the growing public anger are runaway unemployment, rising inequality, corruption as well as the repressive measures amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are seeing a fed-up population taking to the streets to reject the country’s ruling political class,” writes a collective of Senegalese artistes and academics calling for President Macky Sall to be held accountable for his crimes.

Catholic Bishops agree, saying that the escalating violence speaks to a “deep crisis in Senegalese society.”

In a statement March 8, the clerics said it was time to limit the damage or stop it.

“While there is still time, let us then try to limit the damage, and even stop it. Let us stop the spiral of violence! We can and we must, not only by defending our rights, but also by assuming our duties, in order to create the right conditions for a better life together,” said Mgr. Benjamin Ndiaye on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of Senegal.

“Let us favour dialogue, which is only possible in a climate of peace and serenity," he said, and called on all Senegalese-the political leadership, the military, the civil society, and religious bodies to come together in a "common cause to save our nation”.

The Clerics said the violence, coming within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, shows just how one of Africa’s most peaceful nations in decades could “tip over into blind violence, likely to threaten our social cohesion, if we allow ourselves to be dominated by our passions and personal interests”.

“Human lives have been snatched (...) public and private property, the fruits of a heritage acquired through work, have been ransacked, looted, stolen, outside of any moral or ethical consideration, defying all justice, making the situation of many workers and their families even more precarious,” he lamented.

Protesters in Senegal are now demanding the departure of President Macky Sall (C) Foreign Policy

Ndiaye said the Bishops bowed down “with pain and contrition, before the memory of the victims of the crisis we are currently experiencing”.

Ndiaye said violent behaviour lurks in each human being.  “It can take different forms: from verbal violence that ignites and fans the flames, to physical violence that hurts and kills, to immoral violence that distorts intelligence and manipulates consciences.”

But it was, he said, now urgent to stop the spiral of violence.

“It is possible, and we owe it to the Creator, in whom we believe, who expects from us all a sincere and true commitment, for the good of all. We also owe it to the younger generations who expect their elders to inherit the ideals of truth, righteousness, justice, understanding and peace, as a precious heritage received from our ancestors”.

He said the bishops will continue to pray that “the Lord, the Almighty, protect our country and all its inhabitants, that He may calm hearts and enlighten minds. Also, may he inspire our words, our deeds, and gestures, so that what we say and do may contribute to the glory of God, to peace and to our wellbeing!”

For their part, the leaders of Senegalese Sufi Muslim brotherhoods sent emissaries to the Head of State on Sunday, March 7, to find a solution and put an end to the escalating violence. On March 8, President Macky Sall made a statement aimed at appeasement.

“I’ve understood you,” the President said.

The President called for calm and announced that the stringent Covid-19 measures which had hit the informal sector so hard would be relaxed.

Senegal has recorded more than 36,000 coronavirus cases and 935 deaths.

Opposition Leader Ousmane Sonko making capital of his growing popularity (C)

But that call could be coming too little, too late. Even as he exhorted his fellow citizens to calm down, Ousmane Sonko and a collective of other political and civil society leaders grouped under the Movement for the Defense of Democracy were on the same day announcing more “peaceful protests” in the days ahead to force the government to release all political prisoners.

“Now that Senegal’s democratic charade has been finally exposed in front of the world’s cameras, impunity for Macky Sall’s regime in the court of international opinion must end,” write the collective of Senegalese artists and academics.

“We demand full accountability and justice for the crimes committed before Senegalese and international courts,” they add.