Both Senegalese President Macky Sall and opposition leader Ousmane Sonko urged calm Monday, after days of violent protests over Sonko’s arrest left five people dead.
Sonko, who was charged with rape, was ordered released Monday by a judge in the capital, Dakar. Sonko has denied the allegations, and many of his supporters believe they were invented to keep him off the presidential ticket in 2024.
Addressing the nation for the first time since protests broke out, Sall announced the easing of curfews that had been installed to quell the spread of the coronavirus. Those protocols have been wildly unpopular among workers in the informal economy.
"I will use all the powers conferred on me by my office to support a return to calm," Sall said.
Some protests for Sonko’s release turned into celebrations in the capital early Monday when the judge’s decision was revealed. But larger demonstrations near the city’s center turned violent as protesters set a car on fire and police responded with tear gas. Thousands of Sonko supporters marched in the capital Monday.
The rape charge against Sonko remains and protests, which have ballooned to include grievances about the economy and vaccine distribution, are expected to continue.
Addressing a press conference after his release Monday, Sonko urged calm but called for “larger protests” challenging the state.
“This is not the fight for Ousmane Sonko,” he said. “We need to hear the message ... of the people. We pay tribute to the young people who understood well before us politicians the stakes of this fight.”
Ce n'est pas le combat pour Ousmane Sonko. Nous devons entendre le message et avoir une lecture de ce que le peuple dit. Nous rendons hommage aux jeunes qui ont compris, bien avant nous autres politiques, les enjeux de ce combat. #FreeSenegal🇸🇳— Ousmane Sonko (@SonkoOfficiel) March 8, 2021
In his own address, Sall said he understands why young people had taken to the streets: "Because you don't have a job, because you aspire to a better future.”
Protests, which have included the burning of Auchan grocery stores, a French-owned chain, have called out broken promises by Sall and drawn attention to youth unemployment.
“I maintain that Macky Sall — what he is doing to the people of Senegal is not what he promised for us,” Ousmane Ben Diedhiou, a student and protester in Dakar, said.
Sall has not publicly acknowledged the violence or theories that he was involved in framing Sonko for the rape charges.
Sall defeated Sonko in the 2019 presidential elections to win a second term in office. Sonko, 46, was the youngest person to run for president in the country. Despite enthusiastic support from the younger population, he won just 16% of the vote.
Last month, an employee of a massage parlor in Dakar accused Sonko of rape — an accusation he has denied and many of his supporters believe was politically motivated.
Sonko was arrested two weeks ago while traveling to a court hearing on charges of “public disturbance” after police said they asked him to reroute his convoy and he refused.
Massokohna Kane, Sonko’s lawyer, said that Sonko told his guards, “Do not put up any resistance,” when they met police along the route.
“I don’t think that the behavior of such a gentleman could constitute public disorder proceedings,” Kane said.
This article originated with Allison Fernandes in VOA’s French to Africa service.