Clashes in Senegal amid opposition leader's trial

ousmane sonko protests

Protestors run as police officers use teargas to disperse them in Dakar on March 16, 2023. Security forces were deployed in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, on March 16, 2023 ahead of the politically-charged trial of  opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.

Photo credit: John Wessels | AFP


Senegalese youth clashed with security forces Thursday outside the politically charged trial of an opposition leader who was earlier forcibly removed from his vehicle by gendarmes on his way to court.

Ousmane Sonko is being tried for allegedly defaming a minister, a case that could determine whether he will be eligible to run in presidential elections next February.

Sonko's supporters say President Macky Sall is using the judiciary to sideline him for the vote, a charge Sall denies.

The politician is also facing separate charges of rape and making death threats.

He was taken from his home in the capital Dakar early Thursday under heavy police escort after being confined there on the eve of the trial as the authorities braced for protests.

Footage being shared on social media and by his communication team show him being stopped on the way to court and forcibly removed from his vehicle as tear gas is detonated in the surrounding area.

An AFP journalist saw a kiosk on fire, rubble on the road and a heavy gendarme presence on the scene shortly afterwards.

Sonko then arrived at court around 10:45 am (1045 GMT), another AFP journalist noted.

ousmane sonko

Members of the security team of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko surround the vehicle he is travelling in to go to a court appearance in Dakar on March 16, 2023. Security forces deployed in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, on Thursday ahead of the politically-charged trial of the opposition leader.

Photo credit: Seyllou | AFP

Heavy security

On Tuesday, Sonko held an authorised rally where he urged thousands of supporters to come en masse to back him on the day of the trial.

Armoured vehicles, gendarmes and barricades were heavily deployed around his house from early Thursday morning.

Riot police were also in place around the courthouse, and many schools in the capital were closed.

A firebrand speaker who came third in the 2019 presidential election, Sonko has enjoyed a rapid political ascent thanks in part to his popularity with young people.

He has already declared himself a candidate for the 2024 race, but his path to the presidency faces judicial hurdles.

Sonko has been accused of slander by Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang, a member of Sall's party, after accusing him of being criticised by state inspectors for his handling of a rural unemployment scheme.

He faces separate charges of allegedly raping a masseuse -- a case that in March 2021 unleashed violence that claimed around a dozen lives.

The unrest has rattled Senegal, a country that has a reputation of being an oasis of stability in troubled West Africa.

Convictions in either case could potentially prevent Sonko from running in next year's election.

In recent years, several other prominent opponents of Sall have had their political careers cut short by legal cases. Authorities have denied any misuse of state institutions.

Sonko has also claimed Sall intends to override the constitution and run for a third term.

Sall was elected in 2012 and again in 2019. He has neither confirmed nor denied whether he intends to seek a third mandate.