Ousmane Sonko, sharp-tongued figure at heart of Senegal crisis


Senegal's opposition leader Ousmane Sonko greets supporters as he passes by on his way to court in Dakar, Senegal, on 3 March 2021.

Photo credit: AFP


Ousmane Sonko, whose arrest has sparked Senegal's worst unrest in years, has won a strong following among the country's young for barbs that he hurls at privilege and the elite.

Skilled at television and the soundbite, Sonko has a favourite target in President Macky Sall, against whom he placed third in presidential elections in 2019.

"If Macky Sall wants to get rid of me, he will have to accept for once that he will get his hands dirty," Sonko said last week.

"We may lose some feathers (in the fight), but Macky may lose power."

He was speaking in the context of an alleged rape case -- the background for clashes that have claimed at least one life.

The unrest began on Wednesday, after Sonko was arrested while heading to a hearing over allegations, that have been filed by a worker at a beauty salon.

He denies the accusations and says the case aims to destroy his career.

His arrest was specifically for disturbing public order, after clashes between his supporters and the security forces. 

He has been ordered held in custody until Sunday, and will return to the court for questioning over the rape charges on Monday, his lawyers said.

Fast ascent

Sonko, who is 46 but looks 10 years younger, was a civil servant for 15 years.

He is head of the Pastef-Les Patriotes party, which he founded in 2014.

He leapt to prominence two years later when he was fired from his full-time job as tax inspector for publicly speaking out about murky public-sector contracts and calling out the elite on what he called their unearned privileges. 

Sonko took his next step up the political ladder in 2017, when he was elected MP, followed in 2019 by an impressive tilt at the presidential elections.

Running on an anti-establishment ticket against veteran rivals, he came in third with 15 percent of the vote, although this was far behind Sall's 58 percent.

A strong televisual performer, and smiling and at ease with his supporters, Sonko has taken aim at debt, poverty, food insecurity, under-funded health and education systems and corruption.

"Theoretically, no politician in Senegal should be very, very rich, because we know, often, where the wealth of politicians come from," he said in 2018.

"It's wealth which comes from embezzlement of public funds."

He says he has "no complexes" with regard to France and the United States, which wield major economic clout in Senegal.

He has called for a "responsible and intelligent" exit from the CFA franc -- the West African single currency that some consider a colonial relic.

"We have to protect our national fabric, we have to strengthen our industrial firms," he has said.

"The tax breaks which are being offered to foreigners should be offered to our people."

In his defence of the rape accusations, Sonko said he suffered from back pain and had gone to a beauty salon for massages as he was unable to afford a professional kinestherapist.

Presidential hope?

Sonko's strong showing has left him the best-placed opposition figure for the 2024 elections, although he has also been helped by the fact that leading rivals have either joined the government or been side-lined by financial scandals.

Sall's plans, too, remain unclear.

Presidents in the former French colony are limited to two consecutive terms, but Sall launched a constitutional review in 2016, raising suspicions he intends to run again.

Sonko, an elegant dresser, is at home in Senegal's traditional long gown or western suits.

He presents himself as a devout Muslim and is often seen in the company of his spiritual guide from the Mouride Brotherhood, one of the most prominent orders in Senegal.

He has two wives and several children.

Critics in the past have accused him of close association with hard-line salafists -- allegations that he said, as with today's rape accusations, are simply dirty tricks.