Senegalese President, Macky Sall, faced mounting pressure on Sunday to speak out after a wave of deadly violence rocked the country.
Five people including a schoolboy have been killed in days of clashes that erupted after the arrest of an opposition leader, the worst violence in years in a country usually seen as a beacon of stability in a volatile region.
People torched cars, looted shops and hurled stones at police during the protests, which have highlighted longstanding grievances over living standards and economic exclusion in the country.
The unrest has alarmed the United Nations and Senegal’s neighbours, which have appealed for all sides to show restraint.
Senegal’s government ombudsman Alioune Badara Cisse also urged Sall to respond to the violence, as the country braced for a new round of opposition protests from Monday.
“Senegalese people want to hear you,” Cisse said at a news conference in the capital Dakar. “Why the devil wouldn’t you talk to them?”
“Do it before it’s too late,” added Cisse, who formerly served as a foreign minister under Sall but whose role as ombudsman is to mediate between government institutions and to safeguard human rights.
– ‘Two-speed Senegal’ –
Clashes first broke out on Wednesday after the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, and escalated into nationwide protests which only abated on Saturday.
A schoolboy was killed when a demonstration on Saturday in the southern town of Diaobe turned violent, adding to four reported dead by the authorities on Friday.
Sall has yet to publically address the situation, however.
“We have to stop having a two-speed Senegal,” said Cisse, adding that it was inevitable “the lid would pop off” eventually.
Senegal, a former French colony of 16 million people, is often heralded as a haven of calm in West Africa, but about 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
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Sonko, 46, a fierce critic of the governing elite in Senegal, was arrested on Wednesday on charges of disturbing public order.
Scuffles between opposition supporters and security forces had broken out while Sonko was on his way to court in Dakar to answer a separate rape charge — which he says is politically motivated.
An opposition collective which includes Sonko’s Pastef party on Saturday called for three more days of protests starting from Monday, urging people to “massively descend onto the streets”.
Tension was already expected to be high in Dakar on Monday, where Sonko is due in court to answer questions about the rape charge, and the government has ordered schools closed for a week.
Ahead of the new protests, 19 foreign embassies in Dakar — including those of the United States, the EU and France — issued a joint statement on Sunday urging non-violence and dialogue.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States likewise called for a peaceful solution to tensions, noting that it had “significant concerns”.
– ‘People are fed up’ –
Sonko is a devout Muslim popular with youngsters and came third to Sall in the 2019 election.
But his political future was suddenly clouded last month when the rape charges were filed against him by an employee at a salon where, he said, he went to receive back massages.
The allegation comes amid uncertainty over whether Sall, 59, will seek a third term in office.
Senegalese presidents are limited to two consecutive terms, but Sall launched a constitutional referendum in 2016, which some fear he will exploit to run again.
Other presidents in West Africa — such as Guinea’s Alpha Conde or Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara — have used constitutional changes to win third terms.
On Saturday, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, which includes Senegal, urged all parties in the country to exercise restraint and remain calm.
ECOWAS also called on the government “to take the necessary measures to ease tensions and guarantee the freedom to demonstrate peacefully”.
Ndeme Dieng, an opposition member who tried to calm tempers during the demonstrations, said the vast majority of protesters were jobless youths.
“The gloomy economic situation has made people go out into the streets and show that they’re fed up,” he said.
On top of everyday pressures, coronavirus restrictions have also damaged livelihoods in a country where most people work in the informal sector.