Ousmane Sonko, Senegal’s fiery opposition leader

The 48-year-old has fired up the country's disaffected young, portraying them, and himself, as victims of the "state mafia."

Ousmane Sonko(C), President of the opposition party Senegalese Patriots for Work, Ethics and Brotherhood (PASTEF), gives a press statement at the HLM basic school in Ziguinchor on July 3, 2022. Senegalese voters head to the polls Sunday for parliamentary elections the opposition hopes will force a coalition with President Macky Sall and curb any ambitions he may hold for a third term. (Photo by MUHAMADOU BITTAYE / AFP)

Senegal has long been lauded for its reputation for calm and stability in the volatile region of West Africa.

But the country now finds itself bracing for a showdown as firebrand opposition leader Ousmane Sonko faces the outcome of a trial for alleged rape.

Few people in this country of nearly 17 million are lukewarm in where they stand on Sonko.

The 48-year-old has fired up the country’s disaffected young, portraying them, and himself, as victims of the “state mafia.”

At the apex of this corrupt elite, Sonko says, is a “monster” — President Macky Sall, Senegal’s suave-tongued two-term head of state, whom he accuses of plotting a dictatorship.

Sonko also rails against France, the former colonial power, and as a father of six and husband of two wives presents himself as a defender of religion and traditional values. He has called for a tougher penalties against same-sex relations.

Tensions in Dakar are high after Sonko declared on Tuesday he was being “illegally detained” ahead of the verdict of the rape trial on Thursday and urged the public to protest en masse.

“Everyone should rise up as one, because power should remain with the people,” he said.

He called for a “national resistance movement” to defend democracy and freedoms.

When Sonko was arrested in 2021, several days of clashes left at least 12 people dead.

Several more have died in sporadic violence this year, including a fatality this weekend.

– Divisive –

Sonko has ascended to the position of presidential challenger after coming third in the 2019 elections.

He campaigned on a pan-Africanist platform as the champion of the PASTEF-Patriots party, which he created in 2014.

He won 15 percent of the vote, which — for a political newcomer — was widely seen as a remarkable achievement.

Sall won 58 percent of the vote.

For supporters of the president, Sonko is a rabble-rouser who has poisoned political discourse and sown instability.

Sonko’s approach “is the antithesis of our democratic culture and traditions,” said Yoro Dia, one of the president’s advisors.

Sonko is stoking the prospect of violence in order to escape justice, Dia said.

He described Sonko as “the Trojan Horse of the Salafists,” whose puritan, ultra-orthodox form of Islam contrasts with Senegal’s more tolerant Sufi mysticism.

– Massage –

Debate over Sonko sharpened after he was charged in 2021 with raping a beauty salon employee, leading to a case whose every detail is being avidly followed by the public.

Sonko denies all charges against him and said he went to get a massage for a chronic back problem.

He said he asked a preacher if Islam “permitted (a man) to be massaged by women who are not his spouses.”

He compares himself to Sall critics before him, who he said, were sidelined by manipulation of the justice system.

But he has reserved his worst vitriol for his accuser, Adji Sarr, describing her as a “brain-damaged monkey.” She says she received death threats.

Sonko refused to attend the first two hearings in the trial, citing what he called security worries, and instead holed up in the southern city of Ziguinchor, where he has been mayor since 2022.

He was detained by the security forces on Sunday as he led a so-called “caravan of freedom” of supporters back to Dakar.

In Ziguinchor, many residents said they were divided over the trial.

Amadou Badji, a 75-year-old pensioner, said Sall had been targeting Sonko for the past five years “simply because he raises hope.”

But 33-year-old coffee seller Algassim Diallo said that “the country has been taken hostage for the past two years by a tale about rapes… It’s time to move on.”


© Agence France-Presse

In this article

East Africa Premier News Source with Top Stories, Special Features and more.
Uncensored & Undaunted