Opposition leader Ousmane Sonko urges protests following ban on nomination rally

Ousmane Sonko, the prominent opposition leader of Senegal, has called for peaceful protests after authorities prohibited a planned rally aimed at confirming his candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections. Sonko, representing the PASTEF-Patriots party, was officially nominated as their candidate for the February 25, 2024 elections, as stated in a party communiqué shared with AFP.

Sonko’s nomination has been the subject of controversy due to his criminal convictions and prison sentences. Despite these concerns, he was chosen as the candidate. However, the governor of Dakar declared on Thursday that the opposition party’s nomination rally, scheduled to take place on the outskirts of the capital on Saturday afternoon, was banned due to the potential risk of disrupting public order.

In response, Sonko addressed his supporters, assuring them that an alternative date would be selected for the rally. He called for a peaceful expression of disapproval by engaging in a “concert of saucepans, horns, and firecrackers” on Saturday evening from 8:30 to 9:00 pm (2030 to 2100 GMT) and urged President Macky Sall to peacefully step down from office.

Sonko stated during a Friday evening address on his party’s channel in both Wolof and French, “Macky Sall is attempting to eliminate PASTEF and prevent me from becoming a presidential candidate.”

Since May 28, Sonko has been confined to his home in Dakar by security forces. Despite his confinement, he urged his supporters to wear red as a symbol of protest. The fiery opposition figurehead has gained a passionate following among Senegal’s disillusioned youth, waging a campaign against President Sall, whom he portrays as a corrupt and aspiring dictator.

Sonko warned earlier this month that if he was prevented from running for the presidency, it would lead to “indescribable chaos.” His convictions in May and June sparked violent clashes between his supporters and security forces, resulting in the worst unrest the country has witnessed in years.

On May 8, Sonko received a six-month suspended sentence for slander from an appeals court. However, it remains uncertain whether this sentence, which can be appealed to the Supreme Court, disqualifies him from candidacy. Additionally, on June 1, Sonko was handed a two-year sentence following a trial on charges of sexual abuse against a beauty salon worker.

While legal analysts and Sonko’s lawyers argue that this conviction should exclude him from the race, Sonko affirmed on Friday that he remains eligible for the 2024 elections. The PASTEF party also declared that Sonko “fully enjoys his political and civil rights” and that nobody can impede his participation in the presidential elections.

The tensions ignited by Sonko’s conviction last month were further intensified by expectations that President Sall would defy constitutional limits and seek re-election. Sall is nearing the end of his second term, but his supporters contend that a 2016 revision of the constitution reset the term clock. However, Sall surprised both critics and supporters on July 3 by announcing that he would not run for office again next year.

Meanwhile, Senegalese prosecutors announced on Friday that they had issued an international arrest warrant for one of Sonko’s lawyers, French national Juan Branco, for alleged “crimes and offenses” linked to the unrest in the country last month. On June 22, Branco had filed a criminal complaint against President Sall in France for “crimes against humanity” and requested an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The complaint also named Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome and gendarmerie chief General Moussa Fall, among others.

Senegal’s Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall strongly criticized the move, dismissing it as “childish and puerile” and falling short of the necessary standards for legal scrutiny.

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