DAKAR – Clashes between police and supporters of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko left nine people dead, the government said Friday, with authorities issuing a blanket ban on the use of several social media platforms in the aftermath of the violence.
The deaths occurred mainly in the capital, Dakar, and the city of Ziguinchor in the south, where Sonko lives and serves as mayor, Interior Minister Antoine Felix Abdoulaye Diome said in a statement.
Some social media sites used by demonstrators to incite violence, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have been suspended, he said.
“The state of Senegal has taken every measure to guarantee the safety of people and property. We are going to reinforce security everywhere in the country,” Diome said. On Friday, the government deployed the military to parts of the city as clashes continued between police and Sonko supporters.
Sonko was convicted Thursday of corrupting youth but acquitted on charges of raping a woman who worked at a massage parlor and making death threats against her. Sonko, who didn't attend his trial in Dakar, was sentenced to two years in prison. His lawyer said a warrant hadn't been issued yet for his arrest.
Sonko came in third in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election and is popular with the country’s youth. His supporters maintain his legal troubles are part of a government effort to derail his candidacy in the 2024 presidential election.
Sonko is considered President Macky Sall’s main competition and has urged Sall to state publicly that he won't seek a third term in office.
Since the verdict was announced, clashes have erupted throughout the country, with protesters throwing rocks, burning vehicles and in some places erecting barricades while police fired tear gas. Associated Press reporters saw plumes of black smoke and tear gas being fired throughout the city.
The clashes forced the closure of the main university in Dakar. On Friday, Associated Press reporters watched students streaming out carrying luggage on their heads, walking past the shells of burnt-out cars in the university compound.
“I blame the students for the vandalism. As for the situation in the country, I blame the government,” said Saliou Bewe, a 25-year-old master's student.
Bewe said it was the second time the university had closed because of protests related to Sonko. In 2021, at least 14 people were killed during clashes when authorities arrested Sonko for disturbing public order on the way to his court hearing. This time, the student said, it was much worse.
“Buses have been damaged, the administration, too. The classrooms have been damaged. There was a lot of vandalism and that’s deplorable,” he said. He doubts he'll be able to sit his exams scheduled to take place in 10 days' time.
Security forces patrolled the streets Friday and stood guard outside some supermarkets and shops, anticipating more unrest. Tight security remained around Sonko's house with police preventing anyone from getting close to the premises. Sonko has not been heard from since the verdict. However, his PASTEF-Patriots party has called for people to take to the streets in protest.
Rights groups have condemned the government crackdown, which has included arbitrary arrests and restrictions on social media.
“These restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and information constitute arbitrary measures contrary to international law, and cannot be justified by security reasons,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
France's ministry for Europe and foreign affairs said it was “extremely concerned by the violence” and called for a resolution to this crisis, in keeping with Senegal’s long democratic tradition.
Corrupting young people, which includes using one’s position of power to have sex with people under the age of 21, is a criminal offense in Senegal, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $6,000.
Under Senegalese law, Sonko's conviction would bar him from running in next year’s election, said Bamba Cisse, another defense lawyer. However, the government said that Sonko could ask for a retrial once he was imprisoned. It was unclear when he would be taken into custody.
“The court decision and the prospect of Sall’s bid for a third term in the election next year will fuel fierce criticism around erosion of judicial independence and democratic backsliding” in Senegal, said Mucahid Durmaz, senior analyst at global risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.
Government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana said the damage caused by months of demonstrations had cost the country millions of dollars. He argued the protesters themselves posed a threat to democracy.
“These calls (to protest), it’s a bit like the anti-republican nature of all these movements that hide behind social networks and don’t believe in the foundations of democracy, which are elections, freedom of expression, but also the resources that our (legal) system offers,” Fofana said.
Associated Press reporter Angela Charlton in Paris, France contributed