DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Riot police in armed personnel carriers fired tire gas and rubber bullets at crowds in Senegal's capital on Monday hours after authorities freed opposition leader Ousmane Sonko following several days of violent protests in one of West Africa's most stable democracies.
Even as the 46-year-old politician was released from custody after being indicted on charges of rape and making death threats, fresh clashes erupted between security forces and crowds gathering in anticipation of Sonko's arrival at a public square later in the evening.
At least eight people have died since the unrest began last week, according to Amnesty International, marking the worst unrest to hit Senegal in nearly a decade.
Sonko is widely seen as President Macky Sall's greatest potential political challenger in the upcoming 2024 election, and the protests that began Wednesday have been accelerated by broader, long-standing grievances with Sall's administration.
“The conspiracy has failed. Our client will go home,” attorney Cire Cledor Ly told reporters. “We have had this result thanks to the mobilization of the people.”
Sonko's supporters had vowed to start three more days of demonstrations on Monday, calling for Sonko's release, and some indicated that they would still push ahead with their efforts. Throngs of boisterous supporters descended on the courthouse downtown waving Senegalese flags and then made their way to his residence next.
Demonstrators have sought to undermine Sall's business ties with former colonizer France, attacking more than a dozen supermarkets opened by French retailer Auchan. Total gas stations also have been targeted by the protesters in Dakar.
The sight of burned-out cars and boarded-up shops is a rarity in Senegal, which has never suffered the military coups and dictatorships that have destabilized so many of its neighbors in West Africa over the past half-century.
The demonstrations first began Wednesday before Sonko’s initial court appearance for questioning on accusations of rape. He was detained on the way to the courthouse and arrested for disturbing public order after hundreds of his supporters clashed with police who were blocking unauthorized protests.
Sonko finished third in the 2019 presidential election with just over 15% of the ballots cast, drawing strong support from younger voters. However, his message of greater economic independence for Senegal has attracted a wider audience amid the financial hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic amid curfews and other movement restrictions.
Sall easily won re-election in 2019 with more than 58% of the vote. His opponents fear he will seek to extend his mandate with a third term as presidents in neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast did last year though Sall has not commented publicly on his intentions yet.
While Sall has been credited with infrastructure and development projects, his critics say that has come alongside the sidelining of political rivals. Two other rising political stars have previously faced charges their supporters said were politically motivated.
Karim Wade, the son of the president Sall defeated in 2012, was once widely seen as the heir apparent before he was charged with corruption the following year. He ultimately spent three years in jail before going into exile abroad in Qatar. Former Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall, seen as a top contender at one point for the 2019 election, was arrested in 2017 on corruption charges and later pardoned after the vote took place.
The leaders of Senegal's influential Muslim brotherhoods have urged protesters to show restraint in the days ahead.
“Every Senegalese has the right to express themselves on the situation in the country, but with respect for institutions and without the destruction of public or private property," said Serigne Mansour Sy. “We call for peace and serenity.”