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Thousands of Senegal opposition supporters begin 3-day protest

Tensions are mounting in Senegal even as President Macky Sall could be fighting for a controversial third term – which the opposition says is unconstitutional – in the 2024 election.

About 5,000 supporters of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko gathered in the capital Dakar on Tuesday for a three-day protest to show support for the aspiring presidential candidate, who faces a libel case that will resume this week.

Protests are expected to continue across the country on Wednesday, but return to Dakar on Thursday.

The demonstrations are the latest expression of rising tensions in Senegal ahead of the 2024 election, which could see President Macky Sall run for a controversial third term, which the opposition says is unconstitutional.

Sall, 61, has neither confirmed nor denied he intends to flee, amid widespread speculation. In the poll, he would be up against Sonko, who came third in the 2019 presidential election and has since garnered support, especially among disillusioned urban youth.

Hundreds of Sonko supporters marched around an empty field in the Yoff district of Dakar on Tuesday awaiting the start of the demonstration. Some waved Senegalese flags and photos of Sonko.

Heavy security was present, including dozens of riot police vehicles.

Police respond quickly to protests in Senegal. The latest pro-Sonko protests, which erupted after he left court last month, were dispersed with tear gas.

“We are tired of this repression, no one can protest in Senegal. Macky (Sall) cannot be a candidate,” said Codou, a protester who came from the nearby town of Thies.

Sall’s opponents accuse him of trying to weaken pre-election competition with false accusations and political trials. The government denies this.

Sonko, 48, is due to appear in court on Thursday to resume hearings for a defamation trial over alleged embezzlement charges against the tourism minister.

He is also on trial for rape and making death threats to a beauty salon employee in 2021. Sonko denies wrongdoing.

Senegal has long been seen as a beacon of democracy in West Africa. But critics have grown frustrated with Sall’s crackdown on dissent and his perceived failure to improve the economic livelihoods of the majority of the people.

Protests in June 2022 echoed the cries of “Macky Sall is a dictator” in Dakar as citizens denounced the broad powers of the presidency and the long-standing pattern of political opposition that has always been thwarted on ostensibly technical grounds.

The resulting crackdown on the deserved protests reprimands of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of Amnesty International, which in a statement said that arbitrary arrests together with “repeated bans on demonstrations, together with the deaths of people during such protests, pose a real threat to the right to demonstrate in Senegal”.

In 2021, deadly clashes erupted across the country when Sonko was arrested on charges of sexual assault.