Senegal’s main opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was arrested on Wednesday after hundreds of his supporters clashed with police in the capital while protesting against a rape accusation he denies.
An employee at a beauty salon accused Sonko last month of rape. The politician, who finished third in the 2019 presidential election, was summoned for questioning after his parliamentary immunity was removed last week.
Sonko, a 46-year-old former tax inspector, accuses President Macky Sall’s government of stirring up the charge to undermine his strongest rival.
The widespread support he enjoys among Senegalese youth was on full display on Wednesday. Near his house, supporters burned tyres and threw rocks at riot police, who responded by firing tear gas. A Reuters reporter saw three people who were injured, including one bleeding from the head.
“We are ready to die for Sonko!” some chanted.
At Cheikh Anta Diop University in central Dakar, hundreds of students charged the police and threw rocks. A Reuters reporter saw a policeman firing an automatic rifle into the crowd and several others firing shotguns, though it was not clear what rounds were used. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Amid the melee, Sonko, who was in a convoy headed for a courthouse in downtown Dakar to respond to questioning about the rape allegation, was arrested by the police.
His lawyer, Bamba Cisse, said he was accused of disturbing public order and participating in a banned demonstration.
“They want to catch him in the act, judge him and convict him in order to get him off the electoral rolls,” Cisse told Reuters. “The first accusation of rape wasn’t working so they have now found something else.”
The police were not immediately available for comment.
Abdou Mbow, a spokesman for Sall’s APR party, said the violence was “nothing but vandalism which I think deserves to be punished”.
Other rivals of Sall have been targeted by criminal charges in the past, including former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of former President Abdoulaye Wade. As a result, neither was able to run for president in 2019.
Sall, 59, denies there has been any political interference in the cases. In power since 2012 and reelected in 2019, he has not commented on reports that he might seek a third term in 2024.
Sall’s opponents say running for a third term would violate the constitution.