At least 15 people have been killed in Senegal following an outbreak of violence after the sentencing of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko.
The United Nations and African Union have called for calm after the sentencing of opposition politician Ousmane Sonko sparked some of the deadliest violence in recent years.
Authorities have deployed the army on the streets of the capital, Dakar, and other cities as the death toll rose to 15. Nine people were killed on Thursday after Sonko was sentenced to two years in jail on charges of corrupting youth, which may bar him from running in the 2024 presidential elections.
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The army was deployed to the streets but fresh scuffles erupted on Friday night in parts of the capital, Dakar, and in Ziguinchor.
The violence left another six dead, government spokesman Maham Ka told AFP news agency.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the violence and “urged all those involved to … exercise restraint”, a spokesman said.
The AU said its commission president, Moussa Faki Mahamat, strongly condemned the violence and urged leaders to avoid acts, which “tarnish the face of Senegalese democracy, of which Africa has always been proud”.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called on all parties to “defend the country’s laudable reputation as a bastion of peace and stability”.
The European Union and Senegal’s former colonial power France also expressed concern over the violence.
Senegal government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana said the violence was not fuelled by “political demands” but “acts of vandalism and banditry”.
“These are difficult times for the Senegal nation that we will overcome,” he told TFM.
Social media limited
Several social media and messaging platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have been restricted to limit online communications, with the government saying it had restricted access in order to stop “the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages”.
However, rights group Amnesty International has condemned the restrictions, describing them as an attack on freedom of expression.
“We condemn the restrictions on access to social media by the Senegalese authorities in the face of violent protests,” Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s regional director for West and Central Africa, said in a statement.
“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,” she added.
The NGO Reporters Without Borders also called on authorities to fully restore internet access.
“Sociopolitical violence must not be used as a pretext to restrict the right to inform,” it said.
Christopher Fomunyoh, from the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, said there was clear political motivation in the legal cases against Sonko.
“The Senegalese people have a culture of dialogue and attachment to their freedoms, and to now see politically motivated demonstrations that have caused the [loss of] lives is really unacceptable and unprecedented,” he told Al Jazeera.
“On the one hand, the government has now deployed the Senegalese military into the streets – something that is also very unprecedented – and on the other hand, Sonko and his supporters are very determined to use the streets to make their voices heard,” he continued.
“My hope is that the Senegalese religious leaders and civil society can step in and try to mediate between the two sides that ultimately will have to make concessions and create an enabling environment for meaningful, inclusive and credible presidential elections to take place in February 2024.”
Sonko was charged with rape and making death threats against an employee of a beauty salon in Dakar in 2021.
However, the court acquitted him on these charges and convicted him for “debauching” a person under the age of 21, without clarifying the immoral acts he is alleged to have committed.
Under the electoral code, the verdict would appear to render him ineligible for next year’s election.
Sonko has maintained his innocence and claims the president is trying to frame him to keep him out of next year’s election – a charge the government denies.
The case has deeply divided Senegal, which is usually a bastion of stability in West Africa.
Sonko, who was tried in absentia, has yet to be taken into custody for his jail term, which is likely to cause further tensions.
Sonko is presumed to remain in his Dakar home, where he has been blocked in by security forces since the weekend. He alleges he is being “illegally held”.