© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Senegal’s President Macky Sall speaks during the commissioning of Dangote Petroleum refinery in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria, May 22, 2023. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja
DAKAR (Reuters) – Senegal’s President Macky Sall on Wednesday said his government would ensure peaceful, free and transparent elections next year following weeks of fresh opposition unrest over fears he might run for a third term and sideline a key rival.
Sporadic violent protests have broken out across Senegal since opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was detained for alleged rape in 2021. Sonko’s supporters say this is a tactic to bar him from the February presidential poll, which the government denies.
Sall on Wednesday welcomed members of various parties, religious leaders and civil society to a multi-day national dialogue aimed at easing tensions and fostering dialogue.
Sonko and some other opposition figures boycotted the event.
“There are no taboos, we will discuss everything,” said Sall after a speech in which he conceded that more needed to be done to find jobs for young people – many of whom support Sonko.
Sall made no direct mention of Sonko or the recent protests. But he warned that violence and hatred were a “deep wound” to the country.
“It is our duty to gather and discuss our shared concerns while respecting our democratic achievements,” he said.
Sonko, who came third in the last election, has tapped into frustrations among some voters over perceptions that Sall has failed to provide jobs or improve livelihoods since he came to power in 2012.
Anger has also flared over concerns the president might use a new constitution adopted in 2016 to bypass term limits and run again next year. He has neither confirmed nor denied this.
Sonko’s neighbourhood in Dakar, to which he often summons rowdy crowds of supporters with late-night speeches, was locked down on Wednesday. A planned anti-government march in the area did not appear to be taking place as of late afternoon on Wednesday amid a heavy security presence throughout the city.
The verdict in the rape trial is expected on Thursday. If Sonko is found guilty, the prosecutor’s recommended prison sentence of 5 to 10 years would likely make him ineligible to run for the presidency. He denies all wrongdoing.
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.
Khalifa Sall attended Wednesday’s dialogue and said he hoped the president’s potential third term bid was up for discussion.