Senegal’s government has dissolved the country’s main opposition party and detained its leader on charges of fomenting insurrection, setting off a new round of protests in which two people were killed on Monday.
A series of recent legal actions against the opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, has triggered some of the worst political violence in recent history in Senegal, a seaside nation in West Africa.
Mr. Sonko, the 49-year-old mayor of the southern city of Ziguinchor, has galvanized fierce opposition to the country’s president, Macky Sall, a key Western ally in a region that is being shaken by a series of military takeovers. Mr. Sonko, a former tax inspector, has vowed to fight corruption and appealed to the country’s youth with talk of empowerment and abrasive rhetoric.
He has called for protesters to fill the streets and make the nation ungovernable and, at one point, said about the president, “The people are going to get him out of the palace and drag him outside.”
The government blocked some internet service and motorcycle traffic Monday before announcing it was dissolving Mr. Sonko’s political party, blaming its members for calling for uprisings that have led to deaths and property destruction.
On Friday, Mr. Sonko was suddenly taken into custody. He had been holed up in his home since last month, awaiting the start of a sentence in a case in which a woman who worked at a massage parlor accused him of rape. He was acquitted of rape, but convicted of “corrupting youth.” His supporters claimed that the trial was nothing more than a political prosecution to keep him from running for president.
Mr. Sonko announced over the weekend that he was going on a hunger strike. Then on Monday, he was charged with insurrection, again outraging his supporters.
Senegal’s interior minister provided few details of the two deaths beyond saying they occurred in the city of Ziguinchor, Mr. Sonko’s stronghold. The ministry urged calm and said authorities were taking steps “to preserve peace and tranquility.”
The latest round of tensions comes two months after 16 people died during demonstrations around Mr. Sonko’s rape trial. His sentence of two years on youth corruption charges sent thousands of young people to the streets of Dakar and other Senegalese cities, prompting the country’s authorities to deploy the military and block social media for days.
Many of the 16 died after being shot with live ammunition, according to death certificates seen by The New York Times. Many protesters and their families accused Senegalese police of firing on demonstrators.
The government’s attempts to rein in Mr. Sonko and his supporters have provoked concerns about the country’s direction.
“Our country is experiencing an unprecedented democratic decline in our political history!” former Prime Minister Aminata Touré, who last year broke ties with Senegal’s president and later announced that she would run for president. In a post Monday night on social media, she lamented the loss of democratic gains that had been achieved in Senegal “through hard struggle through generations of men and women committed to our country.”
Presidential elections are scheduled for February of 2024. Mr. Sall had suggested in interviews that he might run for a third term, though the country’s Constitution limits presidents to two terms.
But after much suspense, Mr. Sall announced last month that he would not run again, earning him praise from regional and international partners, and temporarily bringing calm back to Senegal.
Despite the legal charges against Mr. Sonko, experts say that he could still be eligible to run for president.
Ousmane Sène, the director of the West African Research Center in Dakar, likened Mr. Sonko’s tactics to those of former U.S. President Donald Trump: denying the legitimacy the country’s institutions; casting themseves as victims; and calling followers to take to the streets.
“This is the major thing that is problematic in his way of doing politics,” he said, referring to Mr. Sonko. “In this country it is always possible to reach power through the ballot.”