Protesters and security forces clashed in multiple neighbourhoods of the Senegalese capital Dakar on Thursday as an opposition leader appeared in court in a politically charged trial.
Ousmane Sonko is being tried for allegedly defaming a minister, a case that could determine whether he will be eligible to run in presidential elections in February next year.
Supporters of Sonko, who has already declared himself a candidate for the 2024 race, say President Macky Sall is using the judiciary to sideline him for the vote, a charge Sall denies.
The politician also faces separate charges of rape and making death threats.
Young people threw stones at gendarmes and police in the streets surrounding the heavily secured courthouse.
“We are neither for nor against what is happening — what we are interested in is peace,” said Mamy Diouf, the 20-year-old manager of a nearby pharmacy, one of the few businesses in the neighbourhood to have stayed open.
“Everyone does what they want, but they should wait for the elections and make a decision then. Violence leads nowhere — and it’s not good for business.”
In another neighbourhood, an AFP photographer saw dozens of young people pelting a security vehicle on one of the capital’s main roads, forcing it to pull away sharply, as plumes of smoke rose in the background.
Another fire was seen burning near an Auchan grocery store.
Sonko’s journey to court — under heavy police escort, through a city on high alert — was itself fraught with unrest.
Security forces eventually forcibly removed him from his vehicle and drove him to the courthouse.
Those accompanying him say that he and others were manhandled during the transfer and sprayed with tear gas.
Once in court, he was examined by a doctor. His defence said he is asthmatic and needed to be re-oxygenated after breathing in tear gas.
Several other interruptions marred the tense hearing, which, after several hours, had still not touched on the substance of the case.
Sonko has been accused of slander by Tourism Minister Mame Mbaye Niang, a member of Sall’s party, after accusing him of being criticised by state inspectors for his handling of a rural unemployment scheme.
The trial was eventually postponed to March 30.
But as people left the courtroom, a fistfight broke out, an AFP journalist saw.
This was just the latest development in a two-year political drama that has caused considerable turmoil.
In March 2021, Sonko was accused of rape and arrested on his way to court for a hearing in another case. That arrest triggered the most serious riots in years in Senegal, a country that has a reputation of being an oasis of stability in troubled West Africa.
At least a dozen people were killed in the 2021 unrest.
Tensions are again rising in the run-up to next year’s election.
Convictions in either the rape case, which has not yet gone to trial, or the defamation case could prevent Sonko from contesting the vote.
Sonko claims the charges are part of a plot to torpedo his chances.
Sonko had on Tuesday held an authorised rally where he urged thousands of supporters to come en masse to back him during Thursday’s trial.
A firebrand speaker who came third in the 2019 presidential election, Sonko has enjoyed a rapid political ascent thanks in part to his popularity with young people.
But the 48-year-old is a divisive figure, with his pan-Africanist, anti-elite and anti-French discourse.
His detractors denounce him as a populist damaging the country’s social fabric.
President Sall, who was elected in 2012 and again in 2019, has neither confirmed nor denied whether he intends to override the constitution and seek a third mandate.
Near the courthouse, Abdou Anne, a 53-year-old teacher, poured buckets of water on a tyre fire that was giving off heavy black smoke after clashes.
He said that while he supported the protesters he was dousing the fire because there was a childcare centre next door.
“I am not for Ousmane Sonko, I am for the youth — all they want is to stop this project”, he said, referring to a possible bid for a third term by Sall.
“No one agrees (with that). We are ready to give up our lives,” he calmly told AFP.