Clashes broke out in Senegal’s capital Dakar on Wednesday as opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was arrested ahead of a scheduled court appearance to face a rape charge.
Sonko, a 46-year-old devout Muslim who is popular with youngsters, had been heading to court to face a charge that he says is politically motivated.
Hundreds of people followed his motorcade, sounding car horns and singing traditional songs.
But opposition supporters and security forces began to exchange rocks and tear gas canisters, and Sonko was arrested on charges of disturbing public order before he reached the court.
Controversy has dogged Sonko since last month, when an employee at a salon where he received massages filed rape charges against him.
The leader of the opposition Pastef party is considered a challenger to President Macky Sall.
He ran against the president in the 2019 vote, but finished third in a race that delivered the incumbent a second term.
Frequently critical of Senegal’s governing elite, Sonko has denied the rape charge and accused the president of conspiring to remove him ahead of 2024 elections.
Security forces on Wednesday took the opposition leader to a gendarmes station in the working-class neighbourhood of Colobane after arresting him, where there were further clashes.
Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades in a bid to disperse angry protesters, who were throwing projectiles.
It is unclear how many people were injured or arrested.
– ‘Base things’ –
Senegal’s national assembly stripped Sonko of his legal immunity last week, paving the way for a police investigation.
Despite initially saying he would refuse to cooperate — citing procedural irregularities in how his immunity was lifted — Sonko agreed to respect a court summons.
“We will go to the judge, but it is not an abdication,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
The affair has drawn comparisons with Karim Wade, the son of former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who was convicted for graft and prevented from running in the 2019 election.
Likewise with ex-Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall — a rival of the incumbent president’s — who was stopped from running for election after being jailed in 2017 for corruption.
Speaking to French radio last week, President Macky Sall denied that he had engineered Sonko’s legal troubles.
“I have enough things to do than to plot such base things,” he said.
The rape allegation nonetheless comes as uncertainty grows over whether Sall, 59, will seek a third term in 2024.
Presidents in the former French colony of about 16 million people are limited to two consecutive terms, but Sall launched a constitutional review in 2016, raising suspicions he intends to run again.
Other presidents in West Africa — such as Guinea’s Alpha Conde or Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara — have used constitutional changes to win third terms.