Senegalese opposition leader Sonko heads to Dakar for final battle

Ousmane Sonko, the popular Senegalese opposition leader facing a rape trial, said Wednesday that he would lead a “caravan of freedom” across the country as he travels to face judges in Dakar.

Sonko, who has a keen following among Senegal’s large youth population, has branded the trial a political plot aimed at scuttling his bid for the presidency in 2024 elections.

Sonko, 48, has been charged with rape and making death threats against an employee of a beauty salon in Dakar, accusations that he denies.

“I’ll meet you in Dakar: either (President) Macky Sall steps back, or we will face him to put an end to this,” Sonko told hundreds of cheering supporters outside his home in the southern city of Ziguinchor after the second day of his trial wrapped.

“The final fight, where will it go? It will happen in Dakar… If you are 2,000, let 1,500 go to Dakar to continue the fight,” he said.

Sonko plans to return to Dakar by road and turn the 500-kilometre (310-mile) journey into a “caravan of freedom”, saying later on social media that his convoy would set off for Dakar on Thursday.

Public prosecutor Abdou Karim Diop had earlier called for a 10-year prison sentence for rape, or a minimum of a five-year term for “corrupting youth.”

Either sentence would legally bar him from contesting the elections.

A decision is expected to be handed down on June 1, the president of the criminal court said after the marathon 17-hour session wound up.

The trial had resumed Tuesday after a weeklong suspension, but Sonko refused to show up for the second time.

The court rejected pleas by his lawyers for a new adjournment, prompting the attorneys to walk out.

Sonko has said he went to the “Sweet Beaute” salon for a massage for chronic back pain and denies any assault.

The complainant maintained her accusations in Tuesday’s hearing, saying she had been abused five times by Sonko between 2020 and early 2021. She also said she had received death threats if she went public with her accusations.

The conservative nation has been avidly following the case, which on Wednesday served up a string of salacious details.

– Trial no-show –

The trial opened on May 16 but was immediately adjourned after Sonko refused to attend.

Sonko declared last Friday that he feared being attacked and would not appear without state guarantees for his safety.

His lawyer, Cire Cledor Ly, told AFP by telephone on Wednesday that his client was “supremely calm” after the developments in court.

He gave no details as to the advice Sonko’s attorneys would be giving for the future of the case.

Ziguinchor residents were divided over the trial.

Amadou Badji, a 75-year-old pensioner, said Sall had been targeting Sonko for the past five years “simply because he raises hope.”

“I’ve not seen such goings-on since Senegal gained independence,” he said.

But 33-year-old coffee seller Algassim Diallo said people were “fed up” with the case.

“The country has been taken hostage for the past two years by a tale about rapes. Everything has slowed down — traders, drivers, everyone is complaining. It’s time to move on,” he said.

– Deadly clashes –

Sonko, president of the PASTEF-Patriots party, came in third in the 2019 election against incumbent Sall.

He is especially popular among people aged under 20, who comprise half of Senegal’s booming population.

Senegal is traditionally a beacon of stability in troubled West Africa, but in recent years has been buffeted by turbulence that has at times turned deadly.

When Sonko was arrested in 2021, several days of protests left at least 12 people dead.

Three other people died during clashes between Sonko supporters and police ahead of the start of the latest proceedings.

Political tensions have also been stoked by Sall’s refusal to rule out running for a third term as president, a move his opponents say would be unconstitutional.

Sall was elected in 2012, when the presidential term was seven years, and re-elected in 2019, when the term was reduced to five years.

Additional sources • AFP