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Senegalese opposition leader sentenced, 2024 bid in peril

Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko speaks during a news conference in Dakar.

Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko speaks during a news conference in Dakar.

REUTERS/Cooper Inveen

On Thursday, at least nine people were killed in Senegal in violence that erupted after opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail for "corrupting youth" by encouraging the debauchery of an underage massage parlor employee – whom he was simultaneously acquitted of raping and issuing death threats against. This is a very big deal since it might bar Sonko from running for president of the West African nation in February 2024, and it’s unclear whether he can appeal.

Sonko, a popular former tax inspector and mayor, is being held in contempt of court after he ghosted the trial out of fear for his security. Under Senegalese law, that means the opposition leader — whose whereabouts are unknown — can’t appeal, although he can get a retrial ... if he's arrested or turns himself in. What's more, Sonko is contesting a separate six-month suspended prison sentence for defaming the minister of tourism, whom he accused of embezzlement.

For weeks, Sonko's diehard fans have been protesting the trial in Dakar, the capital, because they say he’s being unfairly targeted by his nemesis, President Macky Sall. Expect trouble if Sonko gets disqualified from the presidential race, especially if Sall falls for Africa’s third-term curse: running again despite being constitutionally limited to two terms in office.

"Significant unrest is likely given the fervor of Sonko's supporters," says Eurasia Group analyst Jeanne Ramier. "But it won't be as serious as the violence that followed his indictment in March 2021 — the police are now ready for such large demonstrations and religious leaders will intervene to stop any bloodshed."


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