/ 18 March 2021

Dakar protests: A day at the ‘stone factory’

Protesters clash with riot police on the grounds of university Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/Getty Images)

In the middle of a Dakar roundabout, in front of the university named after him, stands a statue of the great Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop. The statue is new, unveiled in June last year. Its location was carefully considered. As a university official said at the time: “Between students and law enforcement, every time there was a stir, it was linked to the roundabout…We thought to put the statue of Cheikh Anta there to dissuade everyone from throwing stones.”

They were not dissuaded.

Late on Sunday evening, thousands of students clashed with police as they tried to seize control of the roundabout. The students were armed with stones; the police responded with batons and tear gas.

“Every time we protest, taking over the place around the statue is essential. That enables us to block traffic and show our anger,” said Babacar Niang, the secretary-general of the Pastef Party’s university Chapter.

After midnight, at exactly 12.33am, the police lines broke and the students surged into the roundabout.

“All students are protesting because our leader Sonko has been arrested arbitrarily. One can easily notice this is an outrageous plot by [President] Macky Sall,” Niang told The Continent. “This is why we have been fighting for days for his immediate release.”

Disturbing public order

Ousmane Sonko first rose to prominence as Senegal’s chief tax inspector. Then he turned whistleblower, exposing how Senegal’s elite were exploiting offshore havens to avoid paying tens of millions of dollars in tax.

He lost his job as a result, and pursued an alternative career in electoral politics instead, as founding president of the Pastef Party.

At just 44 years of age, he was the youngest person on the ballot in the 2019 presidential election, which was won by the incumbent, Macky Sall. Sonko came third, and is considered one of the most serious challengers to the ruling party in the 2024 vote.

In early February, an employee at a beauty salon in Dakar accused Sonko of rape, and prosecutors charged him with the crime. He denies the allegations, and claims they are politically motivated. Last week, while he was on his way to court for a bail hearing, his supporters clashed with police in the streets of central Dakar.

Sonko was arrested, and charged with a different crime: “Disturbing public order and participating in an unauthorised Demonstration.”

But public order was about to get a lot more disturbed. Sonko’s arrest sparked a wave of protests in all of Senegal’s 14 regions. These were met by a strong police response – by Monday, at least eight people had been killed in the unrest, according to Amnesty International. Dozens more have been arrested.

Tanks were deployed to discourage further protests in Dakar, and regulatory authorities suspended two television channels after accusing them of focusing too much on the protests. Schools were closed nationwide for two weeks.

Sonko was released on bail on Monday. He walked home from the courthouse, and when he got there he gave a press conference again denouncing the rape charges as a political conspiracy.

That evening, President Sall – already under pressure due to widespread dissatisfaction with the heavy economic impact of Covid-19 restrictions – addressed the nation for the first time since the unrest began. He asked them to “avoid the logic of confrontation”, calling for “calm and serenity”.

Enough is enough

The student protesters at Cheikh Anta Diop University are feeling neither calm nor serene. Drenched in sweat, exhausted, Babacar Ndao stands next to what he calls the ‘stone factory’ – a pile of rocks, taken from nearby construction sites, ready to be thrown at the police. He is filling a wheelbarrow to take to his comrades at the other end of the campus.

“This is just another coup by Macky Sall, who tries to eliminate Sonko for 2024,” says Ndao. This is President Sall’s second term in office, which means he is technically not eligible to run again. But his critics fear that he will try; and to do so he needs to keep serious challengers like Sonko out of the political life.

Still bracing for the clash with policemen, student Cesar Manga is dragging a huge block of stone across a secondary road outside of the university. Salimata, a young female student, has just dropped a few drops of vinegar on his face mask – this is, she explains, to help ease the pain of tear gas.

“Enough is enough!” shouts Manga. “We are in the streets to firmly condemn the way he [President Sall] is doing things. For years they have been doing whatever they want in this country without anybody opposing that. Now it’s over. We want justice.”

This article appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.