/ 12 March 2024

Ousmane Sonko a rising star in Senegal

Ousmane Sonko. Photo: @SonkoOfficiel

In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela narrates the events of his release from prison; and then specifically points out that the people who supported him — and gave everything for the struggle — saw him as some sort of a messiah. In his humble appeal, that great son of the soil said: “I am not a prophet or messiah, I am an ordinary man made a leader by extraordinary circumstances.” 

Across the African continent there is injustice and oppression of one by another in the quest to assume or retain power. This is the case in Senegal. 

If Mandela’s quote is anything to go by, then the extraordinary circumstances of Senegal have produced a rising star. This is the first time in democratic Senegal that the general elections will not take place as provided for in the Constitution.

The elections were supposed to be held on 25 February, with the incumbent president, Macky Sall, publicly declaring that he would not run for a third term. But it seems Sall still has an interest in who takes over from him.

Sall wants his party’s candidate to win the elections but everyone knows that his preferred candidate could not have won the elections if they had been held last month. This may explain why Sall postponed the elections. It may have been an attempt to buy time to find a better replacement from within his Alliance for the Republic party; someone electable who could deliver victory for the party in power.

Reports now suggest that the election date is 24 March. About 19 other candidates will contest in the elections. Sall has assured the nation that he will leave office on 2 April, when his mandate comes to an end. 

Every given election is a moment in the making of history, either for the better or for worse and some candidates stand out like a shining jewel. In this election, there is no candidate who has sparked the interest of so many and stolen their hearts as a 49-year-old man who the regime is determined to remove from the ballot. His name is Ousmane Sonko, a former tax inspector turned politician. A husband and father of six. 

 In 2014, the African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethic and Fraternity (PASTEF) was established by Sonko, who went on to serve as a member of the National Assembly from 2017 to 2022. And a year before the presidential elections of 2019, in which Ousumane was determined to participate, he published a book titled Solutions, which served as his manifesto. (Interestingly, among his suggested solutions to the problems of Senegal is the replacement of the franc with a domestic currency.) 

Sonko came in third position, with 16% of the total vote cast. This was a record achievement for a newly formed political party, as well as for a candidate who was targeted by well calculated smear campaigns to discredit him. There are serious fears among the ruling elite that if Sonko participates in this year’s elections, he might turn the tide in his favour and may be the next president of Senegal. 

The political persecution of Sonko could have been predicted by anyone. In September 2021, Sonko formed the Free the People coalition and began to poach some parties from the United in Hope coalition, to which the ruling party belongs. For a charismatic fellow like Ousumane, the sky’s the limit. His coalition successfully gained control of local councils in the capital Dakar and he was elected mayor of Ziguinchor during the 2022 local elections. This is in addition to the 56 out of 165 parliamentary seats held by his political party. 

Since February 2021, Sonko has been arrested a number of times for various alleged offences. He has been in prison on charges of disturbing public order, rape and threatening a woman with death. After two years of investigations, the rape charges were established to be false and Sonko was cleared on 1 June 2023. But Sonko was still sentenced to two years in prison on charges the state defined as “corrupting youth”. 

According to Sonko, all these allegations and charges against him are politically motivated and he refused to attend the trial of 1 June 2023, which saw him convicted and made him ineligible to contest the 2024 elections. This court verdict sparked countrywide mass protests. In July 2023, they arrested him again on charges of “disturbing the public order” and his party was dissolved by the government on 31 July 2023, and that also prompted nationwide protests. The government tried to ban TikTok t in August 2023, under the pretext that the users are mostly Sonko supporters and a threat to national peace and stability. 

The courts of Ziguinchor went even further by removing him from the electoral list, a case that Sonko and lawyers fought all the way to the supreme court. The highest court of the land ruled otherwise and declared that Sonko is eligible to run for public office and must be reinstated on the electoral list. The Sonko wave is far from over. His political rise seems to be unique and unstoppable. 

The Senegalese government would do well to create an atmosphere conducive for a free and fair election this year by allowing all eligible candidates to contest without fear or favour. Senegal is one of the few democratic states in West Africa with no history of military coups. It is imperative that it keeps that exemplary posture for the region and the continent. To persecute and suppress one man at the expense of democratic credentials is not worth the cost. 

Aaron Ng’ambi is a geopolitical analyst, leadership instructor and a social entrepreneur.