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Senegal tension: Who are the youths ready to "die" for Ousmane Sonko?

Senegal tension: Who are the youths ready to "die" for Ousmane Sonko?
Protestors in ZInguinchor, Sengal's south, on May 16, 2023.   -  
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Simon, 27, picks up a stone. He moves forward and throws it at the police. The officers won't come closer. Simon says he is ready to give his life to protect his leader, Senegal's main opposition figure Ousmane Sonko. For months, the fate of this man has gotten intertwined with that of Senegal. For his supporters at least, they don't envision any other future than one in which Sonko leads the country.

The 48-year-old politician who's declared his intention to run in the 2024 presidential election, was set to appear on Tuesday (May. 17) before a criminal chamber in Dakar over a rape accusation.

But that he did not do. He was several hundred kilometres away, in Ziguinchor, the main city in southern Senegal. 

Sonko also happens to be the mayor of the city. He has retired there for several days. His trial was finally postponed to 23 May.

Despite a sleepless night and violent clashes the day before with police in the capital of Casamance, Simon and his young comrades continued to stand guard on Tuesday (May 16) around the home of the man they see as their saviour.

They hate President Macky Sall. They accuse him of having abandoned them. Many of them are unemployed or survive on small jobs, facing economic difficulties.

Wearing masks and carrying sticks or stones, they have ruled over the city's main roads. Those have been littered with stones and burnt tyres since Monday (May. 16). 

The young men have been blocking the paths that lead to the house of the leader of the PASTEF party. Ousmane Sonko has repeatedly alleged a plot by the government is unfolding to put an end to his political career.

By the past, the ruling Alliance for the Republic party accused has accused Sonko and his party of embracing an "insurrectionary mindset".

The young people who support the opposition party leader, mostly aged between 18 and 30, suspect that the state wants to catch the mayor of Ziguinchor.

"We are ready to leave our lives in this fight. The one who wants to get Sonko out of here will have to walk over our dead bodies", says a young man in the middle of a group. All of them are hooded and carry bottles of vinegar to protect themselves from tear gas, they say

Some women dressed in black, singing and dancing in front of the opponent's house are also "fighting this fight". They belong to the "sacred wood", a traditional group to which mystical powers are attributed. "They are there to protect Ousmane Sonko", a demonstrator explains.

Deadly protests

As the protesters say they are ready to give up their life for Sonko's sake, many before them have already been killed. In March 2021, large protests shook Senegal following the arrest of the political opponant who was on his way to a court summons in connection with the rape complaint [Editor's Note: His court appearance that has been postponed to May 23 concerns this same case].

Prior to that incident, Sonko had his parliamentary immunity removed as several members of his party, Pastef-Les Patriotes and civil society were "arbitrarily arrested" according to Amnesty.

Two years later, the families of most of the victims are still waiting for justice.

Anger and fear

With such a history and amidst great tension, Ziguinchor seems in shutdown. Most shops are closed. So are schools.

Simon is on the front line of the clashes against the police. The single father says he is fighting for "the future of his son" and "that of Senegal".

An electrician by trade, the 27-year-old laments the fact that unemployment in the region is "endemic". "I can go three months without a job to the point where it's hard to give 500 francs [Editor's note: about 0.83 USD] to the house," he says.

Ansou is 29. He studies mathematics at the Assane Seck University in Ziguinchor. He too is filled with anger and despair. Just like Simon, he struggles to find a job, he says.

"We be busy around every day but achieve nothing. It hurts, we can't even help our parents," Maurice who agrees whole heartedly with Ansou confesses.

The county-town of the Casamance region, Ziguinchor, is home to 641 254 people. The National Agency for Statistics and Demography (ANSD) says over 70% of these resident are youth.

Despite its strong economic potential -the region is endowed with forest resources among other things- motorcycle cabs commonly known as Jakarta is the main provider of employment for young people. Many graduates who could not find any other job also work as Jakarta drivers. Most of them hope the occupation will be a springboard for better.

For an entire generation, Ousmane Sonko has become more than a politician, he embodies their yearning for a prosperous Senegal. "I was not interested in politics but his speech convinced me," Ousmane explains.

"With him there will be no more injustice, no more thieves in this country. He is a man of principle," the young man adds, revealing he is ready to fight and even give up his life for the cause.

On Tuesday (May. 16), after a few hours of calm, the clashes resumed at midday, despite the postponement of Ousman Sonko's the trial.

Amidst clouds of tear gas fired by the police, children under the age of ten were running around, ready to throw stones.

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