The Senegalese government promised on Thursday to stand firm against any attempt to disrupt public order as opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, threatened with ineligibility for the 2024 presidential election, prepares to set off for Dakar at the head of a popular convoy.
"Whatever the cost, public order will be maintained", government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana told the press. "We will not let anyone disturb public order and the peace of mind of the Senegalese people", he added.
After his rape trial held in his absence on Tuesday, Ousmane Sonko said on Wednesday in Ziguinchor (south) that he intended to return to Dakar by road and turn the 500-kilometer journey into a "freedom caravan" to wage "the final battle" against President Macky Sall.
"Whether he wants to march on Dakar is not a problem (...) if he respects the laws and regulations", explained Mr Fofana. No declaration of demonstration has been filed "to our knowledge", he continued on Thursday afternoon.
The government spokesman wondered whether Mr. Sonko was not trying to "get himself arrested for political reasons" in order to avoid the infamy of a criminal conviction "for sordid stories".
Mr Sonko's convoy had not left Ziguinchor by Thursday afternoon and no preparations were yet visible on site, AFP journalists observed. The opposition leader said he would leave on Thursday or Friday at the latest.
The president of the Pastef-les Patriotes party, third in the 2019 presidential race, was conspicuous by his absence from his rape trial, saying he feared for his safety and questioning the impartiality of the judiciary. He has always refuted the accusations and claimed that the authorities were plotting to keep him out of the presidential election.
Mr. Sonko is risking his eligibility, already compromised by a six-month suspended sentence for defamation against a minister.
In 2021, his arrest while travelling in a motorcade to the court where he had been summoned, at a time when the alleged rape case had just erupted, helped trigger several days of rioting that left at least a dozen people dead.
Tensions are expected to run high again around 1 June, when the verdict is expected.