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Senegal's opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to address supporters after months in prison

  • Ousmane Sonko, Senegal’s top opposition leader, was released from prison ahead of the March 24 election but has been barred from running.
  • Sonko’s release energized supporters, with thousands celebrating in Dakar.
  • The court decision barring Sonko from the election cannot be appealed, according to a presidential spokesman.

Senegal’s top opposition leader was expected to address supporters on Friday in his first public speech, hours after being released from prison and ahead of the country’s March 24 election in which he has been barred from running.

Ousmane Sonko’s release late on Thursday night, after months behind bars, triggered a mix of jubilation and political uncertainty on the streets of the capital, Dakar. His supporters are waiting to see whether authorities will reverse their decision and allow him to run in the presidential race.

A charismatic former tax collector and mayor of the southern city of Ziguinchor, Sonko is seen as as the main challenger to President Macky Sall’s ruling party.


His key ally, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was also freed from prison late Thursday, has been named the opposition’s presidential candidate. Their release follows Sall’s decree to exonerate political prisoners, including hundreds that were arrested in the violent protests last year.

Ousmane Sonko speaks

Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko addresses journalists following his release from police custody in Dakar, Senegal. Sonko, was released from jail late Thursday, March 14, 2024, ahead of the country’s presidential election scheduled for March 24, his lawyer said. (AP Photo/Sylvain Cherkaoui, File)

The protests have rocked Senegal’s image as a pillar of stability in West Africa, where dozens of coups and attempted coups have taken place in recent decades.

Dakar was thronged overnight with thousands of people singing and dancing as convoys of supporters drove around tooting horns and young people piled onto motorbikes and trucks.

Fresh graffiti on Dakar streets on Friday morning rallied in support of Sonko. On their way to work, Senegalese speculated about how the turn of events might impact the vote later this month.

However, presidential spokesman Yoro Dia said a court decision barring Sonko from the election could not be appealed.

Sall has tried to defend his decision to postpone the election just weeks before it was to take place on Feb. 25. His announcement that the vote would instead be held 10 months from now plunged Senegal into uncertainty and drew protesters to the streets again.

The country’s Constitutional Council subsequently rejected Sall’s postponement and ordered the government to set a new date as soon as possible.

Sonko’s release will boost Faye’s campaign but it won’t change expectations that the vote is probably headed for a runoff, said Tochi Eni-Kalu, Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group.

Neither will Sonko be allowed into the race at this late stage, Eni-Kalu said, adding that no candidate is expected to win more than 50% of the vote.

“For Sonko specifically, there remains some uncertainty over the terms of his amnesty and whether he will immediately regain his political rights,” the analyst said. “But he won’t be on the ballot on the 24th.”

In a separate decision on Friday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Karim Wade, an opposition leader and son of former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, against the decision to rule him out of the ballot because he holds dual citizenship.


Wade said he has renounced his French citizenship.

Sonko’s presidential bid has faced a prolonged legal battle that started when he was accused of rape in 2021. He was acquitted of the charge but was convicted of corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison last summer, which ignited deadly protests across Senegal.

In January, he was disqualified from the ballot because he faces a six-month suspended sentence following his conviction for defamation, Senegal’s highest election authority, the Constitutional Council, said at the time.

Sonko’s supporters maintain his legal troubles are part of a government effort to derail his candidacy. His Patriots of Senegal party was also dissolved last summer.

Senegal’s 19 approved candidates have started rallying ahead of the vote, expected to be the most tightly contested race since the country gained independence more than six decades ago.


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