Senegalese security forces on Friday clashed with crowds of protesters opposed to the delay of a presidential election, as the justice minister rejected allegations that the postponement was an attempted power-grab.
Less than three weeks before the Feb. 25 vote, parliament voted to push it back to December, sealing an extension of President Macky Sall’s mandate that has provoked fears that one of the remaining democracies in coup-hit West Africa is under threat.
In the capital Dakar, police in riot gear fired tear gas, stun grenades and what appeared to be rubber bullets at protesters who were burning tyres and throwing stones, in the most serious bout of unrest yet over the delay, a Reuters reporter said.
Some of the demonstrators waved Senegalese flags, while others shouted slogans like ‘Macky Sall is a dictator’.
“We are ready to give our lives so that the people can befreed, so that Senegal can rid itself of Macky Sall,” said one protester by a pile of blazing tyres.
Demonstrators also faced off against police in the city of Touba and burnt tyres at a main intersection on the outskirts of Mbacke city, residents told Reuters.
The scale of the unrest will add to fears Senegal faces protracted instability in the wake of the postponement.
UN, AU express concern over delay in Senegal’s Presidential Election:
Sall, who has reached his constitutional limit of two terms, said he delayed the vote due to a dispute over the candidate list that threatened the credibility of the electoral process.
Some critics accuse him of trying to cling to power, while the West African bloc and foreign powers have criticised the move as a break with Senegal’s democratic tradition.
“Senegal has perhaps never experienced a crisis like the one we are experiencing and we must overcome it,” said Justice Minister Aissata Tall Sall. “We must calm spirits.”
In an interview, Tall Sall said the postponement was not the president’s decision but parliament’s. She also said legal challenges filed to the Constitutional Court did not fall in its jurisdiction.
“This postponement of the presidential election was done in perfect conformity with the constitution,” she said.
Not all agree. On Friday, the U.S. embassy in Dakar said the United States supported an earlier call from the regional economic and political bloc ECOWAS for the authorities to bring back the electoral calendar in line with the constitution.
“We have heard from a wide range of Senegalese political and civil society actors who share this view,” the embassy said in an online post.
The bill was passed by 105 legislators in the 165-seat assembly on Monday after security forces broke up an attempt by a group of opposition members to block the vote and dispersed small-scale protests outside parliament with tear gas.
Thirty-nine lawmakers in opposition coalition Yewwi Askan Wiand several opposition presidential candidates have since filed legal challenges with the Constitutional Court.
Tall Sall said the court could not handle these because they did not fall in its purview. She did not say which legal body would look at the challenges, but said the fact opponents were turning to the courts meant “we are in a functioning democracy.”