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Why a virtual trial for Senegal’sOusmane Sonko makes a lot of sense

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By Samsudeen Sarr

The ongoing political trial of Senegal’s main opposition leader Ousmane Sonko over his alleged rape of masseuse Adji Sarr which was adjourned earlier this week, in my view, constitutes a potential threat of social upheaval evocative of or even transcending the deadly Dakar riot of March 2021.

I wittingly denominated the trial as political because from the onset the case has polarised Senegal politically in a manner never seen in the globally admired Francophone nation. Sadly, I think everything has now turned into a senseless confrontation between the government supporters and those in the opposition parties with the hazardous effect of undermining the stability of the country. To believe that there is no logical option to avert the prospective calamity merely validates the fetters of political dogma.

However, as far as the government adherents are concerned nothing is political about the case; but that Ousmane Sonko simply raped Adji Sarr and deserved to be caged behind bars.

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The two-year old case is now all too familiar to the whole world; hence, I will skip the repetition of the genesis and discuss my alternative suggestion aimed at staving off a possible chaos on Tuesday. 

But before that it is equally important to say that the members of the opposition parties wrongly or rightly interpret the whole instance as a shrewd means of President Macky Sall’s government to disqualify Sonko, their most terrifying opponent, from contesting the 2024 presidential election. Of course, Mr Sonko has already declared his candidature whereas constitutionally Sall is forbidden to run but acts as if wants to. The latest reports that US President Joe Biden did send former President Barack Obama to the Senegalese president to persuade him not to breach Senegal’s constitution by illegally attempting to run for third term and he refused, lays all previous doubts over whether he intends to contest or not to rest. Yes, President Macky Sall by every indication contemplates running in 2024 and is fully supported by members of his government and political party. Though it is also reported that President Emanuel Macron of France has futilely pleaded with him not to contest. 

Notwithstanding, the public evidence shared on Adji Sarr’s rape accusation of Ousman Sonko at her workplace – a massage parlour in Dakar – in 2021 was since then greeted with scepticism. On that night, the principal gendarmerie investigator, one Captain TourĂ©, who received her complaint wrote a damning report discrediting her story and denouncing it as pure fabrication. Moreover, the doctor who clinically examined Adji that same night also submitted a report stating that she did not have any sexual intercourse that night as she had claimed and not in the past three days either. The owner of the massage parlour, her employer equally disputed Adji’s claim that she was raped by Sonko in her facility. With all those holes in her story, scholars and critics had argued that the case was rather frivolous and wasn’t supposed to be litigated.

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But the state astonishingly disregarded all that and detained Ousmane Sonko which prompted a spontaneous reaction from his supporters resulting in that infamous deadly May 2021 riot in the country that wasted at least 13 lives of the demonstrators. Captain TourĂ©, has since resigned from his job and the doctor complains of constant harassment by the state and certain unidentified street thugs for telling the truth. 

Thanks to the intervention of the religious leaders of Senegal, the topsy-turvy situation two years ago was normalised but without a huge destruction of public and private properties.

However this year, there was suddenly another controversial case of Mam  Mbaye Niang, a government minister who sued Ousmane Sonko for defamation of his character in the wake of the opposition leader criticising him of state corruption. Again, I don’t want to go into the details albeit everything becomes rather contentious when one puts into perspective the report that a prominent Senegalese author has long ago mentioned the same corruption story against the minister in a book he published and widely read in Senegal. Yet, the minister never sued or challenged him.

But ironically when Mr. Sonko repeated it, the minister sued him and the state tuned it into a high-profile court case which is suspected of being another scheme to sabotage his 2024 presidential ambition.

Anyway, that is not my problem but the magnitude of destructiveness of lives and properties in the whole country whenever Sonko is summoned to appear before the Dakar courts. In the first hearing with the case of the minister, his supporters came our in large numbers to accompany him to the courthouse in Dakar which resulted in another bloody confrontation between the security forces and several Senegalese youths. Again four young men lost their lives in that climacteric.

In the second hearing, the entire city of Dakar was locked down with private and public businesses brought to a total standstill. For over 12 hours, precisely from 7am to midnight, the country lived on edge with viewers shocked when Sonko, on his way from the courthouse was shown in his vehicle assaulted and tear gassed before being forced into a special police armoured car. At another incident his entire neighborhood was on police quarantine with nobody allowed to leave even on emergency errands. Over 350 members of his party are currently under detention and many more are on the government watch list for possible arrest and prosecution.

Finally, Sonko for understandable reasons, has decided not to ever attend any court cases for fear of his life, the lives and liberty of his supporters and indeed the lives of innocent Senegalese coupled with the serious social and economic disruption throughout the nation.

Nevertheless, the state seems to care less and will rather be confrontational than find a reasonable option.

On Tuesday, 16 May, Ousman Sonko, the leader of the African Patriots for Work, Ethics and Fraternity of Senegal (Pastef, the French acronym) will not attend the Dakar trial which will indeed equip the Macky Sall government with the long-desired tools to put him in jail and deny him his candidature next year. His supporters are threatening another civil unrest if that should happen which I think could be avoided.

Therefore I am suggesting to the Senegalese judiciary to conduct the trial virtually for the sake of peace and orderliness. When the whole world was brought to a standstill by the corona virus pandemic we all effectively conducted our businesses through virtual interactions a digital luxury without which mankind would have been doomed longer than necessary.

On a final note, I wish to express my solidarity with our Christian family members in The Gambia over their recent concerns of threats emanating from intolerant Muslim fanatics in the country. The Gambia belongs to all of us with everyone entitled to his religious belief and practices free of harassment and intimidation.

Samsudeen Sarr is a former commander of the Gambia National Army and diplomat. He is the author of several books.

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