Released Senegal opponent makes first public appearance in monthsFri, 15 Mar 2024 18:32:02 GMT

Ousmane Sonko, one of Senegal’s leading opposition figures, on Friday made his first public appearance in months, just a day after his release from jail, greeting hundreds of supporters in the capital Dakar.Sonko arrived at a hotel to hold a press conference with his deputy, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was also released from prison on Thursday and who Sonko has endorsed as a candidate for the March 24 presidential vote.He predicted a large first-round victory for Faye if the presidential vote went ahead without fraud.”If the election goes well, I don’t think we’ll get less than 60 percent,” he said.He called on “the Senegalese people to remain vigilant, especially as there are rumours of corruption circulating”.Just hours earlier, Senegal’s Supreme Court confirmed the date of the delayed presidential election, rejecting an attempt by disqualified candidates to cancel the date.The petitioners had wanted presidential decrees setting the date for the election and the duration of the campaign to be suspended.But the court said the issue did not fall within its purview, adding that the Constitutional Council had “full jurisdiction in electoral matters”.President Macky Sall had postponed the February election, trying to push it back to December at the last minute, sparking a crisis and deadly protests. The Constitutional Council stepped in, forcing him to reset the date to March 24.- Smiles from Sonko -In the early hours of Friday, thousands thronged the streets of Dakar, singing and dancing as Sonko and Faye were driven away from the city’s Cap Manuel prison.Disqualified from running in this vote, 49-year-old Sonko has been at the centre of a more than two year stand-off with the state.He has endorsed his deputy, Faye, to replace him on the presidential ballot.On his release in the small hours of Friday, 43-year-old Faye, smiling and raising his arms to the sky after almost a year behind bars, praised the “support and solidarity” of his followers.Faye and Sonko benefitted from an amnesty law passed by MPs last week.It had been proposed by the outgoing president with the aim of easing tensions after three years of unrest, reignited last month by his last-minute postponement of the presidential vote.   The impromptu rally after the release of Sonko and Faye was the largest for any of the 19 candidates since campaigning began on March 9.It was an indication of the popularity of both men, particularly Sonko, who is not even in the race for the top job.    Their release is now likely to dramatically alter the run up to the election.    Until now, Faye had been unable to address voters in person and his imprisonment prevented him from recording a campaign message to be aired on public television.  But his coalition kicked off the campaign without him, pitching Faye as the candidate for “system change” and “left-wing pan-Africanism”. The opposition figure has promised to reclaim Senegal’s sovereignty and renegotiate oil and gas contracts, as well as defence agreements if elected.   – Sovereignty, pan-Africanism -Faye’s manifesto reflects the themes which have made Sonko popular, including attacks on corruption, elites, multinationals and former colonial ruler France.   The legal case against Sonko, along with economic and social tensions and concerns about whether Sall would run for a third presidential term, led to deadly unrest between 2021 and 2023.  Sall is not standing for re-election this year.    But his last-minute decision to defer the February presidential vote and try and push it back to December sparked clashes that left four dead.   Bouts of unrest since 2021 have killed dozens and led to hundreds of arrests.Sonko was jailed at the end of July on a string of charges, including provoking insurrection, conspiracy with terrorist groups and endangering state security.   His political party was also dissolved.    When he was disqualified from running in the 2024 presidential election, his camp endorsed Faye, to replace him.Faye had been imprisoned since April 2023 charged with contempt of court, defamation and acts likely to compromise public peace after posting a message critical of the justice system.