More unrest in Senegal as police clash with opposition supporters
A street vendor pushes his cart past a public bus that was burned by supporters of Senegal opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, ahead of their leader's court appearance for a libel case against him in Dakar, Senegal March 16, 2023. Reuters

Senegal's security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse opposition supporters who attempted to gather in the capital Dakar for the first of three days of planned opposition protests over a libel trial of one of its leaders.

Shops and banks closed early on Wednesday as the West African nation braced for fresh protests over a court case that has fuelled tension and violence ahead of presidential elections next year.

Opposition leader Ousmane Sonko is due in court on Thursday for a hearing in a libel case brought by the tourism minister, who alleged that Sonko had accused him of embezzlement without proof.

Sonko's supporters have taken to the streets several times in past weeks to denounce a trial they say is an attempt by President Macky Sall's government to weaken his opponents ahead of the polls. The government denies this.

If found guilty, Sonko, 48, who came third in the 2019 presidential election and has declared he will run in the February 2024 election, could be struck from the voter roll and disqualified as a candidate.

Violence broke out on the day of Sonko's last court appearance on March 16, as police fired tear gas at supporters accompanying his motorcade to the courthouse. Demonstrators burned tyres and set fire to buses and a supermarket.

Sonko has called for more nationwide protests on Wednesday, Thursday and April 3.

Authorities have banned demonstrations in the capital Dakar and deployed security forces to block off the meeting point in front of the main university campus.

Police fired several rounds of tear gas and stun grenades forcing mostly student protesters to retreat into the campus from where they hurled rocks.

Schools had been closed following a decision by the education ministry to bring forward school holidays by several days.

Sonko's case was postponed to March 30 after his lawyers said he was seeking medical treatment for inhaling a substance that impaired his breathing and eyesight during the last protests.

He is also on trial for allegedly raping a beauty salon employee in 2021 and making death threats against her. Sonko denies wrongdoing and says the accusations are politically motivated.

The charismatic former tax inspector, who has won support among Senegal's disenfranchised urban youth, has become a focus for anger at Sall's failure to rule out running for a third term next year.

Senegal's constitution only allows two terms, but some fear Sall will use a 2016 constitutional reform to reset his mandate, repeating a tactic used by other rulers to extend power elsewhere in the region. He has neither confirmed nor denied this.

"[Sall] said he would speak when the time is right," ruling party spokesperson Amadou Sall told Reuters.