YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Catholic bishops in the overwhelmingly Muslim west African nation of Senegal have called for “reason, restraint and responsibility” amid a mounting spiral of political violence.
At least 15 people have died in that violence over the last few days, according to national authorities. It broke out when opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was sentenced June 2 to two years in prison for allegedly “corrupting” a young woman, after initially being charged with rape.
Theoretically the conviction could take Sonko, 48, out of contention for presidential elections in Senegal set for 2024. He and his supporters have charged that the sentence was politically motivated.
In its wake, the opposition leader’s supporters went on a rampage, burning tires on highways and confronting police in the national capital of Dakar and several other places. It’s a disturbing atmosphere for a country considered one of the most stable democracies in West Africa.
In a collective statement June 2, members of the Episcopal Conference of Senegal, Mauritania, Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau said they were “very concerned about the social and political climate currently prevailing in our country, particularly with the events we have been experiencing.”
They said they were concerned about the “many human victims, as well as all the acts of destruction of public and private property” and the general “climate of fear and insecurity” that now prevails in a country that has often enjoyed long spells of peace.
“We call for reason, restraint and responsibility from all those involved in the violence,” the clerics said.
The bishops underscored the need “to build and develop our country together, in peace, loyalty and mutual respect.” And in emphatic fashion, they said “No to violence! Yes to Peace!”
“For the present and future of our nation, we invite all political, social and economic actors, as well as religious leaders, to put the general interest first, and to promote justice, truth, peace and social equity, in their words and deeds,” the clerics said.
They called on the people to not abuse their constitutional right to free expression by speaking “truthfully, respectfully, responsibly and constructively.”
The violence in the country has also captured the imagination of the international community, with the United Nations and the African Union both urging calm.
UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters Friday that the UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutierrez, “strongly condemns the use of violence, calls for calm and urges all stakeholders to exercise restraint.”
According to the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, president of the AU Commission, sharply denounced the violence and pleaded with authorities to refrain from doing anything that would “tarnish the face of Senegalese democracy, of which Africa has always been proud.”
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) called on all parties to “defend the country’s laudable reputation as a bastion of peace and stability”.
“The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, is concerned about the eruption of violence in Senegal following the verdict concerning Ousmane Sonko,” its statement said.
“ECOWAS firmly condemns violence directed at the forces of Law and Order, public goods, private property and public disorder. It deplores the loss of human life and urges restraint and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.”
While Sonko’s supporters see the protests as a pushback against attempts to silence the opposition, especially in the buildup to a crucial 2024 presidential poll, the government has described the protests as the handiwork of miscreants.
According to government spokesman Abdou Karim Fofana, the violence was not fueled by “political demands” but “acts of vandalism and banditry”.
“These are difficult times for the Senegal nation that we will overcome,” he said Friday in an interview.
Sonko has been a constant fixture on Senegal’s political chessboard, speaking out sharply against debt, poverty, food insecurity, underfunded healthcare and education systems, as well as corruption, and he enjoys broad support among Senegalese youth.
Catholic bishops have called on the Senegalese people “to respect the laws and regulations, and the institutions of the republic, which guarantee our life together.”
They warned the youths against giving in “to despair or manipulation, to the point of burning, ransacking and destroying the property of others and of the community.”
They said it was critical that the values, particularly the respect for human life, the promotion of the common good and peace are nurtured and cherished.
The Senegalese President, Macky Sall, used similar language when he spoke at the start of a national dialogue on Thursday designed to reduce the tensions.
“There can be no democracy without freedom, just as there can be no freedom without responsibility,” he said.
“Every piece of physical violence, every piece of verbal violence, every word of hatred, every piece of private or public property ransacked and, above all, every Senegalese killed is a deep wound to our country, and no one should imagine that they are greater or stronger than this Nation that shelters us all,” Sall said.
“Together with all the socio-political components that are keen on peace, stability and national cohesion, we must jointly defend our model of society. This is one of the fundamental raisons d’être of this national dialogue,” he said.