Senegal's top court dashes jailed opposition leader's election hopes

By Melissa Chemam with RFI

Embroiled in legal battles, Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko faces two court rulings against his running in the 2024 presidential election.

As the February election approaches, Sonko was looking to drum up national and international support to save both his party and his chances in the electoral race – but two unfavourable rulings suggest his campaign now has very little chance.

Senegal's Supreme Court ruled Friday that his civil and democratic rights should not be restored, just hours after a West African regional court rejected his claim that the state had treated him unfairly.

In mid-October a judge from Sonko's stronghold of Ziguinchor, the city in the region of Casamance where he has been mayor since January 2022, ordered that he be reinstated on electoral lists for the February vote.

The decision meant that Sonko should be able to run in the polls, his lawyers said.

But the Senegalese government has refused to follow the order and instead dissolved the national electoral commission, replacing all its members.

The Supreme Court has now rejected the Ziguinchor Court decision.

"The court overturns and annuls the decision of the Ziguinchor court of 12 October and returns the case to the Dakar high court" for a retrial, the court's president Ali Cire Ba said in the latest twist of a long-running legal battle.

It means that Sonko will probably not be able to vote or run for office.

"This decision does not suit us; the case will be retried but the sponsorships will soon end," one of Sonko's lawyers, Babacar Ndiaye, said on Friday evening.

On Friday crowds gathered in front of the Supreme Court to show support following calls for a massive turnout from the opposition coalition, Yewwi Askan Wi, to which Sonko's Pastef party belongs.

Sonko, who is in prison on charges that include fomenting insurrection, accuses President Macky Sall of seeking to prevent him from contesting the elections.

Having been engaged in a fierce tussle with the state for more than two years, Sonko says authorities are trying to torpedo his political career, and the opposition with it.

International support

Earlier on Friday, a court of the West African political bloc Ecowas rejected Sonko's claim that he had been treated unfairly by the government. 

Sonko had found international support in other quarters, notably from major African opposition leaders.

Following a "fact-finding" mission to Dakar earlier this week, a group of African politicians called for the Pastef leader to be allowed to run in the 25 February polls.

Among them was former Kenyan justice minister Martha Karua and veteran Ugandan opposition figure Kizza Besigye.

Long legal battle

Since coming third in presidential elections in 2019, Sonko's popularity has risen, but he has faced a series of problems in the past few months.

He was found guilty in June of morally corrupting a young woman and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison.

He was jailed in July, this time on charges including fomenting insurrection, criminal association in connection with a terrorist enterprise and undermining state security over incidents dating back to 2021.

His arrest and conviction have sparked multiple protests that have left dozens dead.

    Appeal from prison

    On Monday evening, Sonko was transferred to Dakar's Cap Manuel prison. His lawyers complained about not being informed of the move.

    On the eve of Friday's verdicts, Sonko made an appeal that was shared by Yewwi Askan Wi.

    "From the depths of my prison cell, I continue to demand my release because this arrest is a political hostage-taking aimed at preventing my candidacy in the February 2024 presidential elections," Sonko said.

    He also demanded the "immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners".

    What is at stake, Sonko added, was not his own future "but our [collective] future, our will as pan-Africans, as Senegalese, to reclaim our country".  

    He had signed the appeal as the mayor of the city of Ziguinchor and a candidate in the 2024 presidential election.

    (with newswires)