Saturday, January 28

Ousmane Sonko and Adji Sarr: The Stirred Dust Gradually Blinding Senegal’s Peace

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A demonstrator waves a Senegalese national flag during protests in support of main opposition leader and former presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko, who is accused of rape.

By Toyin Falola
President, Consortium of Pan-African University Press

The water of peace in Senegal, touted to be one of West Africa’s most peaceful countries, became murky when accusations against Ousmane Sonko surfaced. Sonko, a one-time tax collector in Senegal, is popular among Senegalese youth for his anti-corruption stance. He clamours for a Senegal where 50% of the country’s foreign reserves do not have to be deposited with France.

Although he came third at the last presidential elections in Senegal, there are indications that he will be one of the most formidable opponents for Macky Sall’s party in 2024. According to Senegalese laws, Macky Sall’s eligibility to contest for Senegal’s premier position ends after his second term, which lasts from 2020 to 2024. However, Sall might want to toe the path of his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, and decide to run for a third term.

In Senegal, the incumbent government is adept at silencing the opposition, especially if the opposition plays into their hands. This was the case with Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, who would have been solid opponents for Macky Sall, had they not been both barred from contesting at the 2019 presidential polls after having been indicted of embezzling EUR2.8 million and EUR178 million, respectively. Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade missed out on contesting against, and possibly winning, Macky Sall-no thanks to their corruption charges.

Macky Sall’s popularity among the youth suffered some setbacks when it became clear that his government could not easily relate to the immediate needs of the Senegalese youths. It is a beautiful thing to launch infrastructural projects and envision development, but something almost always has to suffer for it in Africa. In the case of Senegal, it is the average employee. Sall’s focus on infrastructure birthed a decline in the number of available jobs, especially in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. Senegalese youths’ displeasure about this reflected in the decrease in the support that Thies and Dakar gave Sall at the 2019 presidential polls, compared to about 72% of votes he swept from both regions at the 2012 run-off elections.

Ousmane Sonko projects himself as the hope of the Senegalese youths. In him, they see someone who understands them and is ready to fight for them. They see someone who is as young and vibrant as they are. They see a radical that can bring about much-needed change. However, he was arrested on March 8, 2021, following Adji Sarr’s allegations that she was repeatedly forced to have sexual intercourse with the Senegalese oppositionist. Adji Sarr is a masseuse that works at Sweet Beaute, a massage parlour where Sonko had therapy sessions last year. She claims that Sonko forcefully had sexual intercourse with her and that the sexual intercourse resulted in pregnancy. Sonko has been very vocal about the situation in Senegal, and there would hardly be much to stop him from emerging as Senegal’s president come 2024, especially since Macky Sall is not expected to contest at the next elections. Sall’s party would have a hard time finding a formidable replacement for the incumbent. Therefore, shall we say that the allegations against Ousmane Sonko are merely a ploy to rope him in and cut his wings? Have the plans for a not-so-far-away 2024 begun? Or, are Adji Sarr’s allegations true?

Sonko has vehemently denied Adji Sarr’s allegations, claiming that they are political ploys to rope him in and hinder him from contesting at the next elections. In his account of what happened at Sweet Beaute, Sonko claimed that he sought massages at Sweet Beaute because of an acute back pain that has been worrying him for years and has seen him seek massage therapies since 2007. He stated that he initially had reservations about being attended to by a masseuse and was only convinced to go ahead with the therapy sessions after his Koranic master convinced him that it was not sinful to be attended to by a masseuse if it was for medical treatment. He also made claims bordering on his impossibility to have raped Adji Sarr, saying he always had two masseuses attend to him at a time and that there are CCTV in the corridors at Sweet Beaute.

Sonko’s arrest and detainment sparked nationwide protest-turned-riots in Senegal, which led to the death of about 11 people, the injuring of hundreds of people, and the arrest of scores of Senegalese youth. The Senegalese youths took to the streets to protest his arrest, which many believe is a political ruse by Macky Sall. Protesters threw stones at police officers, prompting the president to deploy anti-riot squads to those areas. The riots only subsided after Ousmane Sonko was released on bail. Waters have been ruffled, the plot has thickened, and the Adji Sarr rape allegations have turned a catalyst for political squabbles in an otherwise calm and peaceful Senegal.

Just as frequent extrajudicial killings by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria sparked a series of nationwide protests that showed Nigerians’ genuine tiredness of a government’s lack of empathy to its people, malignant kidnappings, and terrorism, among other issues, Ousmane Sonko’s arrest sparked protests in Senegal for varying factors, some of which are independent of Ousmane Sonko’s arrest. One is that recent uprisings and the brave appearance of revolutionaries all over Africa, seeking for a systemic change in how governments are being run on the continent, spurred the Senegalese too to rise to the occasion in their country questioning the government for the increasing unemployment of the people and seeking accountability. Two, the Senegalese are beginning to feel a clamp-down on their democratic freedoms by the Macky Sall government, such as the incarceration of political prisoners.

The focus has shifted from a rape case to political clashes all over the country. Adji Sarr was met with brute criticisms by the Senegalese, who believe that she leads a wayward lifestyle and is most likely spreading politically-motivated lies against Ousmane Sonko. However, the 22-year-old masseuse remains resolute in her allegations, claiming that she is currently pregnant for Sonko and that Sonko should swear on the Koran that he did not rape her. Apart from her television appearance, where she further narrated the incident, Adji Sarr has launched social media campaigns, calling for justice. She says that although it has all taken a political turn, she has never met Macky Sall and that all she wants is for her alleged violator to be served justice.

The Senegalese are torn between two options. Who should they believe? A masseuse whose social life does not conform with the traditional norms of a profoundly religious Senegal? Or an oppositionist who has been fighting the government? The allegations levelled against Sonko are incredibly tricky because both parties have equal chances of being right. Rape most likely occurs in situations where the violator knows they have an advantage over the victim and exploit such advantage–being in a higher social class than the victim, a higher level on the hierarchy at the workplace, a teacher-student situation, an adult-child situation, or a my-words-and-reputation-against-your-unpopularity situation. Sonko belongs to a higher social class than Adji Sarr, and he has a good reputation, which could be a stimulus for him to have raped her, believing that he would always go scot-free. Nevertheless, there are also strong indicators that Adji Sarr is just a pawn in the incumbent government’s political game, as claimed by Ousmane Sonko.

In keeping their enemies close, one allegation is that the incumbent government secretly monitors Ousmane Sonko’s moves. As the story goes, Adji Sarr is a masseuse of humble backgrounds who works at the massage parlour Sonko frequents. She is contacted by a third party linked to the incumbent, and she is asked to rope Sonko in some rape allegations. She has nothing to lose, no public reputation to protect, and she has something in monetary rewards or other rewards to gain. Allegations aside, we should, however, not forget that Adji Sarr’s lawyers said they have all the evidence that can indict Ousmane Sonko.

These two scenarios are proof of the complexities and trickish nature of the allegations levelled against Ousmane Sonko. Still, we should not fail to notice that the initial allegations are being pushed to the background, and fresher narratives are increasingly pushed to the fore. Since Ousmane Sonko’s release, there have been press addresses by both the incumbent president, Macky Sall, and his strong opposition, Ousmane Sonko. Recall that both Macky Sall and Ousmane Sonko have been having political face-offs since the legislative polls in 2017. The Senegalese men have relegated Adji Sarr to the background, and they both see this as yet another political duel between them both.

Riding on the waves of the allegations against him and the unwavering support of his teeming followers, Ousmane Sonko gave a radical speech, attacking the incumbent president and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Macky Sall’s political prisoners, which he claims are about a hundred in number. Sonko’s subtle call for the removal of Sall’s based on perceived incompetence in leading Senegal and betrayal of the people, “…if we were in different circumstances, the people would have marched on the palace and taken Macky Sall out by force…” is shrouded in the cloak of “…but I strongly advise against it.” “But I advise against it” is a weak tail-end for a brazenly subtle call for revolution, and it would not have many effects on supporters of Sonko who would hear the message as much as the first part of the message would.

Macky Sall gave a speech calling for calm and tranquillity and refused to directly address Sonko on the rape allegations, opining that “…justice takes its due course.” Has Macky Sall always been this calm in his address of matters? Or is this an attempt to calmly win back the favour and support of a population that is slowly turning its back on the incumbent? African voters said that the slightest of things win them over–peanut-esque cash gifts, the “good character” of a political contestant, foodstuff, but to mention a few. Is Macky Sall leveraging this “benevolence” of African voters to act calm and concerned in the face of Ousmane Sonko’s radicality? Or is Macky Sall genuinely worried about bringing an end to the unrest in his country? Is he a concerned president seeking the best way to put out the raging fire? Is his approach an attempt to bring peace to otherwise troubled Senegal?

The veracity of Adji Sarr’s allegations remains shrouded in mystery till the hearing has taken place. Even after the hearing, the integrity of the claims might remain shrouded in mystery. While the different parties involved have sought diverse ways to leverage on the unfolding of events–because, as they say, there is no bad publicity–and while Senegalese remain torn between options as they await, alongside the world at large, we should not rush to pick sides, for there is danger in lopsided narratives.

What we should ask ourselves, and what could perhaps be the saving grace in determining whether or not Adji Sarr’s allegations are true, is: Was Ousmane Sonko always attended to by two therapists during his time at the Sweet Beaute? If yes, let the other masseuses that had always worked alongside Arji Sarr come forward. Suppose there are genuinely other masseuses who worked with Arji Sarr during Ousmane Sonko’s visits to the Sweet Beaute, then Ousmane Sonko could not have raped Sarr, except there is more to this narrative that has not been disclosed to public ears. Another solution is to wait for the offspring of the alleged rape, after which a DNA test would be conducted to ascertain the baby’s paternity. The problem with this option is that will Senegal be able to wait for the birth of Arji Sarr’s baby amidst growing tension? Moreover, what is the assurance that there would be a baby at the end of the wait?

There are strong allegations that a government known for seeking means to rope in its oppositionists plotted this rape case. The heart of a human has the predisposition to be extremely wicked and evil, and so it is equally possible for Ousmane Sonko, the people’s supposed messiah, to have raped Arji Sarr. Whichever the case is, the Senegalese people need to know that it is wise to tread with caution because when push comes to shove, and when two elephants lock it together in a fierce battle, the grass will ultimately bear the brunt–whether from the feet of the two elephants or the fall of one of the elephants.

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