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The relative calm of Senegal has been shattered by protests, arrests and deaths


The relative calm of Senegal in West Africa has been shattered this past week by protests and clashes with police. More than a dozen people have died and hundreds have been arrested. In the capital, Dakar, the government has deployed the army and suspended cellphone data and access to some social media. AFP's West Africa correspondent Portia Crowe joins us from Dakar. Welcome.

PORTIA CROWE: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: These protests began after a popular opposition politician and potential presidential candidate was convicted and sentenced on Thursday. Why did that inspire people to take to the streets?

CROWE: That's right. So as you mentioned, it has to do with the popular opposition politician, Ousmane Sonko, who was convicted in absentia in Dakar court on Thursday. It seems the conviction will make him ineligible to contest the presidential election in February. And Sonko himself and his supporters claim that it's all been sort of a ploy to keep him out of politics. So that's sort of what sets things off. But the other reason that tensions have been running high is that Senegalese people have been waiting for months to find out whether the president, Macky Sall, will stand for a third term in next year's election. His opponents say that that would be unconstitutional, so that's definitely another reason people have been rallying in support of Sonko, but also kind of against President Sall and the possibility of a third mandate.

SHAPIRO: Senegal and the capital, Dakar, are known for stability in a region where many countries have a history of instability. So what have the streets of the capital have been like these last few days?

CROWE: So things were quite tense on Thursday and Friday. Nine people died, and that death toll has since risen. The university campus in Dakar was ransacked. Entire buildings were burnt down. Security forces were firing tear gas, and protesters were throwing stones. And at least 500 people have been arrested. But today is calmer. People have ventured out to the grocery stores and seem to be stocking up on provisions. This morning, there were long lines outside of banks with people trying to withdraw cash.

SHAPIRO: So much of this revolves around what the president, Macky Sall, will do and whether he'll run for a third term. Has he spoken since these clashes started the protests on Thursday?

CROWE: No, if you can believe it. This has been going on since Thursday. We're now Monday. More than a dozen people have died so far. And neither President Sall, nor Ousmane Sonko has spoken publicly. Other cabinet ministers have spoken. And Sonko, we presume, is still in his home in Dakar, where he's been locked in by a heavy security force presence and being under what he calls illegal house arrest - hasn't stopped him from making video addresses or statements on social media in the past, but he hasn't made any kind of public statement since the verdict on Thursday or the ensuing violence either, although his party has condemned what it described as repression and police brutality.

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, how are people getting by in the capital without widespread internet access or cellphone data?

CROWE: The internet has been increasingly restricted, so - and it continues to be. So the government first blocked access just to social networks, including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. That was on Thursday evening. And so those were only accessible with certain VPNs. Then many VPNs started to be blocked. And then yesterday, Sunday afternoon, the government sort of further restricted access by suspending all mobile data. So then even, like, basic web searches and emails were only possible when connected to Wi-Fi. That was temporarily lifted this morning, but it seems to be back again. So, you know, and that is having a financial impact as well, because a lot of financial transactions are made using mobile money, which relies on the internet.

SHAPIRO: You said calm seems to be returning to the streets. Does it look like this is ending?

CROWE: Right now, calm has more or less returned, and that's important for people's safety and people's livelihoods. It's clear this is going to have a significant impact on the economy. But as for whether the calm will persist, the big question kind of on everyone's minds is, what's going to happen to Sonko himself? He's not been arrested despite being convicted and surrounded in his home by security forces. And I think the big thing many people are worried about is, what will happen if he is arrested? And if that happens, I think we'll maybe look back on this moment as sort of the calm between storms.

SHAPIRO: That's Portia Crowe, a correspondent with AFP in Dakar, Senegal. Thanks for your reporting.

CROWE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tyler Bartlam
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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.