OPINION: Senegal — the investor-friendly beacon of democracy and stability in West Africa — is in the grip of violent mass protests against the government of President Macky Sall in which at least 12 people have died.

The trigger for the nationwide unrest appears to be the arrest and subsequent release of opposition politician Ousmane Sonko, accused of both rape — a charge he denies — and insurrection.

Sonko, 46, a former accountant who established the Pastef party in 2014 on an anti-corruption ticket and came a distant third in the presidential race two years ago, could be a key contender in the 2024 election and enjoys strong support from Senegal’s youth.

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He maintains the rape charge is a political move to stop him running for office, arguing that Sall has previous form in this regard after opposition leaders were barred from the 2019 presidential campaign.

There are also widespread concerns among protesters that Sall may attempt to run for office for a third term in 2024, despite there being a two-term maximum under Senegal’s law.

However, former prime minister Aminata Toure said: “I expect in 2024 we will have an election without the current president. That’s my hope.”

Unease about Sall’s intentions and Sonko’s arrest clearly stirred-up protesters, but the damaging effects on Senegal’s economy of Covid-19 and one year of curfews cannot be ignored.

The economy has taken “a terrible hit", said Toure, who added the youth have been badly affected since they rely for earnings on an informal sector that generates 80% of Senegal’s wealth.

But Yasinne Fall of the opposition Movement to Defend Democracy said poverty was already increasing before Covid-19 and listed other factors including “land grabs” as feeding into the protests.

Can Sall resist the temptation to change the constitution so he can run in 2024 when serious revenues will be flowing from the Tortue and Sangomar gas and oil projects?

Only time will tell. But if Sall does change the law, the national foment that could erupt would put this week's protests in the shade.

For now, Senegal is on the precipice.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)