Street vendors protesting an attempt to clear them from the center of Senegal’s capital clashed with police Wednesday, throwing rocks at officers who fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Bands of young men burned tires in a few spots downtown, while others marched in small groups through a central market. Witnesses said most groups numbered about 60 or 70, seen in four or five neighborhoods of the city.
“We can’t wait for the government to find other places for us to sell our merchandise. We don’t have the time, and we don’t know what to do,” said Balla Ba, one of the demonstrators.
Riot police fired tear gas and chased down protesters, arresting some of them. A government office building and the offices of the city’s electric company caught fire in the melee. Firefighters had put out the blazes by afternoon.
The violence prompted the government to cancel a permit given to the city’s transport unions for a planned march. About 600 people marched anyway, facing off against riot police.
“We are going to march by force!” shouted union official Mademba Sock as he led the crowd demanding higher wages. Tear gas grenades followed, and an Associated Press reporter saw police beating a number of protesters with batons.
Rare outburst of violence
It was a rare outbreak of violence in a city and a country considered among the most stable in West Africa. Such street riots are uncommon in Dakar, though a few demonstrations during presidential elections this year did turn violent — with stone-throwing youths and riot police.
Mamdou Goudiaby, the secretary general of Senegal’s bus workers union, said all city bus drivers plan to strike until the government addresses their concerns.
Last week, Senegal’s security forces began clearing the capital’s intersections of hawkers and beggars under a presidential decree aimed at bringing some order to Dakar’s clogged streets.
Local aid groups estimate there are between 50,000 and 100,000 unlicensed vendors and beggars in the capital. Young men sell everything from ironing boards to electronics.
A 'spontaneous' reaction
Many shops throughout the city were already closed for the transport union march. Shopkeeper Omar Sarr said he closed his boutique as a precaution ahead of that demonstration.
The young men in the street said they hadn’t planned their protest to coincide with the transport demonstration.
“The reaction came like this, spontaneous,” Ba said.
Many see the attempt to clear the streets as part of Dakar’s attempt to clean up its image ahead of an Islamic summit it is hosting next year. Numerous high-rise buildings, five-star hotels and luxury bungalows are being built for the summit, along with new highways.
The demonstrations did not appear large enough to disrupt daily life in most of Dakar — although some streets were blocked and downtown markets were quiet for a normally busy weekday.
And in other parts of downtown, phone-credit vendors and perfume salesmen continued to hawk their wares in the street.