Senegal's opposition leader Ousmane Sonko adresses supporters in Dakar, Senegal,...

Senegal's opposition leader Ousmane Sonko adresses supporters in Dakar, Senegal, Thursday, March 14, 2024. Sonko was released from prison earlier in the day. Credit: AP/Sylvain Cherkaoui

DAKAR, Senegal — Top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko vowed Friday to help his team win Senegal's March 24 presidential election even though he is barred from the ballot, jumping into the campaign in his first public address since being freed from prison a day earlier.

Ousmane Sonko’s release late Thursday after months behind bars triggered a mix of jubilation and political uncertainty on the streets of the capital, Dakar. Thousands took to the streets in celebration, reinvigorating enthusiasm for the election that will decide whether the West African country can remain a stable democracy in a region that has experienced a wave of coups and attempted coups.

A charismatic former tax collector and mayor of the southern city of Ziguinchor, Sonko is seen as as the main challenger to President Macky Sall’s governing party.

His key ally, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was also freed from prison late Thursday, has been named the opposition’s presidential candidate. Their release follows Sall’s decree to exonerate political prisoners, including hundreds arrested in the violent protests last year.

“The message will be short. The important thing is our candidate. We have an election to win. Every hour counts. We have lost a lot of time. We will be on the ground for the victory of our candidate," Sonko said at a news conference.

In his brief message, Sonko restated some of the key tenets of his campaign: the need to fight corruption in the government and to protect Senegal's economy from the influence of foreign powers.

The protests have once again rocked Senegal’s image as a pillar of stability in West Africa. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, it has held regular elections and never experienced a coup, unlike many other nations in the Sahel region.

Supporters celebrate the release of Senegal's top opposition leader Ousmane...

Supporters celebrate the release of Senegal's top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and his key ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye outside Sonko's home in Dakar, Senegal, Thursday, March 14, 2024. Sonko had been in prison since July 2023 and has fought a prolonged legal battle to run for president in the March 24 election. Credit: AP/Sylvain Cherkaoui

Following Sonko's release Thursday night, Dakar was thronged with thousands of people singing and dancing as convoys of supporters drove around tooting horns and young people piled onto motorbikes and trucks.

Fresh graffiti on Dakar streets Friday morning rallied in support of Sonko. On their way to work, Senegalese speculated about how the turn of events might affect the vote later this month.

Presidential spokesman Yoro Dia said a court decision barring Sonko from the election could not be appealed.

The latest twist in Senegal's election saga follows Sall's attempt to postpone the election until the end of the year, announcing his decision just weeks before it was to take place on Feb. 25. His announcement plunged Senegal into uncertainty and drew protesters to the streets.

Supporters celebrate the release of Senegal's top opposition leader Ousmane...

Supporters celebrate the release of Senegal's top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko and his key ally Bassirou Diomaye Faye outside Sonko's home in Dakar, Senegal, Thursday, March 14, 2024. Sonko had been in prison since July 2023 and has fought a prolonged legal battle to run for president in the March 24 election. Credit: AP/Sylvain Cherkaoui

The country's Constitutional Council subsequently rejected Sall’s postponement and ordered the government to set a new date as soon as possible. Political analysts said Sonko's return to the playing field would boost his ally's campaign.

This "is clearly a political, democratic and electoral turning point that could bring a new generation to power,” Alioune Tine, the founder of the Senegalese think tank Afrikajom Center, told The Associated Press.

Tochi Eni-Kalu, Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group, said Sonko’s release likely won’t change expectations that the vote is probably headed for a runoff, with no candidate winning more than 50% of the vote. Neither will Sonko be allowed into the race at this late stage, he said.

“For Sonko specifically, there remains some uncertainty over the terms of his amnesty and whether he will immediately regain his political rights," the analyst said. "But he won’t be on the ballot on the 24th.”

In a separate decision Friday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Karim Wade, an opposition leader and son of former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, against the decision to rule him off the ballot because he holds dual citizenship. Wade said he has renounced his French citizenship.

Sonko’s presidential bid has faced a prolonged legal battle that started when he was accused of rape in 2021. He was acquitted of the charge but was convicted of corrupting youth and sentenced to two years in prison last summer, which ignited deadly protests across Senegal.

In January, he was disqualified from the ballot because he faces a six-month suspended sentence following his conviction for defamation, Senegal’s highest election authority, the Constitutional Council, said at the time.

Sonko’s supporters maintain his legal troubles are part of a government effort to derail his candidacy. His Patriots of Senegal party was also dissolved last summer.

Senegal's 19 approved candidates have started rallying ahead of the vote, expected to be the most tightly contested race since the country gained independence more than six decades ago.

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