Rumours of wrestler involvement in Senegal protests stoke anger

Alexandre Martins Lopes
·3-min read

Senegal's traditional wrestlers, who are revered by millions of adoring fans, have reacted in anger to rumours that they were behind the violence that recently shook the West African nation.

Usually seen as a haven of stability in a volatile region, Senegal was rocked by a week of deadly clashes between opposition supporters and police in early March.

At least five people were killed in the unrest, sparked by the arrest of the country's opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, a government critic popular with Senegalese youth.

Thousands of young protesters also looted shops, hurled stones at police and torched cars during demonstrations across the country.

In the confusion, rumours swirled that practitioners of Senegal's centuries-old wrestling tradition -- mostly heavy-set, muscled men -- were behind some of the mayhem.

Some on social media suggested that the government had hired wrestlers to quell demonstrations. And the government itself suggested that wrestlers were among the protesters.

Senegal's Justice Minister Malick Sall, for example, said in an interview this month that coronavirus restrictions explained the unrest and pointed to wrestlers as an example.

"The young people, many of them were in the wrestling stables," he said, explaining that young wrestlers had spent their days training and fighting.

"This allowed them not only to let off steam but to earn a living. And that is something they have been deprived of for almost a year," he added.

But the minister touched a nerve, appearing to cast doubt on fighters who are lionised throughout the country, where wrestling is a major spectator sport.

Senegal's wrestling world has rejected suggestions that fighters were drawn into the violent politics of recent weeks.

"Not a single licensed wrestler took part in the rallies," said Khadim Gadiaga, the head of a respected wrestling stable in the capital Dakar.

He also denied that any fighters had worked as state-sponsored thugs, saying that wrestlers had never marched "in the history of this country".

- 'Not a penny' -

Like many other sports, wrestling has suffered since the onset of the pandemic, according to some fighters.

Group training has been banned to curb infections, alongside traditional bouts -- where hulking fighters dressed in loincloths face off in packed stadiums, performing mystic rituals in the sand before going toe-to-toe.

The restrictions have put some 8,000 professional wrestlers out of a job.

Ibrahima Dione, the president of Senegal's national wrestling association, told AFP that "for a year now, the fighters have had nothing, not even a penny".

"Many of them have lost hope and are taking canoes to Spain," he said, referring to the Atlantic Ocean migration route from Senegal to Europe.

But to Dione, the ministers' words stung, since so many young wrestlers have seen their livelihoods disappear.

"It's dangerous for the youth who have lost hope," he said. "The state has an obligation to help us. All wrestlers are really angry".

- 'People need it' -

For his part, Aliou Sane, a spokesman for Senegal's protest group 'Y'en a marre' -- meaning 'we've had enough' -- said at a recent news conference that wrestlers had taken to the streets.

Demonstrators were "citizens who are thirsty for democracy, for the rule of law, for freedom," he said. "And among these citizens, yes, there are wrestlers".

But Gaston Mbengue, a celebrated fight promoter, thinks the debate about wrestlers' involvement in the unrest is misplaced.

"It's all politics," he said.

The solution, according to Mbengue, is to bring back wrestling. "The people have been locked up for a year. The people need it," he said.