Senegal is sending more than 2,000 soldiers to Riyadh to help Saudi Arabia fight rebels in Yemen. Some Senegalese activists would like the troops, the first sub-Saharan contingent to join the Saudi intervention, to stay home.

President Macky Sall says Senegal is sending 2,100 men to the “holy land of Saudi Arabia”, warning that rebels in Yemen pose a serious threat to regional stability and to the holy sites of Islam.

Senegal’s influential religious group has thrown its support behind the president’s decision to contibute troops to Operation Decisive Storm.

“They agree because the reason that was given by the government was to protect the holy sites of Islam,” explained consultant and commentator Abdou Khadre Lô in a phone interview. “If you tell that to religous leaders, they will buy it.”

But Senegal’s opposition, including former president Abdoulaye Wade’s PDS party, strongly disagrees with the sending of soldiers to Yemen. Critics and activists say the troops known as jambars will not be protecting Mecca and Medina but fighting for Saudi Arabia – even though the kingdom has never signed a defence agreement with Senegal.

They fear that Senegalese troops may become embroiled in an illegal intervention to support a Yemenite regime whose legitimacy is unclear. “There is no legal ground, according to international law, to intervene,” said Seydi Gassama, president of Amnesty International’s Senegalese section, in an interview from Dakar. “We are intervening without any UN mandate. The bombardment of Yemen is totally illegal under international law. We cannot get involved.”

A coalition of civil society groups known as BouJambarDem is planning to hold a march in Dakar on Wednesday to protest the sending of “cannon fodder”, in the words of Madièye Mbodj, leader of the Yoonu Askan Wi movement.

Some analysts believe cash is on the table. One west Africa watcher, Andrew Lebovich, told The Washington Post that direct cash payments cannot be ruled out.

“People do not understand why Senegal is involved in a conflict opposing Yemen and Saudi Arabia,” said commentator Lô. “It’s far from us and we haven’t been given any reason that can be understood and accepted by the population.”

Senegalese authorities have indicated that its troops will be fighting “terror”, an argument that strikes some as odd. “We have Islamists closer to our borders   in Nigeria and in Mali – and we haven’t seen our head of state take a similar decision,” Lô added.

Bakary Sambe, a well-respected academic at the Gaston Berger University of Saint-Louis, argues that Senegalese diplomacy could have played a more useful role as a mediator.

“Senegal is one of very few countries in the world that can talk to all countries in the Muslim world, including Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he explained in a phone interview. “Considering Senegal’s role at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and its role at the United Nations in favour of Palestine, Senegal could have been well placed to focus on the unity of the Ummah (the Islamic nation).”

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