Senegal: A Cabinet Reshuffle and the Continuing “Bethio Affair”

On October 29, news broke that Senegalese President Macky Sall was reshuffling his cabinet. A partial list of changes is here (French). The key changes are the removal of Alioune Badara Cisse as minister of foreign affairs and the transfer of Mbaye Ndiaye (Wikipedia page in French here) from the ministry of the interior to a post as the director of the President’s cabinet. At Interior, Sall has replaced Ndiaye with Pathe Seck, a retired general.

Senegalese and international media sources (see the first two links above) state that the reason for Ndiaye’s transfer was the criticism the administration has faced for its handling of the “Bethio affair.” In April, Senegalese authorities arrested Sheikh Bethio Thioune, a popular youth leader within the Mouridiyya Sufi brotherhood and an outspoken supporter of former President Abdoulaye Wade. The arrest followed the death of two men at one of the Sheikh’s houses.

The Sheikh’s imprisonment, first in Thies and now in Dakar, has evoked massive outcry from his disciples, including rioting in Dakar from October 19 to around October 22.

The president now faces criticism on at least three fronts: Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) charges (French) that the administration has treated Sheikh Bethio unfairly and targeted him for political reasons; some commentators in the press have expressed alarm (French) over the government’s inability to prevent the riots; and some commentators say (French) that the president is unfaithful to his friends – the two dismissed ministers were seen as particularly close supporters of Sall (French). Regardless of how one rates the fairness of these criticisms, I would say that the “Bethio affair” has become one of the biggest political crises Sall has faced since his inauguration in April. And as the author at the previous link writes, perhaps Sall has also “lost two friends” – if not more – in this affair.

Coda: This video shows Sheikh Bethio’s disciples (called “Thiantacones”) visiting him during his imprisonment in Thies, as they have apparently done every Thursday since his arrest.

Rioting and Rivalry as the “Affair of Sheikh Bethio” Continues in Senegal

In April, Senegalese authorities arrested Sheikh Bethio Thioune, a popular Muslim leader in the country, following the deaths of two men at one the Sheikh’s homes. Commenter Brendon Butler pointed out over the weekend that the “Bethio affair” is back in the news: last week, the Sheikh was transferred from Thies, the region where he was arrested, to the capital Dakar. Starting last Friday, after authorities forbade the Sheikh’s supporters from visiting him (French) at the Rebeuss prison, some of his followers (called “Thiantacounes”) rioted, burning two buses and causing what the linked article calls “indescribable disorder.” In a reminder of the increasingly transnational scope of the Mouridiyya Sufi order to which Sheikh Bethio belongs, his supporters also rallied outside Senegalese diplomatic missions in Paris and Marseilles (French) on Friday.

Rioting continued in Dakar on Monday:

Police fired teargas to break up the protesters who moved through the capital smashing the windows of parked cars as well as those driving past using rocks, sticks and other objects found on the road.
[…]
Street traders hastily swept up their wares and ran off as the angry protesters swarmed Independence Square in the heart of the capital, causing chaos as cars reversed and swerved to avoid projectiles.

As I said in the spring, one point to emphasize is that international English-language sources often oversimplify Sheikh Bethio’s role within the Mouridiyya brotherhood. To say that he has a large following and that he is an important figure in the country’s religious arena is accurate. To call him a “senior Mouride leader” blurs the distinction between Sheikh Bethio – who is not a descendant of the Mouridiyya’s founder Sheikh Amadou Bamba (d. 1927) – and the brotherhood’s hereditary leadership, which is based in the order’s holy city of Touba. The order’s highest living authority is Sheikh Amadou Bamba’s grandson Sheikh Maty Lèye Mbacké (biography in French here), who became the seventh Khalifa of the Mouridiyya in 2010. While the existence of religious leaders like Sheikh Bethio indicates that the brotherhood has powerful figures outside the Mbacké family, it is important not to exaggerate Sheikh Bethio’s position within the formal hierarchy of the brotherhood.

In the “Bethio affair,” both the state and the Thiantacounes have sought the support of the Mbacké family, with President Macky Sall telephoning the Khalifa (French) in April, Sheikh Bethio’s son visiting the Khalifa (French) in August, and Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye journeying to speak with Sheikh Saliou ibn Saliou Mbacké (French), the son of the late fifth Khalifa of the Mouridiyya, in the Mbour region this weekend. The position of the Mbacké family and the “Bethio affair” is complex, and I may be misunderstanding it, but my current interpretation is that the family wants the affair to end, but is not calling for any exceptional treatment for Sheikh Bethio in the judicial process.

If the complexities in the religious realm were not enough, there are the ways in which party rivalries enter into the affair. Sheikh Bethio was a strong supporter of former President Abdoulaye Wade, whom current President Macky Sall defeated in March. Relations between Wade’s Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) and the Sall administration have been tense since the election as the administration investigates allegations of corruption and the PDS moves from ruling party status to opposition status. Some voices in the Senegalese press (French) have read statements by the Sall administration as implying that the PDS is behind the riots. The PDS, meanwhile, accuses the administration (French) of creating “tension” through its handling of the affair and implies that the state’s treatment of the Sheikh flouts judicial norms. The Bethio affair, then, has become a forum for party rivalry and struggle.

On a final note, those who read French may be interested to read the reactions of Senegalese bloggers who decry the violence, assess the actions of the Thiantacounes in light of Mouride teachings, and castigate the Senegalese state as weak. These bloggers, of course, do not represent the full range of perspectives among the Senegalese. Nonetheless it is noteworthy how the affair has shaken the confidence of some Senegalese writers in the state’s capacity to maintain law and order.

Senegal: The Affair of Sheikh Bethio Thioune

Last week, Senegalese authorities arrested the religious leader Sheikh Bethio Thioune and eleven of his disciples in connection with the deaths of two men at one of Thioune’s homes. Thioune is being held in Thies, and his disciples have staged protests there; the events in dispute occurred around Mbour. Reuters writes that the case “may strain the relationship between Islamic orders and the country’s justice system,” but I think there is room for more nuance than that statement contains.

Thioune is a member of the Mouride Sufi brotherhood, one of the two main brotherhoods in Senegal. He has attracted a good deal of attention and notoriety for his explicit support of former President Abdoulaye Wade in 2007 and 2012.

Thioune’s large following and his outspokenness within Senegalese politics may give an inflated sense of his status within the Mouridiyya; crucially, he is not part of the family of the order’s founder, Sheikh Ahmadu Bamba. In 2006-2007, when I was in Senegal, older friends gently mocked me for attending some of Thioune’s meetings, and made it clear that they considered him neither a scholar nor a serious religious personage. Thioune’s gatherings had a reputation for a party-like atmosphere, where youth (even drunk partygoers returning from downtown clubs in Dakar) could find a meal, a good time, and even a mate – Thioune was known for marrying off youths on the spot. My sense is that Thioune’s reputation has not improved in the last five years, and that many within the Mouridiyya would prefer that he not be the face of their brotherhood. Nevertheless, he has a devoted and large following.

The events that led to Thioune’s arrest are murky, and sorting through the competing and heavily biased accounts online is difficult. One account (French) depicts the two deceased men as followers who were excommunicated by the Sheikh and made “pariahs” by his disciples because their adulation for Thioune swelled to the point that they took the Sheikh for God Himself. Another account (French) depicts the Sheikh’s followers as divided into two camps on the question of his divinity, with the “moderates” (those who believe Thioune is not divine) having pursued and clashed with “extremists” (those who believe Thioune is divine) who came to venerate the Sheikh. An eyewitness account (French, more here) from the side of the deceased makes no reference to the issue of divinity, but rather says that their group of disciples came to see the Sheikh, were told that he was unavailable, and were then attacked as they sang praise songs.

While Thioune is in prison, his family is trying to calm the situation. Thioune’s son Khadim has visited the family of one of the deceased men to offer his and his father’s condolences (French). Yet demonstrations by disciples in Thies show the potential for tensions between Thioune’s movement and the authorities to escalate.

Does Thioune’s arrest have any relation to Wade’s loss? In other words, has Thioune lost a protector and become vulnerable now that a different president holds office? Senegal’s new President Macky Sall has pledged, through a spokesman, not to intervene in the case (French). The facts are hard to determine, but some of Thioune’s disciples view the arrest as political. The Chief of the Sheikh’s “Inner Guard,” Cheikh Bamba Faye, has told the press (French) that he sees in the arrest a “settling of political scores.” Such perceptions among Thioune’s disciples could lead to further conflict. “The country,” Faye said, “risks catching fire.” This may be exaggerated, but in any case it points to the fact that relations between Sall and pro-Wade religious leaders (again, it is worth distinguishing here between Thioune and the senior Mouride leadership) could deteriorate.