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.

Africa News Roundup: The UNSC and Mali, HRW on Boko Haram, Abyei, Somali Oil, and More

The United Nations, from yesterday:

Citing the threat to regional peace from terrorists and Islamic militants in rebel-held northern Mali, the United Nations Security Council today held out the possibility of endorsing, within the next 45 days, an international military force to restore the unity of the West African country.

In a unanimously adopted resolution, the 15-member body called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to provide, at once, military and security planners to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and other partners to help frame a response to a request by Mali’s transitional authorities for such a force, and to report back within 45 days.

Upon receipt of the report, and acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Council said it was ready “to respond to the request of the Transitional authorities of Mali regarding an international military force assisting the Malian Armed Forces in recovering the occupied regions in the north of Mali.”

Human Rights Watch released a new report on Thursday entitled “Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria.” From the summary:

This 98-page report catalogues atrocities for which Boko Haram has claimed responsibility. It also explores the role of Nigeria’s security forces, whose own alleged abuses contravene international human rights law and might also constitute crimes against humanity. The violence, which first erupted in 2009, has claimed more than 2,800 lives.

Governor Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu of Nigeria’s Niger State speaks about Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.

VOA:

The long term success of an oil and security deal between Sudan and South Sudan could depend on the much disputed Abyei border region.

That’s why Princeton Lyman, the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, says Abyei’s exclusion from the agreement between presidents Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir is “a big, big loss.”

Abyei is a territory claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. The residents of Abyei were supposed to hold a referendum in 2011 to determine which country they would join, but the referendum was postponed indefinitely due to disagreements over who was eligible to vote. Some are still proposing that Abyei hold a referendum, but Sudan’s government opposes the idea. More from VOA:

The Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman, Al-Obeid Ahmed Marawah, says his government prefers a political agreement over a plebiscite because “the referendum would end by attributing Abyei to one of the two countries.

“And this will not satisfy the other party. Therefore, this could cause a new conflict between the two people [ Messriyah and Ngok Dinkas] of Abyei and it might extend to between the two countries,” Marawah says.

And that, in turn, threatens the new deal over the sharing of oil-revenue, which Ambassador Lyman says “holds tremendous potential benefits for the people of both countries, particularly in South Sudan where there has been serious rises in food prices, shortages of fuel, and insecurity on the border.”

In addition to French President Francois Hollande’s trip to Senegal yesterday and his stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today, two other noteworthy visits to the Sahel by foreign officials: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Senegal for Thursday and Friday, while Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights María Otero will be in Mauritania from October 15-17 and France from October 18-19.

In Mauritania, Under Secretary Otero will meet with government officials, including President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, representatives from civil society, UN agencies and youth groups to discuss political and democratic developments in the country, electoral processes, refugees and humanitarian assistance and combating trafficking in persons. This is the most senior-level U.S. State Department visit to Mauritania in five years.

Somalia’s new government “does not plan to nullify oil and gas exploration contracts made in recent years in favour of those that were signed prior to the toppling of the government in 1991, a senior state official said on Friday.”

Fatal flooding continues in Niger.

What else is happening?

French President Francois Hollande in Senegal

French President Francois Hollande spoke in Dakar, Senegal today, on his first visit to Africa since taking office. His next stop is the Democratic Republic of Congo for the 14th summit (French) of the International Organization of the Francophonie (ie, the French speaking world).

Press coverage of Hollande’s appearance in Senegal has emphasized two themes: the contrast between his tone and the one his predecessor President Nicolas Sarkozy struck five years ago, and Hollande’s focus on the crisis in northern Mali.

On the first theme:

Analysts say he chose Senegal for his first visit to the continent due to the country’s democratic credentials, and also because Senegal is expected to play a central role in the planned military intervention in neighboring Mali to flush out the Islamic extremists controlling north Mali.
For the Senegalese though, what is front and center is the memory of Sarkozy’s 2007 speech, in which he said: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African man has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future,” Sarkozy said. “The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures.”
People attending his speech delivered at Dakar’s largest public university were so insulted that some walked out.

Sarkozy’s statements were offensive and wrong.

On the second theme:

The Mali crisis will dominate Hollande’s talks today in Dakar with President Macky Sall of Senegal, a neighboring secular* nation with a majority Muslim population, according to French officials…France has been an outspoken supporter of the use of force against Islamist rebels controlling the arid north of its former colony and drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution that calls for a detailed military plan for intervention within 30 days. The Economic Community for West African States has called for UN backing for a regional military contingent. Ivory Coast and Senegal have pledged to contribute troops.

“The objective is to wipe out terrorism,” Hollande said during a joint press conference with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Oct. 9 in Paris.

Seneweb has video footage of Hollande’s arrival at the National Assembly. Senegal, of course, has a new president too, Macky Sall, who was elected earlier this year. Much has changed for France, Senegal, and West Africa since 2007.

*Is it though?

Africa News Roundup: Kismayo, Boko Haram Arrests, Sudan and South Sudan Agreements, and More

Kenya’s Daily Nation reported yesterday that the Kenyan Defense Forces have taken the Somali port city of Kismayo, a stronghold of Al Shabab. Al Shabab has pulled out. More here and at the video report below.

IRIN reports that Somalia is becoming even more dangerous for journalists.

AFP:

Nigeria’s military said Friday it had arrested a number of security personnel over links to Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, whose insurgency has killed hundreds of people.
The arrests came after soldiers from a special military unit deployed in the northeastern city of Maiduguri arrested an immigration officer, Grema Mohammed, for allegedly being an active member of Boko Haram, a military spokesman said.

Even more details on this week’s agreements (and lack of agreements) between Sudan and South Sudan:

Sudan and South Sudan plan to avoid future disputes over oil exports with a metering system, but have failed to end a $1.8 billion row over how much Juba will pay for seizing northern oil facilities after its secession.

[...]

Under the final deal, South Sudan will pay between $9.10 and $11 a barrel to export its crude through the north. Juba will also pay $3.08 billion to help Sudan overcome the loss of three quarters of oil production due to southern secession.

All Africa interviews Senegalese President Macky Sall.

Cuts to fuel prices in Niger, and a glimpse at the intersection of Niger-Chinese relations, oil wealth distribution, and domestic politics:

Niger will reduce the cost of fuel at the pumps by about 7 percent next year as a result of China cutting the interest rate on a loan taken out to pay for the West African country’s sole oil refinery, the oil minister said on state television.

The move will curb the threat of further social unrest in the West African state, where riots over fuel prices have cost at least two lives this year. There have also been several strikes by taxi drivers over the cost of locally produced fuel.

VOA: “Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) will soon issue millions of permanent voter cards in time for the next general election, according to Nick Dazang, the INEC deputy director public affairs…Dazang added that the new security features will reduce or eliminate voter fraud in future elections.” Maybe.

NTV Kenya on Kismayo:

Guinea-Bissau Admits It Needs Help Fighting Drug Trafficking

I almost never write about Guinea-Bissau, the West African country so often referred to as a “narco-state” – see some different perspectives on that label here, here, and here. As the epithet implies, Guinea-Bissau has become a transit point for cocaine from South America to Europe. Guinea-Bissau made headlines this year for a military coup this spring, the latest in a long line of political upheavals in the country. Despite the installation of a transitional government, drug activity has reportedly increased.

West Africa as a whole, including Sahelian countries like Senegal and Mali, has “emerged as a hub for cocaine trafficking.” Events and trends in Guinea-Bissau, then, are relevant to the entire region. That’s why a headline yesterday caught my eye: “Guinea-Bissau Asks for Help.” From the article:

“Guinea-Bissau cannot face drug trafficking by itself,” said Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, the country’s leader under a transition process negotiated after an April 12 coup.

“I call once more on the international community to come to the rescue, to stop this evil,” said Nhamadjo, in an address to mark the 38th anniversary of the country’s independence from Portugal.

The remarks, as quoted, are short on details. But it will be worth watching whether and how the transitional government and its successors attempt to translate this sentiment into concrete partnerships with outside governments and agencies. Some regional anti-drug partnerships already exist. Yet Nhamadjo’s statement is, while laudable for its honesty, disheartening: if the government freely admits it cannot control the problem,  and existing organizations have not slowed its growth, then the problem has become severe indeed.

Africa News Roundup: Protests in Nigeria and Sudan, New PM in Ethiopia, Senate Scrapped in Senegal, and More

Following protests in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere this week, Muslims protested yesterday in Jos, Nigeria and Khartoum, Sudan against an inflammatory anti-Islamic video. The Chief Imam of Jos Central Mosque called for restraint and discouraged the turn to street protests.

Ethiopia is expected to name a new prime minister this weekend, to replace the late Meles Zenawi.

IRIN: “Kenya’s Deadly Mix of Frustration, Politics and Impunity”

Senegal’s National Assembly voted Thursday to disband the country’s Senate as a means of freeing up funds for flood relief.

Also in Senegal, a Gambian opposition group sets up shop.

Burkina Faso will hold legislative elections on December 2. The opposition (French) has written to President Blaise Compaore complaining that only 55% of voting-age citizens are registered to vote, and calling for a delay of the elections until 2013.

Leaders from the northern branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement were in Washington, DC this week, meeting with officials at the State Department.

What else is happening?

Floods and Politics in Senegal

VOA‘s Peter Tinti had an interesting yesterday today on flooding and politics in Senegal. The article discusses President Macky Sall’s proposal, made at the end of last month, to disband the country’s Senate in order to free up funds for flood relief. As Reuters points out, “The measure would be the second time the Senegalese Senate was abolished since its creation in 1999. Sall’s predecessor Abdoulaye Wade abolished it in 2001 to save money but later reinstituted it in 2007.” According to Seneweb (French), the National Assembly’s Laws Commission has passed measures scrapping the Senate (and the Vice Presidency as well as the Economic and Social Council). Now these measures will go to parliament. Some Senators, in an effort to ensure that they retain government employment, have sought the help of the country’s religious leaders (French).

VOA also describes some of the bottom-up aspects of flood response in the Dakar suburbs:

Some neighborhoods in the crowded, low-income suburbs outside Dakar have been underwater for weeks.
In the Guediawaye suburb, volunteers are pumping water out of a retention basin built by the government in previous years.
It has not been enough.
Young men are digging more canals to direct more water toward the basin and out of residential areas.  Some of the men are volunteers, while others say they are being paid by the mayor’s office.
Experts say many of the submerged houses in the suburbs are built on low lands and flood-prone areas.  Construction of much-needed drainage systems and other infrastructure has not kept pace with rapid urban sprawl over the past generation.
In 2009, the government launched a controversial resettlement initiative, moving thousands of families out to a newly constructed suburb outside Dakar.  But the residents who have remained in this neighborhood say more needs to be done.

VOA reports that the proposal to scrap the Senate is popular. Assuming that it goes forward, attention will then turn to how the money saved will actually be spent. The government will face choices, it seems, between strengthening infrastructure and moving residents.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that flooding and parliament have been linked in politics debates in Senegal. In 2005, Sall’s predecessor President Abdoulaye Wade caused outcry with his suggestion to delay parliamentary elections from 2006 to 2007 in order to release funds for flood relief. The elections were ultimately delayed to 2007. At the time, opposition leaders accused Wade of using the floods as a “pretext” to manipulate the electoral calendar in ways favorable to his own party. I am actually a little surprised that a similar charge has not surfaced now – namely, a charge that Sall is politicizing the floods to his own advantage. In any case, the devastation caused by floods in Senegal has several times sparked important debates about how resources are allocated at the top.

Senegal: Protests in Kedougou

On Sunday, a young deaf man, KéKouta Sidibé, was arrested in Kedougou, Senegal, on charges of smoking marijuana. When he died in police custody, protests broke out the following day.

A resident of Kedougou told AFP that hundreds of angry residents had gone to the paramilitary police headquarters to demand punishment for those involved in the youth’s death.

They threw stones and police responded with teargas. About 500 people remained in front of the police offices by Monday afternoon, and businesses shut their doors fearing further violence.

The death and the protests have earned major coverage in the Senegalese press (French), and Kedougou reportedly remains tense. See a map of Kedougou here.

Senegalese human rights groups, charging the police with brutality, have called for an investigation into Sidibé’s death (French). Minister of the Interior Mbaye Ndiaye announced on Monday that an inquiry will take place (French). He conveyed the president’s condolences to the family.

In December 2008, riots broke out in Kedougou over the cost of living, displacing “scores” of people.

Two Points on Secretary Clinton’s Tour of Africa [Updated]

Yesterday United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kicked off her 2012 tour of Africa. Today she is in Senegal, where she is expected to give a speech about China that does not name China. Other scheduled stops on the tour include South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, and Ghana.

Press coverage of the tour has emphasized three issues: terrorism, Chinese economic influence in Africa, and democracy. Let’s leave the first of those aside for this post. I have just two brief points to make:

  1. American rhetoric will not deter African countries from accepting Chinese investment. However forceful the Secretary’s speeches, however persuasive her arguments, African countries will continue to partner with China. Money will speak louder than words.
  2. Democratic achievements sometimes seem firmer in the present than they do in hindsight. I too applaud Senegal’s democratic transfer of power from one leader to another. I applaud Malawi’s peaceful succession process, and Ghana’s. But each country’s trajectory is different, and today’s democrat may become tomorrow’s autocrat. Defeated Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade earned plaudits as a democrat when he came to office in 2000, only to become another leader seeking an exemption to term limits by 2012.  I am not saying that Senegal, Malawi, and Ghana are headed for autocracy, but I am saying that “democratization” often proves fragile.

What do you expect from Secretary Clinton’s visit? What significance do you see in her choice of destinations?

[UPDATE]: Find the transcript of Sec. Clinton’s remarks in Dakar here. An excerpt:

Africa needs partnership, not patronage. And we have tried to build on that challenge. And throughout my trip across Africa this week, I will be talking about what it means, about a model of sustainable partnership that adds value rather than extracts it. That’s America’s commitment to Africa.

[...]

So the links between democracy and development is a defining element of the American model of partnership. And I acknowledge that in the past our policies did not always line up with our principles. But today, we are building relationships here in West Africa and across the continent that are not transactional or transitory. They are built to last. And they’re built on a foundation of shared democratic values and respect for the universal human rights of every man and woman. We want to add value to our partners, and we want to add value to people’s lives. So the United States will stand up for democracy and universal human rights, even when it might be easier or more profitable to look the other way, to keep the resources flowing. Not every partner makes that choice, but we do and we will.

“Takfir” Can Cut Both Ways

Youssou Ndour, the Senegalese musician who now serves as the country’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, made headlines in the Senegalese press this weekend for saying (French), “I sincerely think that these people who are destroying the tombs of saints and historic sites [in northern Mali] are not Muslims.”

Statements like Ndour’s, denying membership in the Muslim community to Muslims who practice violence against other Muslims, are not rare. Governor Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe State, Northern Nigeria, has made similar remarks about the rebel sect Boko Haram:

We cannot call these people Muslims. They are transgressors, who commit heinous crimes, which are totally condemnable. Islam is and will remain a religion of peace and even the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SWA) lived peacefully with followers of other faiths. Therefore, no one can justify attacking places of worship belonging to other faiths as Islamic.

I think such statements merit reflection on two levels. First, these statements challenge us to think about who is and is not a Muslim. As an outsider, I prefer to avoid taking stances on such issues, but we should at least question our assumptions and our habits. It is odd and tragic how we sometimes rush to question the purity of someone’s Islam when they wear an amulet or put up a poster of their sheikh, but we don’t question it when they shed blood.

Second, and closely related to the preceding point, we are reminded that talk of excommunication can cut both ways. Even as the media sometimes presents Boko Haram and Mali’s Ansar al Din as some kind of ultra-Muslims, some other Muslims feel that these groups have forfeited their claims to the faith entirely. One must be careful with terminology, of course: I do not consider Ndour and Gaidam’s statements equivalent to formal declarations of takfir (excommunication). But when analysts use “takfiri” as a synonym for “jihadi” or “terrorist,” they risk implying that such groups are the only ones willing to be exclusivist, and they risk sacrificing historical and contextual depth. Over time, Muslims of many different theological and ideological stripes have been willing to deny the Islam of their rivals – even the Sufis who are so often assumed to be only targets of excommunication, never its proponents.

What is your reaction to Ndour’s statement? What effects do you think it might have on audiences in Senegal and Mali?