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.