Senegal: A Marabout-Politician in Macky Sall’s Government?

President Macky Sall of Senegal

President Macky Sall

Since at least the 1990s, there’s been a major question about the leaders of Senegal’s Sufi orders and their relationship with formal politics: given that succession to the high leadership positions is hereditary and complex, how will the increasing number of younger leaders (often called marabouts) react? Will younger members of major families attempt to create their own constituencies? Will charismatic marabouts from outside the major families attempt to do the same? What effect will their moves have on Senegalese politics?

One of the “politicized marabouts” scholars have long watched is Modou Kara Mbacke (b. ca 1954), a grand-nephew of the founder of the Mouridiyya Sufi order. In 2004, after long activism as a religious leader for youth, he created a political party, the Party for Truth and Development (PVD in French). Yet he has tended to support incumbent presidents – in 2000, he backed Abdou Diouf (who lost to Abdoulaye Wade that year), and in 2007 he backed then-incumbent President Wade. The PVD did not run its own candidate in the 2012 presidential elections (nor in 2007), but in the 2012 legislative elections, the PVD won two seats. The Senegalese press has reported that Kara will be a candidate for president in 2017, a race that is already in its nascent stages.

Now, however, there is speculation that Kara might enter Macky Sall’s government. The two men recently met, and afterwards Kara told journalists that he wants to “accompany President Macky Sall” – a phrase open to multiple interpretations. He also called for the appointment of “people who don’t do politics.” Perhaps Sall just met him to be polite. But it is interesting that Kara has access to the president.

For more on Kara (and the Tijani Sufi Shaykh Mustapha Sy, to whom he is often compared), two references:

  • Fabienne Samson, “Islam, Protest, and Citizen Mobilization: New Sufi Movements” in New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal
  • Linda Beck, Brokering Democracy in Africa, especially the chapter “Influential Brokers”

Senegal: On the Trials of Karim Wade and Hissène Habré

I have a post at the Global Observatory discussing two ongoing trials in Senegal. An excerpt:

The trials of [former Chadian ruler Hissène] Habré and [former President Abdoulaye Wade’s son Karim] Wade will have implications for elites across Africa. The former’s trial may mark a new, albeit halting, effort to use African judicial systems to hold former heads of state accountable for human rights abuses. The latter’s trial may signal a new effort to crack down on corruption. At the same time, however, the trials may have little impact on ordinary Senegalese and their day-to-day struggles.

If you read the piece, please stop back by here and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Senegal: Throwing Stones in Fatick

Fatick (map) is the hometown of Senegalese President Macky Sall and he served twice as its mayor. On Saturday February 9, three ministers (French) in Sall’s cabinet attended a ceremony in Fatick for the launch of the local branch of an activist organization within the ruling Alliance for the Republic (APR). Youth demonstrators (from within the party’s ranks) wearing red armbands appeared, and reportedly threw rocks (French). Why?

The youths who disrupted the rally of APR members demand work. They affirmed their desire to get out of unemployment “in order to help their parents.” These youths reproach local leaders, promised important posts by the president of the republic, for “having done nothing to help youths.”

Given that youth unemployment contributed to the emergence of youth protest movements against Sall’s predecessor President Abdoulaye Wade in 2011-2012, such messages carry political dangers for Sall. Recognizing this, the President stopped in Fatick yesterday (French). He said:

I understand the distress of these youths, I understand their message. And I was surprised when I learned what happened, last Saturday. But very quickly I understand that your cry of distress was a sort of reminder concerning employment, and above all that you would like a greater presence from the political authorities.

Sall appears to retain his popularity even with the youths who demonstrated. After his stop in Fatick, “some youths, among whom some had been at the head of the group of demonstrators Saturday, expressed their support for the secretary-general [i.e., Sall] of their party, whom they accompanied up to the exit from the commune of Fatick.” Despite such support, though, this flash of anger, however brief, will likely be remembered.

In Senegal, Inauguration of Extraordinary Chambers to Try Former Chadian Leader Hissène Habré

Hissène Habré, a French-educated political scientist, rebel commander, and politician, took power in a coup in 1982 and ruled Chad until rebel forces led by Idriss Déby overthrew him in 1990. Habré has been living in Senegal ever since. Pressure to put him on trial has come from numerous forces: groups within Chad, officials in Senegal and Belgium, the United Nations, the European Parliament, the African Union, and others. For years, however, some observers felt that Senegalese authorities were stalling on the question of whether they would try Habré. Human Rights Watch has a chronology of the case here, an overview here, and a Q&A here.

Today marks an important event in the case: the inauguration of special tribunal called the Extraordinary Chambers, in Dakar. There are a number of points to be made about this event. For one thing, as VOA says, “this will be the first time a world leader is prosecuted for crimes against humanity by the government of another country.” The case will have major ramifications for future attempts to try former heads of state.

Second, there are questions to ponder about how Senegalese politics interacted with the trial. VOA quotes Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch, framing the shift in Senegalese authorities’ behavior on the case as a result of the change in administration from President Abdoulaye Wade (in office 2000-2012) to new President Macky Sall.

“In 10 months, Macky Sall and [Justice Minister] Aminata Toure and the government of Senegal have moved this case more than Abdoulaye Wade had done in 12 years.  Finally, the tenacity and the perseverance of the victims is being been rewarded by this government,” [Brody] said.

What happens next? It’s hard to tell – AFP says that no details are publicly available about when the trial will start. RFI (French) gives a broad timeline: fifteen months (maximum) for investigations; seven months for the trial; and five months for appeals. That could mean that there is no final verdict until May 2015. In the meantime, this will be an important case to follow.

A Look Back at the Sahel and the Horn in 2012

2012 ends, for the regions of Africa this blog covers, with considerable uncertainty and tragedy for some countries, and cause for cautious optimism in others.

We do not have to look far to find chaos. Mali’s trajectory, whether in terms of political arrangements in the south, the future of the north, or the future role of external actors in reuniting the country by force, remains unclear. Violence in northern Nigeria continues, not only in the form of attacks by Boko Haram but also in intercommunal conflicts and abuses by security forces. Fighting continues along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. The rebellion in the Central African Republic may end with the formation of a coalition government, or perhaps rebels will take the capital. In Somalia, recent attacks in Puntland hint that al Shabab, while weakened by losses of territory in the south, will remain a source of violence.

Yet we also do not have to look far to find causes for hope. Senegal experienced a democratic transition from one party to another earlier this year. On December 21, the Lagos-Kano railway reopened in Nigeria. Somalia completed a political transition and has a new government. There are always reasons to feel gloomy – perhaps Senegal’s new President Macky Sall will prove incapable of dealing with the country’s problems, and Nigerian society will fragment further, and the tenuous political and territorial gains by Somalia’s government will vanish – but it is worth thinking about what went right this year in various places. About the institutions that endured, the plans that worked, the macro and micro changes that improved or protected people’s lives.

It is also crucial to go beyond reductionist paradigms of African tragedies on the one hand and African “success stories” on the other. Writing the above paragraphs reminded me how easy it is to fall into the superficial trap of juxtaposing the positive with the negative and calling that complexity, or calling that “Africa.” The real complexity is all the stories that don’t fit into neat categories of tragedy or triumph. Thus as Sall turns to the task of governing Senegal, we find him struggling to resolve a conflict with a religious leader and his partisans. In Nigeria, we see a state attempting to balance religious and political constituencies in the wake of a governor’s unexpected death. In what some consider unmitigated tragedy we also find complexity – one brother who was sentenced to have his hand amputated for taking up arms against Islamists in northern Mali and another brother who, seeming to endorse the Islamists’ vision of a religiously pure society, carried out the sentence of amputation himself. We can always find heroes and villains in events if we choose; but sometimes we can’t grasp the complexity of a situation until we stop looking for heroes and villains, and just look for people.

So 2012 has given analysts of the Sahel and the Horn a lot of material to digest. Events this year certainly surprised me in various ways. I was surprised by how rapidly the situation in Mali deteriorated, especially between January and April. But I was also surprised to see Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade step down amid relative calm after months of tension around his bid for a third term of questionable constitutionality, and what at times had looked like his willingness to secure that third term at great cost. These surprises encourage us to question received narratives, like that of Mali as a “democratic poster child,” or the idea that an “African strongman” can always cling to power. The surprises also encourage us to remember that events are fluid and contingent. Sometimes events are shaped, to a shocking extent, by chance. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was shot in October, but lived – had the bullets killed him, who can say what the repercussions might have been for Mauritania, for Mali, for the Sahel? It is strange to think that one low-ranking soldier’s aim could influence outcomes for a whole country, even for a whole region.

I listed five “stories to watch” at the beginning of this year. The ideas were safe enough, and broad enough, that they all did prove relevant to the course of events, though not always in the ways I might have expected – for starters, Mali’s democracy certainly underwent a severe test, but not at the ballot box. But the value in comparing the perspective looking forward in January 2012 with the perspective looking backward in December 2012 is not primarily in asking who got what right, but in determining what changed and how analysts can do better in grasping the causes and effects of those changes. The methods I use for this blog – aggregating and synthesizing news in the hope that what emerges is more than just the sum of its sources – will remain basically the same in the coming year. But 2012 reminds me to ask a broad array of questions, to look beyond politicking in Bamako or Dakar or Khartoum or Mogadishu. To think about the potential of so-called “marginal” actors to affect an entire country’s trajectory (and not to forget ethnic, religious, or political minorities in a rush to analyze “Tuareg rebellions” or a “Muslim Northern Nigeria”). To think about the webs of relationships – between individuals, between communities, between countries – that are activated, and reshaped, in the course of conflict and cooperation.

I plan to post a look forward at 2013 tomorrow. I’m thinking I’ll go more with the idea of “themes to consider” rather than “stories to watch.” In the meantime, what struck you the most in 2012 about the Sahel or the Horn? What was expected and unexpected about how this year played out?

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.