Senegal: More on Macky Sall’s (and Marième Faye’s) Visit to Touba

Earlier this week I posted about the upcoming Magal celebration in Senegal. The Magal is a mass gathering of the Mouridiyya, one of the country’s two major Sufi orders; the event commemorates the return of founding Shaykh Ahmadou Bamba (1853-1927) from exile in Gabon during French colonial rule. The Magal takes place in the Mouridiyya’s hub, the city of Touba.

The event attracts courtesy calls from various politicians, including President Macky Sall – who, as one specialist pointed out to me, is not particularly popular in Touba. In the first round of the 2012 elections, then-incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade won an outright majority in the Mbacké Department, where Touba is located (and then went on to lose the overall election to Sall in the second round). As I discussed in my last post, this year the Mouride hierarchy had to publicly intervene to stop a junior shaykh from “sabotaging” Sall’s visit to Touba this year. Although it is partly, as mentioned above, a simple courtesy call, this visit is possibly more important than the average such call, as this is the last Magal before the February 2019 presidential elections.

Some press reports indicate that Sall’s visit went well. And reporters are calling attention not just to Sall but also to the First Lady, Marième Faye. One headline reads, “Macky in Touba: This Gesture by Marième Faye, Calculated or Not, Reinforces His Popularity.” From the article:

Having arrived late to the great room of Khadim al-Rasul [servant of the Prophet, a common title for Ahmadou Bamba among the Mouridiyya] residence at the moment when her husband, President Macky Sall, was going to begin his speech beside the Khalife General of the Mourides, the First Lady, Marième Faye, suddenly crouched down in the middle of the audience, a few steps from the doorway she had just crossed. Like a simple disciple.

Photos here.

Such images and moments have a longer history, as articles like this one spell out. From the Catholic President Leopold Senghor to the somewhat reservedly Tijani President Abdou Diouf to the overtly Mouride President Abdoulaye Wade and the openly Mouride President Macky Sall, the relationship between the Senegalese presidency and the Sufi orders – and we might say the Mouridiyya in particular – has been dynamic, even if certain deep continuities persist. Wade’s public displays of Mouride affiliation were controversial, particularly among intellectuals in the capital, one of whom coined the now-famous descriptor of “the Republic on its knees” in reference to Wade’s prostration to the Mouride Khalife General in 2000. Has something changed since 2000, in terms of how these moments play out in Senegalese public life? It’s beyond my expertise to say – but the parallels are interesting. I’m also reminded of something several young Mourides said to me when I lived in Senegal in 2006-2007, namely that it was divinely ordained that Senegal would first have a Christian president, then a Tijani president, and then all the rest would be Mourides thenceforth. Wa-Allahu a’lam.

Here, finally, is the president’s speech (in Wolof):

 

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Senegal: Politicians Visit Touba in Advance of the Magal [Updated]

The Magal is one of the most important annual religious events in Senegal. A mass gathering in Touba, the epicenter of the Mouridiyya Sufi order, it commemorates the return of the order’s founder Ahmadou Bamba from exile in Gabon during French colonial rule. This year’s Magal is scheduled for 26/27 October 28 October, and as such will be the last gathering before Senegal holds its presidential elections in February 2019.

The occasion can take on political ramifications, which are obviously a bit heightened this year. There has been a bit of controversy amid the planning for President Macky Sall’s annual pre-Magal courtesy trip to Touba. The head spokesman* of the Mouridiyya, Cheikh Bassirou Abdou Khadre Mbacké, had to explicitly tell Serigne Modou Bousso Dieng, head of the Association of Young Religious Leaders of Senegal, not to disturb the president’s visit. Dieng told the press that he submits completely to those instructions, but he added that “I remain convinced that Touba does not enjoy major consideration from President Macky Sall. In view of what this city represents on the religious plane and in terms of population, it merits more regard and this is not the case!”

Dieng, who is already a declared candidate for the 2019 presidential election, has previously said that he will withdraw if the former ruling party, the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais (PDS), nominates former foreign affairs minister Madické Niang. The latter recently received some rhetorical support from another of Senegal’s three most prominent Sufi families, the Sy branch of the Tijaniyya in Tivaouane; that family’s head said that former President Abdoulaye Wade should retire from politics (and stop attempting to impose his son Karim as the PDS’ 2019 candidate). In any case, back in Touba, the stage appears set for a smooth visit by the president circa October 25.

It is worth noting, however, that certain politicians are heading to Touba before Sall gets there. One is former prime minister and likely presidential aspirant Idrissa Seck, who arrived Monday for a four-day stay, heading out of town just before Sall’s arrival.

*[Update: I misidentified Khadre – he is the spokesman, not the head/khalifa general of the Mouridiyya. The khalifa is .Mountakha Bassirou Mbacké. See more from Ousmane Diallo here.]

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”

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.

Did Senegal’s Sufi Leaders Convince Wade to Drop His Constitutional Amendment?

This week, tension mounted in Senegal as President Abdoulaye Wade moved to introduce two major constitutional changes: the creation of a vice president position and a reduction in the threshold (25%, instead of the previous 50%+) necessary for a presidential candidate to win a first round victory. Protests broke out in major cities. Youth burned the homes of ruling party members. The EU and the US expressed concern. Then yesterday, the day that the amendment was due for a vote in parliament, Wade withdrew the plan to change the electoral threshold.

These developments have been well covered by Reuters, the BBC, VOA, the New York Times, and other outlets. What hasn’t received as much international coverage is the role of Senegal’s Muslim leaders. In a country that’s 95% Muslim, and where most of the Muslim belong to large Sufi brotherhoods legendary for their political influence (when they choose to wield it, that is), how did these leaders react to such a major political crisis?

A little background: the two largest Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal are the Tijaniyya and the Mouridiyya (with which Wade is publicly affiliated). Leadership of the brotherhoods is passed from one relative to another, typically from brother to brother before passing to the next generation. This structure in some ways encourages younger leaders, or marabouts, to build their own constituencies – younger marabouts who know that their turn as khalifa (head sheikh) is far off, or will never come, have some incentive to seek other avenues for exercising influence. These young marabouts don’t go so far as to create their own orders, but some have created their own distinct movements that exist (sometimes uneasily) within the larger brotherhood. This gives rise to a significant difference in style between the older marabouts, who have largely ceased giving explicit political directions to their disciples,* and the younger marabouts, some of whom do speak out.

The role of the older marabouts in the current crisis was potentially decisive. Wade’s Minister of Justice, Cheikh Tidiane Sy, cited the influence of religious leaders (Fr) as one reason Wade backed off his plan. The khalifas of the Mouridiyya and the Tijaniyya both called, through spokesmen, for calm. According to one source, both khalifas also sent emissaries to privately dissuade Wade from pursuing the amendment, and the Tijani leadership publicly condemned the amendment (Fr). These efforts, and particularly the appeal from the Mouride leader, are seen as the main factor in Wade’s retreat.

Meanwhile, some of the younger marabouts spoke out on the amendment who spoke out made headlines. A young Mouride sheikh (Fr), grandson of the order’s founder, expressed his support for the law, and in doing so said he was speaking for all of the Mouride leadership. If comments on the web version of this article are any indication (and they may not be), his support – and his claim to speak for others – were greeted with derision, including by Mouride youth.

Another young Mouride marabout with his own proper political following and a tendency for outspokenness, Modou Kara (Fr), contented himself with counseling his followers to stay home.

A Tijani sheikh who has built his own movement, Moustapha Sy (Fr), openly condemned the law.

Looking at the younger marabouts, I would point to both genuine religious beliefs and some element of political calculation in explaining their positions. There is theological support, both within Islam and within Sufism, for all three of the positions – supporting the leader in power, abstaining from political involvement, or speaking out against perceived injustice. I would not discount belief as a factor here. But political calculation plays a role as well: openly supporting or opposing Wade could have consequences both for a marabout’s relations with the state and his relations with his own disciples, and staying neutral has implications as well.

It might be tempting to read a Tijani-Mouride split into the behavior of the marabouts, and argue that it is politically easier for a Tijani marabout to attack the ambitions of a Mouride president than it would be for a Mouride marabout to do so, but I don’t see enough data yet to draw that conclusion. In any case, it will be interesting to watch how the younger marabouts of both orders intervene in politics during the months between now and Senegal’s February 2012 presidential elections, and interesting to see whether there are more discernible signs of older marabouts working behind the scenes to promote stability.

*Indeed, some opposition youth are warning Muslim leaders this year not to issue explicit voting instructions to disciples (Fr).