Places of Power: Senegal, where all roads lead to Touba

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Secret Places of Power

By Mehdi Ba
Posted on Tuesday, 30 August 2022 12:23, updated on Thursday, 1 September 2022 15:21

If presidential palaces are symbols of the power of heads of state, other places and buildings still play a crucial role. Today we look at Senegal's Touba, the cradle of Mouridism, which has long had a complex relationship with the political sphere.

This is part 2 of a 7-part series

At around 1:30am on 24 June 2016, Karim Wade savoured his first moments of freedom after 38 months in Rebeuss prison in Dakar. Waiting for him on the tarmac of the Léopold-Sédar-Senghor international airport was a private jet, chartered by the emir of Qatar.

Before leaving for exile in Doha, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade – ‘minister of heaven and earth’ between 2009 and 2012 – made a single stop between prison and the airport, in the affluent neighbourhood of Almadies, at the home of Madické Niang.

Several times a minister (notably of justice and foreign affairs), an influential member of the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) and a confidant of Abdoulaye Wade, this secretive lawyer, who is well connected in Touba, was – at the time – one of the main intermediaries between the PDS and the General Khalifa of the Mourides, Serigne Sidy Mokhtar Mbacké.

It is at the latter’s home that Karim Wade discreetly received the blessings of the country’s most influential religious authority, via the son of the Khalifa, Serigne Moustapha Mbacké, who came from Touba. During his incarceration, Karim Wade also benefited from the spiritual guide of the Mouride brotherhood: offerings of food to improve his daily life in prison.

Political regulator

“The influence of the brotherhood has evolved over time,” says Ousseynou Nar Guèye, who is the founder and editor of Sentract.sn as well as a Mouride talibé (‘disciple’). Today, the Khalifa General is an important player in the political game, or even a referee, even more so than the president of the Republic, who is considered a partisan actor. “The passage through Touba is unavoidable for any presidential candidate, whether he is a Mouride or not, whether he is a Muslim or not,” says the journalist.

The Mouride movement has established itself in the public imagination as a structure that is distanced from power, while at the same time developing levers of influence in the political sphere

For Bakary Sambe, who is a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Religious Studies at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, the regional director of the think-tank Timbuktu Institute and author of the book Le Sénégal entre diplomatie d’influence et islam politique (published by Afrikana), “the Mouride movement has established itself in the public imagination as a structure that is distanced from power, while at the same time developing levers of influence in the political sphere”.

The Khalifa General is also a regulator when it comes to policing the streets, as was the case in March 2021 when riots broke out in Dakar and several large cities of the country after charges made by the judiciary against Ousmane Sonko, a rival to the president. Although other religious authorities spoke out at the time, the voice of the spiritual leader of Touba was prominent.

Voting instructions

“In his memoirs, Abdou Diouf recounts that when he designated him as his successor, Senghor recommended that he visit the Khalifa General of the Mourides every three months, which he did,” says Ousseynou Nar Guèye.

In the pre-electoral period, it is difficult to find a candidate who refrains from going to Touba to pay his respects to the Khalifa in order to receive his blessings. The time when Serigne Abdoul Ahad Mbacké openly called for a vote for Abdou Diouf and the Socialist Party (PS) during the presidential and legislative elections of 1983 and 1988 is long gone.

This explicit ndigël (‘instruction’) has then “marked the minds of the people”, says the researcher Xavier Audrain, in an article in Politique Africaine devoted to the “evolution of the relationship between religion and politics through the life of Cheikh Modou Kara”. “These appeals, considered decisive in the electoral victories of Senghor’s successor, perpetuated the historical relationship between the state and the ‘capital’ of the Mourides, making the ‘clergy’ of Touba ‘kingmakers’,” he says. However, since the accession of Serigne Saliou to the Khalifa General of the Muridiyya in 1990, and his choice not to intervene in worldly affairs, the situation has changed.

Ndigël or not, the influence of the Mouride clergy remains prominent at the crossroads of religion, politics and social issues. During the Grand Magal of Touba, the annual pilgrimage that celebrates the date – in the Muslim calendar – when Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké (nicknamed Serigne Touba), the founder of the brotherhood, was exiled to Gabon by the French colonial administration, some 4 million worshippers flock to the holy city, which – over the years – has become the country’s second most populous city after the capital, with 1.5 million inhabitants recorded in 2018.

The provisional capital

During the pilgrimage, Dakar is transformed into a ghost town for a few days. Almost depopulated, the usually congested streets suddenly look like country roads. It must be said that a large part of public transport vehicles (buses, Ndiaga Ndiaye and taxis) in the capital are operated by Mouride talibés.

Touba then becomes the provisional capital of the country. After passing under the arch that marks the entrance to the city, the faithful flock to the great mosque, built in 1923, and to the mausoleum where the founder of the brotherhood is buried. In Touba, cigarettes and alcohol are strictly forbidden and women do not wear trousers.

In Senegal, it is impossible to serenely ascend to power without the support of the brotherhood.

In September 2021, the spokesman of the Khalifa General – Serigne Bassirou Mbacké Abdou Khadre, alias ‘Serigne Bass’ – received us in the Khalifa General’s private residence, an imposing building where a swarming entourage was busy around the spiritual leader, one talibé holding his water bottle, the other his slippers.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the alarming third wave that has appeared in recent months due to new variants, the Magal of Touba was not cancelled by the Senegalese authorities or by the Khalifa General in 2020 or 2021. “The Mourides believe, of course, in the reality of this pandemic, but, at the same time, they feel that their faith does not allow them to remain deaf to the call of Touba, and they would rather die than live without obeying this call,” Serigne Bass tells us.

Nagging rumours

Between the two rounds of the 2012 presidential election, the future president Macky Sall experienced – at his own expense – how necessary prudence and discretion is when discussing Mouridism. For years, a persistent rumour followed him, asserting that his comment at a press conference, that “the marabouts are ordinary citizens”, was sacrilegious because it could be interpreted as a criticism of Touba.

In 2018, on the occasion of a presidential visit to Touba, one of his close advisers – El Hadj Hamidou Kassé – tried to correct this misunderstanding on social networks by explaining that in the period between the two rounds, Sall had actually stated that “marabouts are above all citizens”, a phrase that was allegedly distorted by a newspaper into “ordinary citizens”.

Beyond this haphazard re-transcription, Sambe recalls another episode that put Sall in the hot seat the day after his accession to power. He says: “For the sake of ‘good governance’, he confiscated the cars allocated by Abdoulaye Wade to certain marabouts and Mouride dignitaries and diplomatic passports generously granted by the previous regime were withdrawn.”

This explains why the incumbent president, although re-elected in the first round in 2019, was outpaced in Mouride country (the departments of Bambey, Diourbel and Mbacké) by his challenger, Idrissa Seck, ‘the Talibé candidate’. The latter had indeed garnered 48.49% of the vote, against 40.21% for Sall.

In Senegal, it is impossible to serenely ascend to power without the support of the brotherhood. “Senghor very quickly understood the importance of the support of the Mouridism and the Tijaniyya [the other major brotherhood in Senegal] for a Catholic president in a predominantly Muslim country,” says Sambe. “His feat is in managing to obtain the support of these Muslim brotherhoods against candidates who were […] Muslim.” After Senghor withdrew, Abdou Diouf followed in his footsteps. However, in 1988, an explicit ndigël from the Khalifa General to vote for the Socialist successor marked a turning point in this relationship. This would not happen again.

Abdoulaye Wade made the brotherhood a tool for political ascension for the executives around him…

As for Abdoulaye Wade, he did not hesitate to play on his membership in the brotherhood in order to place Mouridism at the heart of the Republic. “We then witnessed a form of Mouridisation of both the administration and the political class,” says Sambe. “Abdoulaye Wade made the brotherhood a tool for political ascension for the executives around him, and despite the controversy surrounding his statement on marabouts, I think that Macky Sall is following the same path.”

A kneeling Republic

“Senegalese politicians look to the religious sphere for the legitimacy they sometimes lack in the political sphere,” says Sambe.

“When Pope John Paul II was received in Senegal by Abdou Diouf in 1992, the Khalifa General Abdoul Ahad Mbacké told the president that he viewed the visit unfavourably. Abdou Diouf replied that he was the president of Muslims as well as Catholics. From then on, their relationship [somewhat] deteriorated […],” says Ousseynou Nar Guèye.

After his first election in 2000, Abdoulaye Wade went to Touba and knelt before the General Khalifa. The scene was immortalised by the media and the gesture gave rise to harsh criticism. “We then spoke of a Republic kneeling before Touba,” says the editor.

12 years later, when the ageing president sought a third contested term, he nevertheless received the support of two dignitaries from parallel branches of the Mouride brotherhood: the marabouts Cheikh Bethio Thioune and Serigne Modou Kara Mbacké. For Senegalese politicians, all roads lead to Touba – even if it means taking the wrong road.

On 27 September 2019, tens of thousands of Senegalese flocked to the heart of the capital to attend the opening of the monumental, 10000-square-metre Massalikoul Djinane mosque: A masterpiece built by the Mouride brotherhood in homage to its founder.

Reconciliation

The ceremony gave rise to a meeting that no one had imagined. Side by side, former President Abdoulaye Wade and his former prime minister, Macky Sall, who succeeded him, buried the hatchet despite their successive disputes and disagreement on the Karim Wade case.

“Obviously, there have been disputes, but all that must be overcome. That is why I launch a solemn appeal to President Abdoulaye Wade to talk about the country with me,” said Macky Sall in front of the cameras. To seal this apparent reconciliation, the Mouride clergy once again played the leading role.

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