Senegal candidates woo Muslim leaders

2012-02-08 11:34

Dakar - As Senegal's presidential hopefuls seek to woo voters ahead of this month's election, an equally serious courting process is underway to curry favour with the nation's powerful Islamic brotherhoods.

The Islamic groups' influence colours every nuance of daily life in Senegal, but it is when elections roll around that the nation watches most closely for signs of political approval from among the four brotherhoods.

As the country on the westernmost tip of Africa last weekend marked the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed, President Abdoulaye Wade visited the holy city of Touba to meet with the Caliph of the Mourides, Serigne Cheikh Sidy Moctar Mbacke.

Wade himself is a Mouride, the most economically and politically powerful of the country's Sufi brotherhoods, and a regular visitor to the rich city which attracts upwards of a million devotees during the Magal annual pilgramage.

When the Caliph's predecessor died in 2010, public television showed images of Wade kneeling in allegiance to the new leader.

Senegal's most famous export, music icon Youssou Ndour, is also a Mouride and his faith is laid out in "Egypt", his Grammy-winning album.

All over the country, a single image stands out, a black and white picture of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mourides who died in 1927, his face barely visible as a long white scarf wraps around his head.

Heated election period

Painted on crumbling village walls or hanging from the rear-view mirror of a taxi, the omnipresence of the image bears testimony to the brotherhood's power.

"It is difficult to overstate the level of influence of the Mouride Caliph General in Senegalese society," former US ambassador Marcia Bernicat wrote in a diplomatic cable in 2009, published by Wikileaks.

After an interview with the holy man, she noted the Caliph always spoke through an intermediary "because of the potential impact of his words in Senegalese society".

However it is the Tidianes who are the largest brotherhood in Senegal, where 95% of citizens are Sunni Muslim and the state remains fiercely secular and open to other religions to the extent that many delight in celebrating Christmas.

Last Thursday Wade visited Tivouane, the holy city of the Tidianes where he met with their Caliph Serigne Mansour Sy.

In recent weeks other presidential candidates and members of civil society have hastened to the side of Caliphs and Marabouts (religious leaders) alike, to win them over ahead of a heated election period.

The other two smaller brotherhoods are the Qadiriya and Layenne.

From landing an important contract, to matters of religion and culture or national cohesion, the brotherhoods play a key role in the country.

Senegalese sociologist Hadiya Tandian said they "help manage the frustrations of the population faced with the shortfalls of government" while helping to "cool political tensions".

Wade's candidacy

This is why the state has "always flirted with the brotherhoods" trying to attract their favour.

As the February 26 polls near, and with the country embroiled in political tensions over Wade's third term candidacy which the opposition has branded unconstitutional, their role is even more important.

The Caliphs of the Mourides and Tidianes both called for peace over the past week after four people were killed when opposition protests against Wade's candidacy descended into riots.

Their interventions are seen as having helped ease the tension somewhat as the electoral campaign kicked off on Sunday.

Few have spoken out about this year's race however, with only some Tidiane branches criticising Wade's candidacy.

However Mouride Caliph Moctar Mbacke has called, via his spokesperson, for the nation to accept the ruling of the constitutional council which said on January 27 that Wade is allowed to run in the election.

"We could say the Mouride dignitaries are rather favourable to Wade, their Caliph has not contested his candidacy," said Tandian.

"One should not expect a signal to vote for one candidate or the other," said Tandian, adding the presidential camp had supporters among all the brotherhoods.

"The Caliphs have understood their imperative order will not necessarily be followed as has been the case in Senegal in the past."