Would-be presidents court Senegal’s holy kingmakers

January 23, 2012

(A woman walks past a mural of Senegalese Mouride Brotherhood's figurehead and spiritual guide, the late Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke, in Dakar, January 19, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Penney )

It is not everyday that Senegal’s octogenarian president Abdoulaye Wade lets the television cameras into his bedroom. But Wade, seeking a new term in next month’s election, was quick to usher them in when his visitor was Serigne Abo Mbacke, a leader of the Mourides, 129-year-old Sufi order of Islam that counts millions of devotees in his West African country.

The ensuing images of two men demurely perched next to each other on a king-size divan may not have made great television. But the photo opportunity was not lost to voters as proof of the intimate link between Senegal’s Sufi fraternities and the body politic of this Muslim but staunchly secular state.

“I have never hidden that I am a Mouride – anyone who votes for me knows they are voting for a Mouride,” Wade told Reuters after this month’s meeting at a plush residence in Touba, the central town that is the Mourides’ spiritual home. “Any power must have a popular base, and as it happens I benefit from this very broad popular support.”

The Mourides are one of four main Muslim communities that have helped shape history in one of Africa’s most stable democracies and whose leaders – known as “marabouts” – are being courted by politicians of all hues before a February 26 election. A religious, economic and social force with no real parallel elsewhere, Senegal’s fraternities are a pillar of the moderate Sunni Islam espoused by over 90 percent of the nation, and co-exist comfortably with minority Christians and other faiths.

Far removed from Islamist insurgents like Boko Haram of Nigeria, these communities accept Senegal’s secularism and do not use their influence to press demands for sharia, the Islamic moral and legal code. Their deep-rooted pacifism is one factor why there is little local sympathy for al Qaeda, even as it establishes bases in neighboring Mauritania and Mali. In 2001, Senegal’s marabouts condemned the 9/11 attacks on the United States as un-Islamic.

Their forte is commerce, be it running stalls in the sprawling open-air markets of the capital Dakar, or as entrepreneurs using contacts to tip a construction deal. A growing diaspora does everything from import-export in New York to hawking tourist trinkets under Paris’ Eiffel Tower.

Now, as Senegal approaches an election watched nervously abroad as the latest test of democracy in Africa, the coming weeks will show how much influence they have on this rapidly evolving society – and whether they are ready to use it.

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