TOUBA, Senegal (Reuters) - 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 129-year-old Mouride order of Islam which 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 Islamic “Brotherhoods” 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 who 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 Brotherhoods are a pillar of the moderate Sunni Islam espoused by over 90 percent of the nation, yet co-exist comfortably with minority Christians and other faiths.
Far removed from Islamist insurgents like Boko Haram of Nigeria, the Brotherhoods accept Senegal’s secularism and do not use their influence to press demands for Islamic sharia law.
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.
Wade’s critics have branded his decision, at 85, to stand for a third term as a flagrant breach of constitutional rules limiting him to two mandates.
Anger at his attempt last June to overhaul election rules triggered some of the worst street clashes with security forces seen in Dakar. Whether Senegal is now able to avoid further unrest may depend, at least in part, on its marabouts.
A heavily-set figure in a pristine white robe and with an earpiece connected to his Apple iPhone, Cheikh Abdoul Ahad Mbacke Gainde Fatma has seen more Dakar politicians in the last 24 hours than most Senegalese will see in a lifetime.
Ahad Mbacke is the great-grandson of revered Mouride founder Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke and heads the organizing committee for the “Grand Magal,” the annual Mouride festival which draws millions to Touba for a week of praying, eating and revelry.
His family compound a short walk from Touba’s Great Mosque is as much a blend of tradition and modernity as he is. In the main yard, off-road vehicles jostle for space with live sheep and a camel tethered close to the pots of an outside kitchen.
“Virtually all the candidates have come here. A politician who is not on good terms with Touba cannot govern this country,” Abdoul Ahad, cross-legged on the floor, says matter-of-factly.
A quick roll call of visitors suggests he has a point.
Aside from Wade himself, his prime minister, finance minister and interior minister attended Touba ahead of Magal, as did Dakar’s Socialist mayor Khalifa Sall - not a candidate this time but widely tipped as a future presidential hopeful.
Ex-premiers Idrissa Seck, Macky Sall and Moustapha Niasse, all standing for election next month, have put in an appearance at Touba, along with world music star Youssou N‘Dour, whose last-minute entry into the race has made world headlines.
It would be wrong to say the VIP visitors are here purely to fish for votes. Many have come back to Magal year after year, while in N‘Dour’s case, his strong Mouride faith inspired his Grammy-winning 2004 album “Egypt.”
Yet as current Prime Minister Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye steps out of his meeting with senior Mourides, there is no missing the unmistakable sight of a politician on the campaign trail.
“It is a time for meditation but also for prayer. And so we pray to God to help us secure a first-round victory for our candidate Abdoulaye Wade - if God wills it,” Ndiaye, speaking outside Touba’s Grand Mosque, told reporters.
As with Wade’s bedside encounter with the marabout, the Magal timing and venue of Ndiaye’s soundbite will hit an instant chord with Senegalese voters who have seen the hand of the religious leader at work in their country’s defining moments.
Even as the hour of independence struck, Senegal’s marabouts influenced both its timing and future course, first urging voters to reject a break with France in a 1958 referendum and then backing the left-leaning Catholic Leopold Sedar Senghor as the founding president of the new nation two years later.
For a would-be president, the most coveted prize from Magal is a “ndiguel” from the Mouride caliph himself - an order issued from on high to his followers to vote for the chosen candidate.
The last vote order was given in 1988 to incumbent socialist president Abdou Diouf - ironically, a Tidiane, not a Mouride - which helped him fend off a challenge from the-then opposition firebrand Wade.
There was no ndiguel at the Magal this year and observers note that among Senegal’s increasingly urbanized and literate population, even the most devout Muslims are less receptive to such an order than two decades ago.
“My marabout guides me along the path to God,” Mayoro Dione, a 27-year-old baker, told Reuters in Touba. “But the election - that is my private life and I will choose myself how I vote.”
But that is not to say the marabouts’ influence is waning.
Islamic scholar Galay Ndiaye argues that despite a fiercely free press and a national literacy rate of close to 50 percent, many Senegalese still fail to draw a clear distinction between the state and the Brotherhoods.
That, together with the caliph’s silence, allows marabouts lower down the pecking order to issue their own “ndiguels” with the power to influence the vote in a district or even town.
“The politicians will bring them gifts and encourage them to take part in rallies. It’s the market of the little marabouts - we will hear at least 50 little ndiguels,” predicted Ndiaye, himself the son of a marabout from the northern town Louga.
While many Senegalese are ambivalent about receiving explicit vote orders, the marabouts’ status means their endorsement is similar in power to that of the celebrity supporters wheeled out by politicians in Western democracies.
In all big Senegalese towns, black-and-white painted images of marabouts compete for attention with political graffiti sprayed on walls, while their names adorn the battered taxis and buses that make up Senegal’s dilapidated transport system.
Aside from the gifts they garner from disciples, many are wealthy businessmen in their own right. The house of a marabout is often recognizable by the loudspeaker piping religious chants to the street, or by the smart Mercedes parked outside.
“The population is becoming more urban, better informed and educated, creating a kind of civic conscience and maturity which has led to a rejection of the ndiguel,” said Abdou-Aziz Kebe, an Arabist at the University of Dakar and a prominent Tidiane.
“That said, there is a kind of network function at play which can be of use to the politician, be it by associating with a footballer, a wrestler or a religious leader.”
Mansour Sy Djamil - who describes himself as “not your ordinary marabout” - is taking it one step further by running directly for the presidency himself.
The grandson of the first Tidiane caliph in Senegal, Sy argues that Senegal has been let down by generations of career politicians and bemoans weak leadership across Africa.
“Marabouts have been kingmakers for others but their children may well ask ‘Why not us?',” Sy, who worked for nearly three decades at the Islamic Development Bank, explained.
“In the street, people come up to me and offer me a gift in return for a prayer. Some even get out of buses to greet me. I don’t know of any politician who would not use that popularity, so why should I deprive myself of it?”
“ARISE AND WARN!”
Sy may not win the election but a respectable result could well launch his political career. Although he is an exception, his entry into the race is part of a growing debate about the relationship between politics and the Brotherhoods.
That debate resonates within the Brotherhoods’ top echelons, with the Mourides last month organizing a three-day conference on themes such as the link between politics and Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam fundamental to their faith.
Yet it is unlikely any time soon to yield the direct engagement sometimes seen by Christian leaders in Africa and embodied by Desmond Tutu, who as an Anglican bishop in the 1970s was in the vanguard of opposition to apartheid in South Africa.
In mostly Christian Democratic Republic of Congo’s chaotic election in November, the Catholic Church not only fielded the largest team of poll observers but ultimately decried incumbent Joseph Kabila’s win as spawned by “treachery, lies and terror.”
The Bishops’ Conference of Senegal’s small but influential Christian community has launched a publicity campaign around what it calls the “Ten Commandments” of a fair vote. The first commandment is: “You will vote according to your conscience.”
As demonstrators last June threatened to storm parliament in protest at Wade’s electoral reform, marabouts were among those who quietly advised the president to step back from the plan, according to widely reported comments from his justice minister.
For Fadel Barro, co-founder of the “Y‘en a Marre” (“I’ve Had Enough”) protest movement that has galvanized opposition to Wade among particularly young voters, such backroom interventions by religious leaders will not be enough in the tense weeks to come.
“They have a role to play - they should be up there calling for the preservation of social peace in a non-partisan way,” said Barro of the possibility of more unrest around polls which some observers fear will be less than free and fair.
Kebe at the University of Dakar agrees that there was room for the Brotherhoods to have spoken more audibly during those restive few days last year.
Now, as Senegal’s faces the biggest test in years to its cherished social peace, he says his appeal to the marabouts echoes that of God to Mohammed in the Koran: “Arise and Warn!”
Writing by Mark John; editing by Janet McBride