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In Senegal, the city of Touba at the heart of negotiations in the political crisis


Even for a president, the general caliph of the Mourides never moves, you have to come to him. Macky Sall bowed to tradition. At night, in the greatest discretion, the Senegalese head of state went to the holy city of Touba, located some 180 kilometers from the capital, to meet Serigne Mountakha Bassirou Mbacké, the leader of the influential brotherhood Mourides, Monday, June 5.

“When there is a problem, either the Caliph General calls the Head of State or the President travels to Touba”, explains Mor Daga Sylla, one of the members of the Mouride brotherhood. The president and the powerful marabout spent an hour one-on-one, of which nothing has officially filtered. “They took stock of the current political situation, the recent riots and the stability of the country. We can hope for a return to definitive peace in Senegal.”, adds Mr. Sylla. After the conviction of opponent Ousmane Sonko to two years in prison on 1er June, at least sixteen civilians died in clashes with security forces.

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Already in March 2021, during the riots which followed the arrest of Ousmane Sonko and caused fourteen victims, Mouride emissaries had been sent by the Caliph General to attempt mediation. “In the president’s lounge, we gave our analysis of the dangers and threats to the stability of the country. He listened to our arguments.says Cheikh Gueye, secretary general of the Unitary Framework of Islam in Senegal (Cudis), himself Mouride and researcher specializing in this brotherhood, the second largest in number after the Tidjanes in this 95% Muslim country.

“The caliphs play equidistance and neutrality”

Once again, the brotherhood has played its role of social regulator, even if it is no longer as influential as before. Created at the end of the 19the century by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, it derives its power in particular from its former economic base. Leader of groundnut production during colonization, the Mourides then succeeded in ” develop their hegemony in sectors such as transport and trade. Since the 1950s, all billionaires [en francs CFA] Senegalese are Mourides”says Mr. Gueye.

“Previously, marabouts were considered great voters who could directly influence votes,” explains Bakary Sambe, research professor at Gaston-Berger University and director of the Timbuktu Institute. Thirty-five years ago, in 1988, the Caliph General explicitly gave “Ndigel” (an instruction) by calling to vote for former President Abdou Diouf. But ” this political role has gradually diminished”continues Mr. Sambe.

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In 2000, no instructions were explicitly given, but Abdoulaye Wade knelt at the feet of the Caliph General of the time, the day after his election. “There was then a Mouridization of politics, that is to say that the Mouride brotherhood became that of the Head of State and of power”explains Mr. Sambe.

“Today, the caliphs play equidistance and neutrality. It would be a trap to openly support Macky Sall or Ousmane Sonko, as both sides have followers on both sides.”, assures Cheikh Gueye. The Senegalese president has invested heavily in the modernization of the religious city, in particular by building a hundred kilometers of highway linking Touba to Thiès. “Even before being elected head of state, he decided to become a Mouride in order to succeed in his career”assures the researcher Cheikh Gueye, who nevertheless observes “a drop in his popularity rating within the community”.

A must for any ambitious politician

Macky Sall has made a few mistakes. In 2016, a controversy broke out when he entered the compound of the great mosque of Touba with his vehicle, then he created discontent when he described the religious leaders as “ordinary citizens” and refers to the withdrawal of certain privileges. At the polls, the presidential coalition is retreating. In January 2022, the mayor elected at the head of the religious city – where only the list of the general caliph who is counted for the majority stands in local elections – obtained only 23% of the votes against 77% of blank ballots. Six months later, it was the turn of the opposition coalition Wallu Senegal, led by the party of former president Abdoulaye Wade, to win the legislative elections.

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At the same time, Ousmane Sonko is gaining popularity among young people in the region. In February 2023, despite the ban on a meeting organized by his party in the city, he went to pray at the imposing mosque of Touba. If he belonged in the past to a movement linked to the Salafist tendency which rejects brotherhood Islam, the opponent Ousmane Sonko claims to be Mouride. His marabout “is not in the central authority of the brotherhood, but has its entries at the level of the murid khalifa”, says Cheikh Gueye.

Touba is a must for any ambitious politician. In times of crisis, “You cannot imagine what is settled in the salons of marabouts between politicians. They have become essential spaces for negotiation.analyzes Bakary Sambe, who recalls that it is necessary to take into account the visible roles but also “discreet roles” of the brotherhood. What maintain the mystery on the mystical resolution of the political crises of this country.