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Islamic Sufi spiritual leaders have considerable political influence but opposition banks on young musicians.
DAKAR, Senegal ― Facing a massive and unified opposition, Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, 85, needs a miracle to win the March 25 runoff election.
For that, Wade is looking to the marabouts — Muslim leaders who hold considerable influence over the estimated 90 percent of Senegal’s 12.5 million people who follow Islam's mystic Sufi tradition.
"Wade is in a desperate situation in which he can't afford not to have marabouts backing him up,” said political analyst Abdou Lô. “No opposition leaders and no civil society organizations are with him.”
But Wade’s reliance upon the marabouts may show that he is out of touch with Senegal’s younger voters, who some analysts say are listening the views of hip-hop musicians and other opposition leaders.
Senegal’s second round vote is widely seen as crucial for the entire West African region. It will determine whether an old and increasingly unpopular president continues to remain in office, or if there will be a peaceful, democratic transition. The country has been a bedrock of stability and democracy, while neighbors such as Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Liberia have been wracked by civil wars.
In the first round of elections in February, Wade won the largest single block of votes with 35 percent but he fell far short of the majority needed to win outright.
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The 13 opposition candidates divided the remaining vote. They have now united behind Macky Sall, 50, a former prime minister under Wade, who had come in second with 27 percent.
Senegal’s top marabouts have remained officially neutral in the election, so Wade has spent much of his campaign time, and allegedly his money, courting lesser marabouts for their support and their "ndigeul" – an order to disciples to vote for him.
The most critical ndiguel that Wade received is from Cheikh Béthio Thioune, who said a deceased leader came to him in a dream to deliver the order.
"It is Serigne Salliou [Mbacké] who has given me the ndiguel to re-elect Wade," said Cheikh Béthio Thioune on March 17 to tens of thousands of disciples in Dakar. “And he will be re-elected.”
This kind of spiritual direction from the dead is not unusual from marabouts. Another powerful marabout said almost the same thing to endorse president Abdou Diouf in 2000. Diouf lost that election to Wade.
Thioune is known for his zealous followers. Last weekend, they overtook the streets of Dakar for a two-hour march from his home to the Place de l'Obelisque in the heart of the capital. Many brandished clubs, allegedly in self-defense.
"Even if the ndigeul was to commit suicide, we would commit suicide," said Bassirou Ndiaye, 29, who said Thioune provided him with a wife and with money for the marriage.
Wade’s critics allege that the president paid considerable funds for Thioune’s endorsement.
“Of course it's not free,” said political analyst Lo. “We're talking about hundreds of millions of CFA (Central African Franc), even billions,” he said, meaning as much as $2 million.
Marabouts have traditionally relied on alms donated by followers, which is how many view Wade's reported payments. But Lo says the political endorsements violate the primary role of marabouts, which he says is to advise on religious matters. He says marabouts should only intervene when politics threaten Senegal’s stability.
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Although calm by West Africa's volatile standards, beginning in late January Senegal was rocked by a series of small but violent protests. Stone-throwing youths who took to the streets against Wade. They say he has served the two terms allowed by the constitution. Senegal's courts ruled in January that Wade can seek a third term, but that ruling provoked the protesters. They were dispersed by police firing tear gas. At least six demonstrators had died before the first round of voting.
Marabouts called for calm, but did not try to stop the protests or the government response, even after an incident in which a police officer threw tear gas into a mosque in downtown Dakar to smoke out protesters seeking sanctuary there.
In contratst to Wade, opposition leader Macky Sall has not played the religion card. Instead, he is relying on a "new type of Senegalese" ― a term coined by the hip-hop led youth movement, Y'en A Marre (Enough is Enough). The opposition movement is supporting Sall to unseat a president who, they say, thinks Senegal has not progressed since the country’s independence.
"Abdoulaye Wade is living in 1960," said Fadel Barro, a journalist and founding member of Y'en A Marre. "He thinks that if he activates some marabouts, if he doles out money, if he intimidates people with violence so they won't go vote against him, that he can win.”
But Barro says that the traditional influence of the marabouts has declined and that Wade “will realize that too late."