Want the Votes of This Religious Brotherhood? Meet Senegal’s Mediator

Serigne Bassirou Abdou Khadre Mbacké, right-hand man of the head of the popular Mouride brotherhood, is also a personal friend of Senegal President Macky Sall.

Source Getty Images/Composite by Alex Furuya

Why you should care

Because he could hold the February elections in his hands.

The Whisperers: An OZY series exploring the powers behind the powerful. The Whisperers: An OZY series exploring the powers behind the powerful.

When a teachers’ strike threatened to paralyze Senegal’s schools, Serigne Bassirou Abdou Khadre Mbacké invited the union’s leader to Touba, the holy city of the Mouride Sufi brotherhood, to solve what he called “a lack of communication.” In the country’s newspapers, he is credited with all sorts of achievements. Most recently, when the alleged relationship between a famous singer’s son and an actress turned into a viral feud, rumor had it Mbacké intervened to stop the damage.

On most days, however, he is tasked with a much more demanding mission: mediating between the state and the millions-strong religious order, one of Senegal’s biggest Sunni brotherhoods. And even though as the spokesperson of the Mouride leader Mbacké is not a candidate and does not hold an official post, he could hold President Macky Sall’s re-election in his hands ahead of February’s election. 

The weight of Muslim brotherhoods is written on the iconic black-and-yellow taxis in the capital city of Dakar: Stickers and black-shade portraits of the most prominent religious leaders are plastered on windshields, glove boxes and trunks. In Touba, the giant faces watch over passersby from nearby walls. Their influence goes beyond the spiritual in a country where 95 percent of the population is Muslim. These figures have had considerable political weight since the French colonial days, with the spokesperson at the center. “These are the kind of people who have the president’s number and can call on him any time of the day or night,” says Cheikh Gueye, author of Touba: Capital of the Mourides

He pretty much acts like a prime minister.

Author Cheikh Gueye, on Serigne Bassirou Abdou Khadre Mbacké 

In an order characterized by a tight hierarchy, power derives from close relations with the founder, Cheikh Amadou Bamba. Mbacké is his direct grandson, and rose to his spokesman position in 2010. “His dad was a khalife, so he has a lot of people backing him. He is young, speaks Arabic, which not many people do — that gives him a lot of credibility,” says Amadou Moustapha Mbaye, who’s based near Touba as the regional director of the Dakar Actu newspaper. Serigne Bass, as he is affectionately known in Touba, was educated by his uncle, who taught many grandsons of Bamba how to read the Quran, understand Arabic and write poetry. “Of all these grandsons, Serigne Bass was the brightest,” Mbaye says.

Now in his early 40s, he has been the right-hand man of three khalifes, slowly evolving from mere spokesperson to mediator, as he is for the current khalife, Serigne Mountakha Bassirou Mbacké. Serigne Bass manages big celebrations such as the Magal de Touba, which remembers the day Amadou Bamba was exiled to Gabon by colonial authorities who feared his growing power. Each year, four million Muslims gather in Touba, generating hundreds of millions of dollars from transport, food and remittances. “When the state has projects in Touba, he is the person to speak to. He is unique in the sense that he pretty much acts like a prime minister,” according to Gueye, the author. From roads to police stations to water wells to upgraded sewers to a new hospital announced in September by President Sall — everything has Serigne Bass’ fingerprints on it.

 

The second-biggest brotherhood in the country, Mouridism has enjoyed a growing influence over politics due to its highly centralized nature. “One cannot aspire to run Senegal and have Touba against them,” says Cheikh Abdou Bali Mbacké, who helps organize the Magal celebration with Serigne Bass. Many candidates in the upcoming February presidential contest have become members of the Mouride brotherhood in the past few years, including the president. Until 1988, its leaders gave their followers voting instructions, which were widely respected.

Serigne Bass’ childhood in the 1980s was marked by a growing involvement of lower-level spiritual leaders in politics, creating their own parties or joining others. At the same time, the higher central authority of the khalife went quieter when it came to politics. More subtle messages were sent through candidates’ visits to Touba. A single word or sentence could be interpreted to mean the khalife had backed a certain candidate. But young people are increasingly refusing to have their political views dictated by their spiritual masters. “There’s a new awareness from young Mourides that the person most qualified for the job must be elected. Because of this, Macky Sall lost the last legislative elections in Touba,” says Gueye.

Still, the government is eager to please. A new highway to Touba is being inaugurated this week, and presidential candidates have started flocking to the city to show their closeness to the khalife. Since independence, this city of nearly 1 million residents has enjoyed free water and a special status allowing it to choose its own local councillors and enforce Sharia-based rules such as a ban on smoking and indecent clothing.

Some critics claim Serigne Bass has amassed a huge rumored fortune on the back of his influence, while others are skeptical of his impartiality. “I am equally close to all the political schools,” he told Dakar Actu in 2016. “I never wanted to intervene in political affairs,” he added as a response to rumors he’d had a say in nominating certain ministers or directors of public companies. (Serigne Bass did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment.)

Beyond support for a single candidate, the spokesperson could play a role in making sure the elections move forward without any major incidents. Senegal’s 2012 election was marked by violent protests against former President Abdoulaye Wade. In this, Mouridism’s role is “a safeguard for social peace and stability in Senegal,” Cheikh Abdou says. Once again, it will be Serigne Bass’ role to uphold it.

Read more: How Sufi West Africa is bracing against a rise in fundamentalism.

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