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Senegalese politicians court leaders of age-old Muslim sect

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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.

Why did I bold “great-grandson”? Let’s do a little math. Sheikh Amadou Bamba died in 1927. The Sheikh had a number of sons. In Senegalese Sufi brotherhoods the system of hereditary succession works laterally – ie, leadership typically passes from one brother to another inside the same generation before passing to the next generation. In polygamous families, the number of descendants can multiply rapidly, to the point where there can be dozens of potential male heirs. As political scientist Dr. Leonardo Villalon wrote in 1995 with regard to Senegal (see his book Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal, p. 137),

Marabouts each face the thorny problem of legitimating their influence and maintaining the cohesion of the saintly lineages in the face of a large and ever-growing number of heirs…In the first generation, that of the founder’s sons, it has frequently been possible to achieve such legitimation. Every indication, however, points to the potential for fragmentation in the next generation.

Such fragmentation spills over into the political realm. One way that young marabouts, disgruntled about having to wait for their “turn” as brotherhood leader (or doubting that their turn will ever come), can make a name for themselves is by entering politics. A few have flirted with running for office, and some have become prominent public backers of candidates and politicians. This fragmented arena also includes rising religious stars who don’t come from the families of the founders; rising stars who build mass youth followings can become serious political actors.

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