The Pop Star and the President

Will West Africa's biggest music star and Senegal's octogenarian president-for-life learn to sing along -- or is the country on the edge of discord?


There are multiple levels to politics in Senegal, one of the oldest — and until recently, most successful — African democracies. There are the power plays and massive government projects reported on by the international media, but also a parallel system of religious affiliations, cultural networks, and tribal ties, little seen by outsiders. To understand the headlines, you need to delve into the latter.

The big news this week is that Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s geriatric president, is breathing a sigh of relief. The constitution says he can only run for two consecutive terms, but on Friday the constitutional court of this West African country ruled that this did not apply to him. It also decided that Youssou N’Dour, the global pop superstar and the country’s greatest export, who had thrown his hat into the ring, was not eligible to run. Violent protests have flared, in Dakar and elsewhere, in response to the decision and at least three people have been reported dead. Once regarded as one of the most progressive and democratic of African countries, Senegal’s stability is under threat with opposition leaders calling for “popular resistance.”

Wade has dismissed protests as “temper tantrums.” It is an attitude which verges on the pharaonic, which in the wake of the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and among calls by Senegalese opposition groups to turn a square in Dakar into the Senegalese Tahrir, might seem risky. But then, perhaps Wade’s tastes and outlook had already long since turned pharaonic.

Imagine, for example, a woman so big that if her breasts were turned into huts, a couple of families could live inside them. When Senegalese go to the polls on Feb. 26, and think of how Wade has spent their taxes, maybe they will be thinking of her too. The woman, of course, is not just statuesque but, along with her muscle-bound man and child, part of the colossal Monument de la Renaissance Africaine statue, which at 160 feet tall tops a steep hill that looks out over the Atlantic Ocean and can be seen for miles across the capital.

Whether Wade wins or loses the presidential election, they will say this of him: He was the man who gave Dakar this monument. Not health care, never mind schools, forget this that or the other: This monument, designed by a Senegalese, built by North Koreans, will be his legacy. (It cost at least $27 million. The way it was paid for led many to query its apparently convoluted financing, as a WikiLeaked U.S. diplomatic cable reveals.)

Stalinist,” scoff some, “Un-African” say others. Some say that the woman, unveiled (so to speak) in 2010 to mark the 50th anniversary of independence from France, in a country which is 94 percent Muslim, cannot be Senegalese because no decent woman would ever comport herself in such an outrageous state of semi-undress. But then the monument, like Wade himself, has divided this country, and not necessarily along obvious lines. One religious man, an editor at a radio station to which people call in to ask for religious sung poetry to be dedicated to friends and family, reminded me that, once upon a time, people carped that the Eiffel Tower was an eyesore and a waste of money too.

But for a sense of where this country’s real, hidden power lies, shoot down the road in front of the statue, drive along the scrubby, Atlantic corniche, then turn into the heart of the city. Downtown, in the sandy, streets of a middle-class district, all is dark. Much to the constant irritation of Senegalese, power cuts are frequent. But, drifting through the night air, above the hum of generators, comes the chanting of a group of men singing in a circle out on the pavement. Women sit on the ground listening to them.

These men, mostly in their twenties, thirties, or forties, come together twice a week for two hours to sing the devotional poems of Amadou Bamba, a towering figure in Senegalese history who died in 1927. These gatherings are common across the country.

And, here is the thing: Bamba’s legacy is extraordinary, but in the outside world hardly anyone has ever heard him. But, if you don’t understand his legacy and the Mouride movement he founded, you won’t understand the complex power structures of this vibrant country.

International attention began to turn to the Senegalese election last November when N’Dour, who apart from being a singer is also an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and media mogul, inaugurated a political movement called Fekke ma ci Boole which means “I am a witness, so I will react” in Wolof, Senegal’s dominant language.

Back in 2000, N’Dour, who is wildly popular, had sung for and supported Wade, but had since fallen out with him. This falling out reportedly began when the N’Dour-owned newspaper l’Observateur reported that Karim Wade, the president’s powerful son, had been arrested in Paris with large amounts of cash. Karim sued the paper for libel and won. N’Dour may also have been peeved by his inability to get a license for a television station he attempted to launch.

Wade, who is now at least 85 (though many believe he is older), has been president since 2000 when his Parti démocratique sénégalais ousted the ruling Socialists who had governed for 40 years. Many, N’Dour included, argued that a 2001 constitutional amendment prevented Wade from running for a third term. But Wade said that the two-term limit did not apply to him because he was already in office when the change was made. On Friday, the court agreed — and for good measure also banned N’Dour from running for not having gained enough signatures to make the ballot.

In the past few years, Wade has begun to think about succession, or more specifically, how to pass on the baton to his son, Karim, who for many years has held important government and advisory posts. As a leaked U.S. cable from 2009 titled “The Heir Apparent?” noted, “Ministers are scared of him, business people are cowed by him and major policy decisions are vetted by him.” It also said that in the wake of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference summit in Dakar in 2008, whose preparations he had overseen, it was widely believed that Karim had “embezzled a significant amount of funds” and that in the diplomatic community he was now known as “Mr. Fifteen Percent.” Karim wasn’t done acquiring nicknames. When he was later named minister of energy, he was dubbed by the press, “minister of heaven and earth.”

Last year, his father attempted to change the constitution to create the post of vice-president. Many believed that Wade senior intended to make Karim his running mate in this February’s elections, and then leave office after being elected — thus having his son take over.

This plan was abandoned after news of the plan provoked riots in June. Following the disturbances, the Wades were hit with further embarrassment when Robert Bourgi, a well-connected French lawyer revealed that Karim had appealed to him to intercede with the “highest authorities” in France for military help to put down what he said were “quasi-insurrectional” riots. But the riots spoke to more than just dissatisfaction over the constitutional end-around. Senegal’s gross domestic product has tripled in just over a decade, and millions of dollars have been poured into Dakar, funding the construction of broad highways, a new airport, an expanded sea port — and, of course, the monument. However, the experience of most Senegalese is that the rich get richer, while life is as hard as ever. On the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index, Senegal ranks 155 out of 187 countries. Life expectancy is 56 years and gross domestic product per capita is $1,023. That’s barely more than $2 a day.

As everywhere in Africa, youth unemployment is a huge problem — but, for decades, the safety valve has been emigration. Now, thanks to the global recession, jobs are harder to come by and less money is being sent home by émigrés. It is not surprising that the most prominent protest movement should call itself Y’en a marre: “We’re fed up!”

Thus this election cycle has been more contested than most. Some 20 people originally said that they intended to run in the presidential elections; 14 were accepted by the court. Until N’Dour joined the fray, though, Wade was hopeful that he would pass the 50 percent threshold and avoid a second round of voting. In 2007, he was elected in the first round by 56 percent. Among the more serious contenders are two of Wade’s former prime ministers, Macky Sall and Idrissa Seck. In the past, both were considered possible (chosen) successors to Wade but both have since fallen out with him. In 2007, Sall summoned Karim Wade to Parliament to testify about the allegations of improper financing during the preparations for the OIC summit. This was widely interpreted as a play to eliminate Karim from the succession race and enhance Sall’s own chances. Wade sacked him.

Seck fell from grace when he was arrested in 2005 on charges of corruption and threatening state security. He was released and the charges were dropped. Seck claims on his website that Wade moved against him because of his opposition to the promotion of Karim as heir. In 2007, Seck ran for president against Wade, garnering a respectable 14.9 percent. Still, Britain’s oldest and most respected source of African news, Africa Confidential notes now, “neither man can escape controversy over other corruption scandals, any more than they can their past association with Wade.”

N’Dour, of course, has been the joker in the pack. As soon as he entered the lion’s den of politics he was subjected to all manner of vilification. N’Dour, 52, is a self-made man: He left school early and holds no degree; his father was a car mechanic; his mother came from a family of griots, or praise singers. He began by singing at circumcision ceremonies but soon began performing with Dakar pop bands. In 1979, he formed his first band and was discovered by British pop star Peter Gabriel. From then on he moved into the pop global stratosphere, famously making “7 Seconds” with Neneh Cherry in 1994. Today, he owns a newspaper, a television station, and recording studios and claims to employ over 1,000 people — yet his enemies have denigrated him for his lack of education and noted that the constitution says the president must be able to speak, read, and write in French. N’Dour — who admits his lack of formal education — retorts simply that many of the people running the country have degrees but don’t seem to be able to manage anything.

But N’Dour also holds some insights into the Mouride power structures in Senegal that run deep beneath the turbulent political landscape. I visited N’Dour last year to record a program for the BBC on Mouridisme and he, a Mouride like Wade, discussed his Grammy award winning album Egypt, which is a collection in praise for Amadou Bamba, the ascetic and mystic Islamic scholar born in 1853. Bamba opposed French colonialism but preached against violent resistance and argued that his followers were best armed through devotion to God. He founded his Mouride movement in 1883; as it grew, the French became nervous that it had the potential to become an insurrectionary force. He was exiled twice, once to Gabon and once to Mauritania. However, then as now, the core of his message was non-violence and hard work. Eventually, the French let him return — and in 1918, the colonial power awarded him the Légion d’honneur, the nation’s highest honor.

As a marabout, or spiritual leader, Bamba began to gather followers. Today, there are 3-5 million of them out of a Senegalese population of 12-13 million. Many are just born into Mouride families, others may join by declaring their allegiance to a marabout. Typically marabouts are then supported by contributions from their talibés or followers. Both women and men can be members.

The centre of Mouride life is the city of Touba, founded in Bamba in 1887, a four-hour dusty drive, past empty Baobab-punctured land from Dakar. It is Senegal’s second city with a population of perhaps 800,000. At its symbolic gates into town are two injunctions. Non to smoking in the holy city and Oui to Ndiguël. An Ndiguël is a holy edict, the equivalent perhaps of a papal bull in Europe a thousand years ago.

Mourides are one of the four major Islamic brotherhoods of Senegal, to which almost all Senegalese are connected. In contrast to the predominant forms of Islam in the Arab world to the north, these are branches of Sufi Islam, an altogether different tradition. Like the other brotherhoods of Senegal, at its core are the marabouts of which, of course, there is a hierarchy. Touba, being home to Bamba’s descendants, has become the Vatican of the Mouride world and is home to the Grand Marabout or Caliph General, the head of the movement. After Bamba’s death in 1927, his sons succeeded him as caliphs. In 2007, that authority passed to his geriatric grandsons. The current Caliph General is Cheikh Sidy al Moukhtar Mbacke who is in late eighties.

Marabouts have a dual role. Not only are they spiritual guides but networkers, connecting their followers, not just to Allah but to all manner of business and political contacts. In Senegal, it is not just whom you know, but whom your marabout knows.

Mourides have becomes so important in the life of Senegal that you often hear complaints that people are becoming Mourides only for the connections, not for the spiritual guidance. According to Oumar Fall, the commercial director of Diprom, a big Mouride-owned metals and energy company, some 50 out of the top 100 Senegalese firms are owned by Mourides.

Today, the power of Touba is undiminished. It has a special status in the country, meaning that it is run by its own rules. There are no state schools there for example, only religious ones. Smoking and drinking are forbidden, as are hotels in the normal sense of the word, which are associated with alcohol and prostitution. And every year, for the major festival of the Grand Magal (which commemorates the moment God is said to have told Bamba that his years of tribulation were over), hundreds of thousands of pilgrims pack the city.

This year, the pilgrimage was held on Jan. 12. All the while, Senegal’s top politicians have been zooming and back and forth to Touba, paying court to the Caliph General and the most influential marabouts. They always want favors, but now they want the Caliph to tip his turban in their direction and indicate that they have been anointed. In the recent past, Touba’s support has gone to Wade. But this year the Caliph’s spokesman has said that there would be no Ndiguël on whom to vote for. “Touba does not have a candidate in the 2012 presidentials,” he said. Dismissing suggestions that Wade had made a large contribution to this year’s festival organization, he added, “No one can buy Touba with money.”

But with violent demonstrations now breaking out across Senegal, the Caliph has finally broken his silence with a rather cryptic message: “Those who reign by terror will perish by terror,” said the Caliph’s spokesman. Is this a shot across Wade’s bow? For what it’s worth, both the United States and France, the former colonial power have spoken up as well. “We are concerned that the decision by President Wade to seek a third term undermines the spirit of democracy … that it could jeopardize the decades-long record that Senegal has built up on the continent for democracy, democratic development and political stability,” said William Burns, the U.S. deputy secretary of state.

No one’s yet threatening to topple Wade’s grand statue on Dakar’s seaside. But it is hardly surprising that anyone who knows West Africa should feel a cold chill of horror after the events of the last few days. Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast, are all near neighbors. All different countries, of course — but all countries that, in the recent past, have simply disintegrated into blood. For now at least, many observers think that Senegal’s democratic roots are strong enough to keep it from such a horrific scenario, but whether Wade and N’Dour chart their way through the current discord is a score yet unwritten.  

Inset Photos: Tim Judah

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