22 March 2011

Senegal News: Tunisia, Egypt... Who's next? Senegal?

By Bram Posthumus
The world's eyes were on the Arab revolutions only a few short weeks ago. In Tunisia and Egypt, long-standing autocratic regimes were toppled. Could something similar happen in sub-Saharan Africa? 
The similarities appear striking: like North Africa, many countries south of the Sahara Desert have dead weight governments, in power for far too long and populations that suffer poverty and deprivation. What they also have in common is that religion permeates private and public life.
‘Inch Allah’
Take Senegal. No – better: take any taxi in Senegal, or walk into a working space. Nine times out of ten, you will find a portrait hanging on the wall, or suspended from the rear view mirror. And on the streets you will see people walk around with a collier around their necks, carefully attached to a portrait. One of the most revered men thus portrayed is late Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the founding father of a prominent Muslim brotherhood here, the Mourides.
Religion (in this case: Islam) and society are intimately interwoven in ways that in Europe no longer exist. One more example: absolutely every prediction about the future, even the simplest ‘see you tomorrow’ is punctuated with a heartfelt ‘Inch’Allah’ (God Willing). No-one in Europe would dream of invoking God when organising their Blackberries.
The real experts
How does religion interact with politics, the economy and the day-to-day running of a village, a city – or indeed a nation? That is the subject of an elaborate research project, commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It includes (among others) Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal. Gerben de Jong the Dutch Ambasador to Senegal, explains the reasoning behind the project. “We work here, we talk with the authorities here and of course also with many citizens. So we have some knowledge of Islam in Senegal but it was considered good to gain more profound insights. For this, we could not think of anyone better to ask than the real experts, the researchers. In the end, the aim is better knowledge of and better relationships with countries like Senegal.’
The project makes even more eminent sense at a time when Europe – and the Netherlands in particular – serve as backdrop for raging debates about the place of Islam in a largely secularised continent. But this was, the Dutch Embassy in Dakar hastened to add, not the subject of the research project.
Brotherhoods unite
For Senegalese religious expert and scholar Dr Cheikh Geye that interplay between religion and politics is particularly interesting. His point of departure is a word that keeps returning: cohesion.
“Look,” he says, “We have 95% of the population adhering to one of the Muslim brotherhoods. That creates order, hierarchy and real social cohesion. And don’t forget: all brotherhoods have become powerful political, social and economic actors. They are anchored in the past because of how they were founded but they are highly modern and dynamic.’
Bills and popularity
That word, “cohesion”, has long been a defining feature of Senegal. But there are signs of strain. Eleven years of liberal policies under president Abdoulaye Wade have left most Senegalese worse off. Corruption is perceived to be more alive and in-your-face than ever before and then there are the endless, highly disruptive power cuts. This is bringing people out on the streets in ever growing numbers. On March 19th the movement ‘Y en a marre!’ (We’re fed up!) came to the streets in thousands when president Wade celebrated the day he came to power. The regime appears clearly rattled. ‘We’re not Tunisia or Egypt,’ is the presidential mantra.
This may be true. But the Senegalese leader surely is acutely aware of the fact that the founder of the Mouride brotherhood he claims allegiance to is none other than...Cheikh Amadou Bamba. Bamba’s place is history is assured, if not for his piety then surely for his contribution to the anti-colonial struggle. The question today is whether the country and its people are really so fed up that they will welcome a similar religious leader. Well, here’s a pointer: an imam in the densely populated and poor area of Guediawaye, in Dakar, told his followers recently that if they had no electricity – they should just stop paying their bills... 

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