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Marabout Power in Democratic Senegal

By: Samantha Macfarlane

April 13, 2015

The cultural differences that result from a different system of values can be seen on a variety of scales. For example, Senegal, nicknamed the country of teranga, is famous for its hospitality. They’re extremely proud of it, even naming their national soccer team les Lions de la Teranga. The importance of family is evident when you learn that everything you buy is meant to be shared, so you should buy a few more snacks than you would eat on your own. The respect for community and neighbors manifests itself in the style of eating meals communally out of one large bowl, because you never know when people might stop by and join in. These values have stood in stark contrast to my American values, such as independence and productivity. However, despite many differences, one thing that we can agree on in principle is democracy.

In Senegal, political leaders are usually voted into power, and the country has seen many peaceful transfers of power and the dismissal of unjust leaders, marking Senegal as an example of democracy and stability in Africa. However, the behavior of the country is determined by the interactions between political and religious actors. Despite the fact that Senegal is a proud democracy, decisions are ultimately influenced by the marabouts that serve as intermediaries between the people and Allah. These marabouts serve as religious teachers in Qur'anic schools and are highly revered in this society of 95.5 percent Muslims. Some marabouts are able to climb the hierarchy to national recognition and build relations of mutual support with political leaders. Not surprisingly, corruption follows.

Marabouts have large enough followings that their support of a political candidate may influence or determine the outcome of an election. At this moment, lawmakers could not even dream of writing or passing a law that goes against the will of a powerful marabout. For example, the issue of child beggars is a highly visible problem in Senegal. Young boys who attend the schools specifically for Qur'anic education, run by marabouts, are often forced to roam the streets begging for change. Meant to teach humility, this lesson is usually exploited by the marabouts who take the money earned for themselves, leaving the children in poor living conditions. Although everyone in Senegal sees these beggars and most understand the surrounding problems, it is difficult to initiate any change because the marabouts benefit from this practice and politicians are unwilling or unable to oppose them.

In another case, the son of the former president of Senegal was recently put on trial for illicit enrichment using state money. Under the rule of his father, Abdoulaye Wade, Karim gained several different ministry titles at once. He was even called “the minister of the earth and the sky” and with this power took over $1 billion of the government’s money for himself. He was detained in April 2013 with charges of corruption, but that did not stop his political ambitions. The citizens of Senegal dislike Karim Wade, but due to the large financial investments that his father put into the holy city of Touba, Karim has the support of many important marabouts. Therefore despite the fact that he was found guilty last week and sentenced to six years in prison, Karim Wade remains the next presidential candidate for the PDS party, with some chance of winning. Things just don’t work like that in America.

In the end, I have to applaud Senegal for its stability and the moments where it stands up for what is right, such as putting Karim Wade on trial and daring to declare him guilty. However, there is still a long way for Senegal to go in terms of truly democratic and secular practices that would benefit the population.

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Marabout Power in Democratic Senegal