As Senegal approaches an election watched nervously abroad as the latest test of democracy in Africa, virtually all the candidates have sought the support of the country's traditional Muslim brotherhoods, especially the Mouride leader in the city of Touba.
The Mourides are one of four main Muslim communities who have helped shape history in one of Africa's most stable democracies and whose leaders - known as "marabouts" - are being courted by politicians of all hues before a February 26 election.
Ever since independence in 1960, the Mourides have assumed a crucial role as local politicians such as Leopold Sedar Senghor, who would become Senegal's first president, realized they could guarantee the vote of their rural followers.
Political historians say their support for Senghor - a Francophile Catholic - not only helped Senghor secure the presidency at independence in 1960 but also consolidated the religious tolerance which is Senegal's hallmark today.
In the last couple of days, Cheikh Abdoul Ahad Mbacke Gainde Fatma has seen more Dakar politicians 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.
"Virtually all the candidates have come here. A politician who is not on good terms with Touba cannot govern this country," Abdoul Ahad, cross-legged on the floor, says matter-of-factly.
At the forefront of them all is current president Abdoulaye Wade who is seeking a new term in next month's election.
"I have never hidden that I am a Mouride - anyone who votes for me knows they are voting for a Mouride," Wade told Reuters after this month's meeting at a plush residence in Touba, the central town that is the Mourides' spiritual home.
"Any power must have a popular base, and as it happens I benefit from this very broad popular support."
The Mourides influence policy even when it is not election time. When demonstrators last June threatened to storm parliament in protest at Wade's electoral reform, marabouts were among those who quietly advised the president to step back from the plan, according to widely reported comments from his justice minister.
Now with the elections approaching, not only has Wade come to Touba, his also his prime minister, finance minister and interior minister, as did Dakar's Socialist mayor Khalifa Sall - not a candidate this time but widely tipped as a future presidential hopeful.
Ex-premiers Idrissa Seck, Macky Sall and Moustapha Niasse, all standing for election next month, have put in an appearance at Touba, along with world music star Youssou N'Dour, whose last- minute entry into the race has made world headlines.
When Prime Minister Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye stepped out of his meeting with senior Mourides, there was no mistake that he was a politician on the campaign trail for the incumbent president.
"It is a time for meditation but also for prayer. And so we pray to God to help us secure a first-round victory for our candidate Abdoulaye Wade - if God wills it," Ndiaye, speaking outside Touba's Grand Mosque, told reporters.
A religious, economic and social force with no real parallel elsewhere, Senegal's Brotherhoods are a pillar of the moderate Sunni Islam espoused by over 90 percent of the nation.
For a would-be president, the most coveted prize is a vote order (called a "ndiguel") from the Mouride caliph himself - an order issued from on high to his followers to vote for the chosen candidate.
The last vote order was given in 1988 to incumbent socialist president Abdou Diouf - ironically, a Tidiane, not a Mouride - which helped him fend off a challenge from the-then opposition firebrand Wade.
There was no vote order from the caliph this year, and observers note that among Senegal's increasingly urbanized and literate population, even the most devout Muslims are less receptive to such an order than they were two decades ago.
"My marabout guides me along the path to God," Mayoro Dione, a 27-year-old baker, told Reuters in Touba. "But the election - that is my private life and I will choose myself how I vote."
Islamic scholar Galay Ndiaye argues that despite a fiercely free press and a national literacy rate of close to 50 percent, many Senegalese still fail to draw a clear distinction between the state and the Brotherhoods.
That, together with the caliph's silence, allows lower-ranking marabouts to issue their own voting orders with the power to influence the vote in a district or even town.
"The politicians will bring them gifts and encourage them to take part in rallies. It's the market of the little marabouts - we will hear at least 50 little vote orders," predicted Ndiaye, himself the son of a marabout from the northern town Louga.
While many Senegalese are ambivalent about receiving explicit vote orders, the marabouts' status means their endorsement is similar in power to that of the celebrity supporters wheeled out by politicians in Western democracies.
Mark John and Diadie Ba, "Insight: Would-be presidents court Senegal's holy kingmakers" Reuters January 23, 2012
"Senegal's "Brotherhoods" emerge from complex past" Reuters January 23, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today