DAKAR - Long seen as kingmakers in the West African country, the influence of Muslim religious leaders is put to test from an increasingly urbanized population ahead of next month's election.My marabout [religious chiefs] guides me along the path to God, Mayoro Dione, a 27-year-old baker, told Reuters in Touba on Tuesday, January 24.
But the election - that is my private life and I will choose myself how I vote.Since the 19th century, the Mourides, one of the four main Muslim communities in Senegal, have played a key role in shaping the history of one of Africa's most stable democracies.
Before any elections in the country, the group's leaders, known as marabouts, are being courted by politicians of all hues.
Virtually all the candidates have come here, Cheikh Abdoul Ahad Mbacke Gainde Fatma, the great-grandson of revered Mouride founder Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke, said.
A politician who is not on good terms with Touba cannot govern this country, added Abdoul Ahad, cross-legged on the floor.
Heading the organizing committee for the Grand Magal, the annual Mouride festival which draws millions to Touba for a week of praying, eating and revelry, Abdoul Ahad usually gives the coveted prize of ndiguel to a certain politician; an order issued from high to his followers to vote for the chosen candidate.
He has seen more Dakar politicians, who seek the country's presidency in the February 26 elections, in the last 24 hours than most Senegalese will see in a lifetime.
Along with incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade, who runs for a third term, his prime minister, finance minister and interior minister attended Touba ahead of Magal.
Ex-premiers Idrissa Seck, Macky Sall and Moustapha Niasse, all standing for election next month, have also appeared at Touba, along with world music star Youssou N'Dour.
Dakar's Socialist mayor Khalifa Sall, not a candidate this time but widely tipped as a future presidential hopeful, also visited the Mouride caliph.
Muslims make up nearly 94 percent of the country's 13 million population, while Christians account for 5 percent and the remaining follows indigenous beliefs.
However, a growing number of Senegalese are expected to challenge the caliph's order and decide for themselves.
The population is becoming more urban, better informed and educated, creating a kind of civic conscience and maturity which has led to a rejection of the ndiguel, said Abdou-Aziz Kebe, an Arabist at the University of Dakar and a prominent Tidiane.
That said, there is a kind of network function at play which can be of use to the politician, be it by associating with a footballer, a wrestler or a religious leader.
These challenges followed Wade's decision to run for a third term, deemed by critics as a flagrant breach of constitutional rules limiting him to two mandates.
The Bishops' Conference of Senegal has launched a publicity campaign around what it calls the Ten Commandments of a fair vote.
The first commandment is: You will vote according to your conscience.
Another protest movement, called Y'en a Marre (I've Had Enough), has also galvanized opposition to Wade among particularly young voters.
The pressures indicated that such backroom interventions by religious leaders will not be enough in the tense weeks to come.
They have a role to play - they should be up there calling for the preservation of social peace in a non-partisan way, said Fadel Barro, co-founder of the Y'en a Marre.
Mansour Sy Djamil, the grandson of the first Tidiane caliph in Senegal who describes himself as not your ordinary marabout, argues that Senegal has been let down by generations of career politicians and weak leadership across Africa.
Marabouts have been kingmakers for others but their children may well ask 'Why not us?', Sy, who worked for nearly three decades at the Islamic Development Bank, explained.
In the street, people come up to me and offer me a gift in return for a prayer. Some even get out of buses to greet me. I don't know of any politician who would not use that popularity, so why should I deprive myself of it?
There was no ndiguel at the Magal this year.
Yet, the caliph's silence is expected to allow marabouts lower down the pecking order to issue their own ndiguels 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, said Islamic scholar Galay Ndiaye, himself the son of a marabout from the northern town Louga.
It's the market of the little marabouts - we will hear at least 50 little ndiguels.