Senegal: Mouridism and identity
The Mourides, who represent a black Senegalese version of Islam, have helped to inform nationalism in the country
The only known photograph of Cheik Ahmadou
Bamba, probably taken before 1923.
Earlier this year I was sitting on the TGV high-speed train travelling across France listening to the BBC’s Africa Today podcast, which discussed the impact of the fire at Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral on the African continent. The discussion outlined the idea that Notre- Dame represented not only a spiritual base for Catholics in Africa, but also a historical landmark of the spread of Catholicism to the continent. As such, it also had become a point of reference, particularly for Francophone African Catholics. Some African Catholics experienced the near destruction of Notre-Dame as the near destruction of their history and the origin of their faith in a physical and symbolic sense. The landmark had stood for centuries, and had become sacred by belief and ceremony, and a key part of religious foundational myth. Such foundational myths can powerfully inform personal and national identity.
We can explore this by looking at the Mourides of Senegal and the impact they have had in creating a Senegalese identity. The Mourides do not have as long a material history as African Catholics, nor can they claim a history of proselytising (which might be described as an explicitly colonial act). Moreover, their religious world view has overtly immaterial aspects. Thinking about this that day on the TGV, I asked myself how a religious sect such as the Mourides in Senegal, which has an explicitly immaterial outlook and a small material history, constructs a view of history that understands the “self” and the “other” and the interactions between them, and is able to influence and shape a national culture. For the Mourides have played an important role in the creation of the nation state of Senegal. They have created a history that is intertwined with the creation of Senegalese nationalism. That is, they created a history that expresses a specifically Senegalese, anti-colonial and black Afro-Islamic position.
Muslims of sub-Saharan Africa are often forgotten within the Ummah, or greater Islamic community. Many are neither Arab, nor Arabic speaking. Most are black African, and many practice different forms of Islam than people in the west might associate with the religion. To other Muslims, they can appear to exist in a limbo between African tradition and an Islamic modernity based within the nation state. According to writer Donal Cruise O’Brien, Mouridism bridges this gap with its idea that all are equal, regardless of wealth or prestige. Through its interactions with Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Mouridism was able to extend its ideas of equality and justice beyond itself, because the movement had a cultural grounding in a blackness, which resonated with Senghor’s black African take on Islam. It was also egalitarian in orientation, which suited Senghor’s belief in Afro-socialism. The founder of Mouridism, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, is known as the man who “said no” to the French when Senegal was still a French colony.
The story goes that he was summoned to the then capital, Saint Louis, and ordered to renounce teaching Islam or face exile. He refused and proceeded to pray in the governor’s office – but praying only two rakas (the sets of ritual movements Muslims use when praying to God). Normally, a Muslim will pray three or four rakas. The shorter prayer session signified that Bamba felt he was in enemy territory. The idea is that a reduced time of prayer increases the time available to defend oneself. Whether the French colonialists picked up on the symbolism of this or not, we will never know. But in this moment Bamba demonstrated both his knowledge of his Islamic faith and his self-assurance regarding his black identity. In this moment, Mouride history coincided with black nationalism. It is this spirit that Senghor often invoked in his own pieces on African identity and being. The result of this encounter was Bamba’s exile, first to Gabon and then to Mauritania, for refusing to renounce his role as a teacher of Islam.
This act of defiance is nowadays celebrated in the Magal (or religious festival celebrating a particular religious leader) of the Two Rakas, which started in 1980. The story illustrates how the Mouride Brotherhood constructed a material history from immaterial beginnings. A Saint Louis schoolteacher started the magal, and after much soliciting, and supposedly with some reluctance, the Khalifa-Générale (the chief Mouride and leader of the Brotherhood since Bamba’s death) gave his approval. The magal is innovative in the sense that it takes its inspiration from religious and secular sources. It is thus about remembering a specific political act that Bamba, as the founder of the Islamic brotherhood, undertook as an act of defiance against white colonialists. The date of the magal, 5 September, is calculated by the Gregorian calendar, not the Islamic one. The event includes academic lectures on themes such as “Bamba and the Qur’an”, while also incorporating more traditional elements such as khasside (recitations of devotional poems written by Bamba), dhikr (devotional prayers), large meals and pilgrimages to the colonial office where the act of defiance supposedly took place.
The festival, then, is syncretic in that it brings different ideas together. It is a celebration not just of religion, but of blackness, of anti-colonialism, and of academic debate within this historical context. Its specifically anti-western cultural point of view highlights the power of blackness and Senegalese identity. This is particularly poignant when considering the religious and societal environment around the time of its founding. Marabouts (or West African Islamic leaders) and politicians were known to be working together, often in very close relationships. Institutional bribery and corruption were common. The Khalifa- Générale would issue an Ndiggal (or fatwa) to ensure the ruling socialist party was reelected. Anyone who failed to carry it out would, technically speaking, cease to be a Mouride. Aside from their involvement in institutional corruption, some marabouts claimed to have magical powers, entrenching their followers’ beliefs in ideas of magic, not scripture.
A classic example was the marabout who claimed he could drink whisky because it turned to milk in his stomach. This meant that it did not make him drunk, and his action remained halal. However, educated intellectuals in Dakar scorned the unlearned marabouts’ claims to magical abilities. This all changed when Abdou Lahatte Mbacké became Khalifa-Générale. He banned the use of tobacco and alcohol in the Mourides’ holy city of Touba, and urged a return to a simple lifestyle based upon the farming of millet rather than peanuts, and to the simple pleasures of Mouride and Senegalese tradition. Though the magal of the two raka was first organised as a religious and academic event, this occurred outside of entrenched power systems. The magal therefore became a symbol of religious and societal reform based on what had once made Mouridism individual: a real sense of black and African power going beyond a rejection of colonial narratives and involving the creation of new narratives based on social and political critique.
The Mouride movement also rejects subordination to the Arabic Ummah – unlike the other two main Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, which look to Fes and Baghdad for guidance. It, therefore, also celebrates the capacity of les noires to create their own philosophical paradigm, one which is proud of its differences. Narratives that emphasise taking pride in one’s identity and history play a role in Senegalese politics. Senghor’s secularism was based on the ideas of justice and equality as represented within Islam and Christianity, but with the religions in question functioning on a higher level of spirituality. As a Christian ruling a majority Muslim country, Senghor had to walk a tightrope between the two religions. In Senghor’s vision, the state’s role was therefore the champion of justice and equality between peoples and religions. The new state of Senegal’s rhetoric and policies would be based on aiming at the achievement of universal justice and equality – “a brotherhood of man” in Senghor’s words – as a secular idea informed by religion.
The aim of creating a brotherhood of man is now deeply ingrained in Senegalese society. Ideas of religion and religious duty are not overtly incorporated into the political narrative because they are understood as given. Instead, these are represented within the themes of nationalism. This makes politics the instrument that allows the creation of heaven on earth. In 1963, when Senghor opened the Great Mosque of Touba – the most important Mouride mosque and, according to some, the biggest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa – he proclaimed that a building of such glory represented the spiritual and material greatness of Senegal. It was built by unpaid Mouride volunteers and took over 30 years to complete. In the case of the Great Mosque, immaterial religious gestures helped to shape political realities. By projecting the Great Mosque as a nationalist symbol of Senegalese greatness, Senghor suggested that prayer was not only about devotion to one’s own god, but about creating a shared, universal justice and equality.
Through Senghor, the Mourides, who represent a black Senegalese version of Islam, have helped to inform Senegalese nationalism. Many Senegalese consider Bamba to be as important a national hero as Senghor himself, or Lat Dior, the Wolof king who fought off the first wave of French colonialism. A story that is told about Bamba illustrates this. While on the ship that was taking him to exile in Gabon, it is said that Bamba wanted to pray but the captain of the ship would not allow it. Bamba is said to have laid his sheepskin prayer mat down on the ocean and to have prayed on it as if on land. This miracle is recited across Senegal as evidence of Bamba’s Baraka (spiritual energy), while pictures of it can be found everywhere. The French colonialists allowed Bamba to return to Senegal in the later years of his life, realising that exiling him caused more problems than it solved. Bamba was a pacifist, claiming his only weapon was his pen, and this is a common element of the Senegalese identity nowadays.
Respect of origin, identity and religion are mutual, sect is not important, and beliefs are enquired about, not questioned or rebutted. The pacifistic element in both Bamba and Senghor’s thought is another element that connects them and is therefore probably why it features so strongly in the Senegalese national consciousness. This national consciousness is often seen in the artwork of Senegalese artists, mainly done on glass. These paintings often depict Bamba himself; contrary to Salafist Islam, Sufism does not discourage the representation of human figures, but sees it as an act of worship. Depictions of leaders are regarded as carrying their baraka; touching a photo or painting of Bamba confers his power and blessing. These paintings often involve the colours of Senegal, or the outline of Africa, alongside the figures of Bamba and of the Great Mosque of Touba. They combine nationalism, religion, and race and Mouridism – all within one piece of art.
In some paintings Bamba’s figure emerges from the middle “L” of the word “Allah” written in Arabic, as if the saviour of Africa, Senegal and Islam were emerging from the heart of Allah. As an icon, Bamba crosses historical boundaries and permeates his blessings into an understanding of faith that goes beyond devotion, moving into politics and interacting with values of a universalist appeal. Stories of the past, his actions and the interaction of spiritual images with Sufism come together to create a materialistic history based on interpretations of these values and morals, not just by politicians and marabouts but by disciples too, making them about personal interactions of equality, not just inaccessible scripture. Mouridism’s influence on the state and the creation of a national consciousness includes the Baye Fall and what they represent. A sub-sect of Mouridism, disciples of Baye Fall follow the example of Cheikh Ibra Fall, Bamba’s first and most devoted disciple. This includes the disavowal of all materialism and the embrace of hard labour as the highest form of prayer.
From one point of view, this could be said to be akin to the Protestant work ethic that Marx and Weber observed, but there is more to it than this. Baye Fallism involves the idea that sacrifice through hard work creates equality among men on earth as well as before god, meaning that all achieve heaven in the same way, no matter their socio-economic position. Baye Fall traditionally wear clothing made out of scraps and do not cut their hair, which results in long dreadlocks. Their aesthetic resembles that of Rastafarians, who believe that they will one day return to Africa, the promised land, but for the Mourides their home and spiritual land is, very specifically, the city of Touba. There, Baye Fall function as members of the police, or as labourers or as administrators of religious schools. The image of Bamba and the Baye Fall as a blacknationalist symbol therefore has an impact beyond Senegal. Bamba is seen not just as the saviour of Senegal, but of Africa, and the gateway to return to Africa for those who have moved away.
Through the use of aesthetics, politics and spiritual relations with the state, Mouridism has created its own history and at the same time contributed to Senegalese consciousness. This originates in the figure and actions of Bamba himself, who created a material history that is based not only on the overt materialism of buildings (such as the Great Mosque) and their spirituality, but also on a historical account interwoven with political and religious philosophy that gives power to the community and the nation. Bamba is thought not only to save Senegal, but all of Africa from the problems of social and political injustice that it faces. That this internalisation took place in Senegal was due partly to the way that Senghor constructed a multi-confessional state. But it was also due to the presence of Mouridism: an indigenous, black African approach to the religion of Islam.
Heritage: the long shadows of past and present
Commemorating heritage in Africa is no longer the exclusive province of governments
People dressed in traditional
costume welcome guests to the opening ceremony and inauguration of the new museum of black civilisations in Dakar, Senegal, on 6 December, 2018. Photo: SEYLLOU / AFP
There was an interesting exchange between Thabo Mbeki and Constand Viljoen in the late 1990s. The former was an aristocrat of an African liberation movement who would become South Africa’s president, and the latter was the chief of the country’s apartheid-era defence force, a soldier’s soldier and politician. Both had a keen sense of the manner in which the past echoes into the present. Responding to a rancorous debate on white settlement in the country, Viljoen objected that his forebears had come to South Africa “because we wanted to be free burghers, not to colonise”. Mbeki responded: “Phew! We have a long way to go. There is a different understanding of the history of the country, a different understanding of the realities of the country.” That sentiment is still relevant to South Africa’s politics, and possibly even more acutely now two decades after this conversation took place.
And while South Africa may at times be a somewhat hyperbolic example, it is far from a unique one. For in Africa the past looms large over the present – probably more than anywhere else on earth. Heritage is the memorialisation and veneration of that past, and of the culture that has grown up within it. It is a society’s memories, its rituals, its artefacts, statues and architecture, its sense of history. For many, it justifies their claim on belonging to a society. Africa’s history is perhaps unique for the degree to which it has been mediated through external lenses, often denying the role of Africans as originators of their stories. “There was a refusal to see Africans as the creators of original cultures, which flowered and survived over the centuries in patterns of their own making,” wrote Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, former director general of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, in the General History of Africa in 1993. Indeed, the colonial experience not only intruded into memory, but commandeered much of its tangible heritage.
A report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron found that “over 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent”. Among these were the magnificent Benin bronzes, seized in 1897 when Benin City was sacked and torched by a British expeditionary force. Some of these were auctioned to defray the costs of the invasion. A treasure of African art – and an inspiration for the modernist movement – they reside for the most part in museums outside Africa. The colonial powers liked to leave memorials of their presence in Africa. In southern Africa, this meant memorials of a heritage that celebrated the European offshoot societies that remained. They were part of the African story, but for African nationalists celebrating this has represented an uncomfortable reminder of past subjugation. Post-liberation, there was a powerful impulse to remove these tokens of memory. “We want to wipe the slate clean and present our image of independent Zimbabwe without these vestiges of colonialism,” said former president Robert Mugabe in 1984, four years after the country’s independence.
By that time, Zimbabwe had replaced Rhodesia, the colonial capital Salisbury had become Harare, and street names that had once proudly declaimed a connection to British empire were replaced with ones saluting African nationalism. Zimbabwe was but one example. Colonial Gold Coast became independent Ghana in 1957 – the new name harking backing to an eponymous medieval empire. Most recently, Swaziland was renamed eSwatini, in 2018. Africa’s past intrudes directly into its present-day and speaks to the brand of politics that holds sway in many countries, says Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “History is ever present in African politics,” he said in an interview with Africa in Fact. “Some parties are decades, or [even] a century old, and [they] hark back to what they see as glorious, heroic histories. In states where liberation wars were fought, such as in southern Africa, this past is frequently evoked and glorified.” This is the politics that both Mugabe and Mbeki, in different ways, represented.
Society could and would be remade along the lines of a new narrative. A revisioned heritage would underwrite a new moral order. Yet, in practice, the concept of “heritage” is troubled and ambiguous. Whatever the dreams of nationalist politicians, the impact of the colonial era has proved virtually impossible to expunge. Most African states owe their borders to their colonial experiences, and they conduct much of their business in English, French and Portuguese. Governance systems draw heavily on this connection, too. The physical remnants of colonialism linger. Some potentially portable signifiers of that history have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity. Architecture predating independence, which was often meant to convey dominance and permanence, remains visible in many African cityscapes. Despite Zimbabwe’s determination to reinvent itself, and its later turn to outright racial nationalism, a statue of the Scots explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone remains prominently in place at the Victoria Falls (now known, too, as Mosioa- Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”).
“What is clear is that Zimbabwe has a conflicted relationship with its colonial past and relics,” the Zimbabwean journalist Farai Mudzingwa comments, speaking for much of the continent. Elsewhere, reminders of the colonial past have slipped by ignored, or have been commandeered to provide energy for the tourist trade. Ironically, when Zimbabwe suggested removing the statue of Dr Livingstone, neighbouring Zambia asked to take possession of it, seeing it as a tourist drawcard. Tours of Kenya cash in on its colonial past as showcased in movies such as Out of Africa. In Nigeria, the city of Lokoja, a colonial-era state capital, tries to do likewise, attracting magazine headlines such as “Lokoja: Colonial Town, Rich History”. Excising the past may not be as simple as the liberationist narrative would have it. In a society such as South Africa vocal constituencies have championed retaining the country’s colonial heritage. These have involved both court challenges and physical stand-offs.
An Afrikaans singer, Sunette Bridges, chained herself to the Kruger memorial in Church Square in Pretoria (or Tshwane) in 2015 after calls for its removal. Cultural activists saw the call not just as a threat to physical artefacts but to the legitimacy of a cultural minority’s presence. Some heritage is difficult to pigeonhole. Large numbers of Africans fought in colonial armies in the second world war. They were subject people forced into supporting colonial overlords, certainly; yet theirs was also a contribution to a moral conflict against unspeakable evil. Numerous video clips celebrating this now circulate on social media. In collaboration with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Nigeria has recently repurposed preexisting monuments by incorporating them into a new memorial in Abuja. The memorial records the names of Nigerians killed in both world wars and is surmounted by a pair of bronze sculptures depicting a Hausa rifleman and an Igbo porter made in the 1930s by the British artist James Alexander Stevenson.
Dealing with Africa’s colonial heritage is challenging. Memorialising what has transpired in the generations since independence may prove even more so. Stevenson’s depiction of Nigeria’s multi-ethnic contribution to the first world war might uncannily have presaged its later politics. Nigeria’s nascent nationhood was nearly destroyed in the brutal war that accompanied the attempted secession of the Republic of Biafra in the 1960s. It was a trauma from which the country has never entirely recovered. For decades, it was official policy to downplay the conflict in the interests of a new Nigerianism, with the result that there are few public memorials to it; even displays about the conflict at the country’s National War Museum are controversial. This is a Whiggish interpretation of history – that is, an interpretation of history in the service of the present, says Nigerian museum curator Iheanyichukwu Onwuegbucha in a recent paper, “The National War Museum Umuahia: Representation of the Biafra War History”.
The fact the Biafran war occurred, and the continuing silence about it, can be seen as expressions of ongoing ethnopolitics. For people with memories of Biafra, the official narrative indicates that the Nigerian state has never attempted an appropriate historical reckoning of its own conduct. Rwanda’s 1994 genocide is powerfully remembered in monuments and social rituals, and – perhaps more importantly – in the country’s political culture. But there, remembering, rather than forgetting, is just as much a two-edged sword. Resisting “genocide ideology” has become a catch-all justification for measures that hurt civil liberties and restrict political opposition. Even without traumas such as these, an unsettled post-colonial past challenges the present. Post-colonial African states embodied aspirations for development and nation building.
Some of them have produced near-messianic figures to deliver on these goals – resulting in profound frustration when these all too often proved to be a disappointment. Post-colonial monuments rise and fall according to political fashion, says Martin Plaut of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Perhaps the most glaring example of this accompanied the deposition of Ghana’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah. An outsized figure in his time, a sculpture of the former leader stood prominently before the presidential mansion, but the statue was decapitated after Nkrumah was ousted in 1966. Even more symbolically, parts of the statue have been preserved separately, perhaps in memory both of the former leader and of the coup that toppled him. Another example is the African Union’s controversial erection of a stature of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie at its Addis Ababa headquarters.
“Emperor Haile Selassie is an example of how leaders have gone in and out of fashion,” says Plaut. “The movements they led wax and wane — and with them go the reputations of those who led them.” Haile Selassie’s statue is recognition of his role as a champion of African freedom against colonial intervention, Plaut adds. Yet the emperor is also remembered as the last representative of a feudal order, and for his personal aloofness. A report by Human Rights Watch in 1991 described the “official indifference” to famine during his reign, for example. Across the continent, the reputations of some of Africa’s post-colonial icons – such as Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia or Julius Nyerere in Tanzania – have come under critical scrutiny. The University of Ghana removed a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, another towering personality of the anti-colonial movement, citing the “racist attitudes” he expressed in his younger days.
Rather astoundingly, the reputation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (CAR) – and self-proclaimed emperor of the short-lived Central African Empire – has enjoyed something of a recovery. He was long remembered as a man of sinister brutality and farcical pomp, but some today see his rule as a time of progress and development that his successors have failed to match. In 2010, then CAR President François Bozizé issued a decree formally “rehabilitating” him. In Kenya, the country’s political elite once decried the memory of the Mau Mau uprising as “hooliganism”. This has been reassessed and at least partially accepted as an honourable part of the struggle for independence. A museum has now been established to relay this narrative. In recent years, the importance of preserving Africa’s heritage has gained growing recognition. The opening in 2018 of the enormous, multi-storey Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar was emblematic of this.
Intended as a record of Africa and its offshoot societies, its design and facilities are impressive and its ideological messaging fitting. Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was an exponent of Negritude, a philosophical movement celebrating blackness and Africanism. Hopes have been expressed that the museum will play a role in securing the repatriation of items carted off during the colonial era. Yet this may not be Africa’s most difficult challenge. African societies will need to navigate the meaning of the continent’s heritage for the present. A good starting point is to acknowledge the obvious: heritage is not intrinsically a force for unity, since it remembers factious and divided pasts. “All history is the story of conflict, humiliation and division,” says Plaut. “As one historian put it, imperialism is the natural order of human history.”
Conflicting claims about the past are an intrinsic part of a plural society, and as such they are not altogether negative. Commemorating heritage is also no longer the exclusive province of governments. Africans are today experimenting successfully with alternative models of commemoration, such as localised community museums or online memorials. New layers are inexorably being added to the continent’s memories. The ambiguity of Africa’s heritage must be acknowledged. And in this sense, Thabo Mbeki was profoundly mistaken. A common understanding of the past is not possible. The challenge for South Africa – and the continent as a whole – is not to find a single set of memories and understanding, but to accept their multiplicity.
Gorée Island: memorial to slavery
Visitors to Senegal’s notorious Gorée island learn about a 400-year old
Doudou Dia, Managing Director, Gorée
Island Institute and Professor Alain Tschudin,
Executive Director of GGA. Photo: SUPPLIED
Slavery in Africa was one of the worst violations of human rights in history, extending over an entire continent and spanning 400 years. Its purpose was to make people objects of commerce and tools of work, stripping them of their dignity, even their humanity. The slave house on Senegal’s Gorée Island, with its dungeons and gigantic chains – where men, women and children were kept in captivity while waiting to be embarked onto ships for a voyage without return – is a forbidding symbol of that practice. The House of Slaves and its Door of No Return loom over the ocean to testify to these horrors. They also serve to preserve in our consciousness the amnesic effect of the temptations of power, wealth and artifices – values still embedded in the world today – which still lead man to instrumentalise his neighbour.
Some would claim that the number of slaves deported was no more than a few hundred or even a few dozen, while claiming that the House of Slaves was little more than a transitory prison. We do not subscribe to such attempts to deconstruct Gorée as a myth. This would be to deceive the millions of people who have visited the island so far. As a matter of fact, Gorée was a hub of the slave trade in West Africa. For the purposes of this article, the island was the “main and most important transit centre of the … Negroes to the French colonies of America”, according to Pape Chérif Bassene in his paper, History and memory of Gorée in the Atlantic Treaty, paramnesia of localisation, Africa and development, published in 2014 by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. The name is possibly a corruption of the Dutch Goedereede, meaning “good roadstead”; later it became Gorée in French, meaning “good harbour”.
Sitting not far off Dakar harbour, Gorée offered excellent anchorage for large vessels, as well as facilities for water and wood. As with Moragador port on the Gold Coast, Gorée could shelter as many as a hundred vessels waiting to benefit from the above-mentioned services and take advantage of the geographical position of the island. Babacar Joseph Ndiaye, the first curator of the House of Slaves, spoke of “millions” of captives crammed into ship holds from the island as they set off on the “journey without return”. Ndiaye’s main aim was to commemorate this function of the island, say Hamady Bocoum and Ibrahima Thioub of the Cheikh Ana Diop University. From an epistemological point of view, he “never claimed to obey university rules of knowledge production”. As Eloi Copy, his successor, says: “Gorée synthesises the memory of the slave trade, even if revisionists quarrel about numbers.
Academics and scientists share the same perspective.” According to Bassene, Ndiaye tried to “quantify the suffering symbolically”. According to French painter Georges Braque, our time prefers scientific and legal truths. However, he went on to say that “there are other truths of another order and we tend to neglect them, sometimes even to deny them to the point of cutting ourselves off from the deep dimension of our human existence…” Gorée is a vital reminder of these other truths. It is a memorial space that has become a place of restitution of the identities lost in the diaspora. As such, it also represents a convergence of many peoples and cultures. The concept of a “Door of Return” is a reimagining of the history of the island and its contemporary role to accommodate the double vocation of remembrance and resilience. Beyond its memory function, Gorée is also a space for promotion and education in human rights.
Indeed, a visit to the island – and especially the guided tour of the House of Slaves – is a way to rewrite the history of slavery by reconciling the black person of the Diaspora with himself or herself and with their African brothers and sisters. A version of history presents these people as the privileged accomplices of Europeans during the slave trade. But this is a discourse of deconstruction and a contextualisation of power relations that casts accomplices as victims in the same way as their captives. A visit to Gorée inspires many African- American visitors, in particular, to return home to take a DNA test to establish their identity, says Laity Bodian, a tour guide. Often they trace their origins to Ghana or Senegal. “They’ve always been made to believe they have no history,” he says, “but after finding their roots they often plan a second visit.” Abdoulaye Ndiaye, also known as “Colonel”, another tourist guide native to Gorée, agrees. “After visiting Gorée, some people feel that they must return to the land of their ancestors, as they now see it,” he says.
Tourists from the United States, the Caribbean and other places come looking for this sense of belonging, often organised in groups and despite financial difficulties and lack of time. “For many, the trip to Gorée is a pilgrimage,” he says. “Some return with the ashes of their ancestors to pour them into the sea at the island. These views reflect something of the impact of the island. Through its cathartic function, through its restoration of identities and its contribution to cultural exchange, the island is becoming a symbol also of mutual understanding and tolerance between people. The Gorée Diaspora Festival, organised by the municipality, is part of this endeavour to “allow members of the diaspora to find the identities they lost on the island,” says Ndiaye. Gorée’s planned opening of the “Door of the Return” will help to make the island a crossroads of intercultural dialogue.
Seminars and conferences are organised for this purpose. The international festival was initiated in a global context of intolerance and identity crises, he adds. As such, it is part of a process of “proactive memory”, that goes beyond the image of a door that opens on a “journey without return” by opening it the other way, that of the “Return to Gorée”. The Dakar-Gorée Jazz Festival is another event that is helping to open the island up to the peoples of the world – even if the quality of the organisation of these major events remains to be improved in the eyes of some. The islanders also hope to benefit from the tourist trade – among them prominent women traders in African art and clothing, even though some say their dynamism and commercial aggressiveness are harmful to the image of the island and its efforts to promote tourism. But this a priori perception tends to overshadow the dimension of human relations that these women manage to weave with visitors.
In particular, if they happen to speak the visitors’ language, they like to make them aware of other realities of daily life on the island beyond the rehearsed speeches of tour guides. “Colonel” insists that his relationship with tourists is more than merely commercial. The main aim, he says, “before thinking about business”, is to try to connect humanity with its history. Though large numbers of people visit every year, the local population does not really live from tourism either. Many rely on family links around the world to provide opportunities. The island’s people, particularly the young, are globally mobile and do not have to risk the “suicidal routes” that many do to reach developed countries. Thioro Gueye, a native of the island and a retired restaurateur who has long been engaged in the public life of the island, argues that the opening of the House of Slaves as a tourist destination is also opening up new opportunities for islanders, especially through the visits of African-Americans.
She cites the example of the partnership between the island and the US state of Louisiana in 2003, which saw a delegation of Goreans organising a conference on slavery and an exhibition of African art objects there. This led to the creation in Louisiana of an African museum exhibiting objects mainly from Gorée. Moreover, some French people participated in the construction of two additional classes for a crowded elementary school, she adds. These examples amply demonstrate how the proposed “Door of the Return” will create opportunities to bring people together, as well as for the socioeconomic development of the island, where the living conditions of some inhabitants could do with improvement. Respect for human rights must be anchored in the consciousness of human beings to be effective and sustainable, said Gueye. Keeping memories alive of one of the most sordid violations of human dignity in history is one way to achieve this.
Beyond its tourist attractions, Gorée Island serves this purpose. As Eloi Coly, the curator of the House of Slaves, reminds us, these sites call for an awareness of all forms of human rights violations and their harmful consequences for the human condition. The need for education and awareness raising on these issues is all the more urgent because such practices still exist throughout the world. A plaque at Gorée’s Historical Museum testifies to this: “the struggles for power and wealth that existed hundreds of years ago still exist in the world”, it says. In 2017, global estimates of modern slavery indicated that more than 40 million people were currently victims of modern forms of slavery: forced labour (including child labour), human trafficking, and sexual exploitation. Of these, 71% were women and girls. Moreover, a vast network of human trafficking was discovered on the Libyan coast in 2018-2019. Candidates for illegal immigration were the main victims.
These shocking figures make clear the educational significance of a visit to the House of Slaves. The museum attracts many school visits as part of extramural educational programmes, while the topic of slavery is included in the curricula of Senegal’s high schools. During the school year, the site receives up to 1,500 students per day from all parts of Senegal, accompanied by their teachers, says Coly. A major project to rehabilitate the House of Slaves and construct an international centre for the interpretation and documentation of the slave trade is now under way. The “Door of the Return” will open to a memorial area that synthesises the history of the slave trade, and acts as a place of convergence for all people and cultures. Above all, there is a need to re-arm consciences around the world in their fight against all forms of human rights violations.
African capital markets
While investor interest in the continent’s stock exchanges rises, liquidity and other regulations restrain this growth
By Simon Allison
Ironically, Africa’s chronic economic underdevelopment may now be its greatest opportunity. After so many decades of sluggish economic growth and lagging far behind other continents, Africa can be regarded as a place of unmatched potential. In the post-crash world, where economies everywhere are stalling and investment opportunities few and far between, the received wisdom is that Africa is the last great untapped market. This does not mean, however, that investing in Africa is easy. Quite the opposite. When it comes to attracting foreign investment, the continent’s real challenge is to connect cash with opportunities. How can African countries make it easier to invest in African businesses? Historically, most foreign investment in Africa has occurred through private equity and this trend continues today. But private equity works only for certain types of investors—those with large pockets and long-term goals. In this context, institutional investors are becoming more interested in other options, especially Africa’s capital markets.
The rationale behind any stock exchange is simple. At their most basic, they are a place where companies can go shopping for capital—the money they need to expand their business. At the same time, they are a one-stop shop for investors who can back a range of companies in a transparent, regulated environment. By most estimates Africa has about 30 listed markets. These range from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), which trades in more than 400 shares and is consistently rated as one of the most competitive stock exchanges in the world, to the tiny Rwandan Stock Exchange (RSE), which boasts only seven listed companies and is open for just three hours a day. The RSE, however, is more typical of the continent. In its 2014 “Bright Africa” report, investment advisory firm RisCura rates the quality of African stock exchanges according to their liquidity level, availability of information, governance, regulation, openness to foreign ownership and ease of capital flows. Only the JSE gets an A grade.
The Egyptian Stock Exchange (EGX) is next with a C, while the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) receives an E—despite the country having the continent’s largest GDP, and arguably its most attractive investment destination. Most African exchanges are in the lowest categories, F and G. “Looking at some of the exchanges in the F and G categories, a common trend of significantly lower values traded, as well as lack of information in efficiency, ease of capital flows and openness to foreign ownership were observed,” said the “Bright Africa” report. “To put this in perspective, the combined value traded for the 15 exchanges in categories F and G is approximately 0.57% of that of the JSE.” In other words: most African stock exchanges are simply not up to scratch. This is largely a function of size, but other related challenges also play a part. One is liquidity, or how easily stocks can be bought and sold. This is important for investors because they need to know that they can sell their shares when they want to. But only the South African and Egyptian exchanges can match global average levels of liquidity. This problem is compounded in many countries by domestic investment regulations, which encourage major domestic investors such as pension funds to buy and hold local shares.
A second challenge is the high transaction costs of doing business on many African exchanges. In Zimbabwe, for example, it costs approximately 3.3% of the value traded to buy and then sell shares, which thwarts regular trading. “It’s still quite expensive to trade in Africa,” said Rory Ord, head of RisCura Fundamentals and editor of the “Bright Africa” report. “Investors need to have quite a long-term mindset. African exchanges are not places where you want to buy in one day and sell the next. Your transaction costs are simply too high to do that. ” A third challenge is the type of shares traded, which typically focus on financial services, Mr Ord said. Some of Africa’s largest growth sectors—such as telecoms or manufacturing—are poorly represented on local exchanges. Investors wanting to access these markets will probably have to find another route. Investors also struggle to find large enough investments to justify the effort that goes into expanding into a new market. Despite these obstacles, Africa’s listed markets have made impressive progress over the last few years. Average growth for African exchanges between 2012 and 2014 was 16%, according to the “Bright Africa” report.
But more can be done to make African exchanges more attractive, and so spur growth even further. One option is to work towards consolidating some of Africa’s smaller bourses into regional exchanges. A regional exchange is far more than the sum of its parts because it offers a much greater number of shares than those available on local bourses and improves liquidity in the process. “Setting up larger regional stock exchanges could provide the liquidity, security and ease of access that investors crave,” wrote The Economist in January 2015. “For this to happen, the continent’s leaders would have to set aside national vanity and instead focus on enriching the capital diet for all.” Easier said than done, of course. “Even with obvious rewards such as a bigger market size, low costs and more liquidity, the conditions for regional integration are yet to mature,” explains Masimba Tafirenyika, editor-in-chief of the UN’s Africa Renewal online journal. the UN’s Africa Renewal online journal. “According to financial experts, progress would require African countries to harmonise their trading laws and accounting standards, set up convertible currencies and establish free trade among members.
Also, nationalism still plays a part: countries tend to treat stock markets as national symbols and therefore are not rushing to relinquish control.” The idea of regional stock exchanges sounds like common sense, but the continent only has two regional bourses, and their experience suggests that they are no panacea. The Bourse régionale des valeurs mobilières (BRVM), based in Abidjan, serves Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo, while the Bourse des valeurs mobilières de l’Afrique Centrale (BVMAC), in Libreville, serves the Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of Congo. These exchanges are an improvement on individual exchanges for each of their eight and five members respectively, but neither exchange has really made an impact. The market capitalisation of BRVM, the larger of the two, is still less than that of exchanges in Botswana, Cameroon or the Seychelles. Another option is to improve liquidity by encouraging more intra- African trade. At the moment, this is minimal, with the major exception of South African financial institutions investing elsewhere on the continent.
This is partly because of the paucity of African investors with sufficient capital, while national regulations often make it difficult to invest outside the domestic market. This problem is particularly pronounced when it comes to pension funds. “Each African country has its own set of rules” for pension funds, Mr Ord explained. “Some allow investment in other countries, others don’t. For example, Nigeria has quite conservative rules and they don’t allow investment outside of their own country except in very specific circumstances. So while they’re building institutional capital in that market, you’re not seeing investment in other parts of the continent. Similarly in Kenya.” Countries such as Botswana and Zambia do permit foreign investment, he added, but they typically invest outside the continent. However, “most countries have been liberalising. This is one of the areas we’re going to see growing as the different sets of regulations get relaxed. We’ll see more intra-African investment over time.” The African Securities Exchange Association, the umbrella body for Africa’s stock exchanges, is the critical player driving these changes. Currently, it has 25 members. Its intended role is to act as a clearing house for information and technical expertise so that members can learn from each other.
The association also pushes for common standards, better regulations and improved professionalism from members. Its ability to play this role will have a major impact on making Africa’s listed markets more attractive and easier to access over time. Ultimately, however, the fate of Africa’s capital markets rests with individual exchanges and the governments that regulate them. Key to unlocking their potential is to improve systems and automate trade, to make them as efficient and user-friendly as possible. At the same time, corporate governance must be raised to match international standards so that investors can trust that the opportunities on offer are as good as they look on paper. Finally, if the continent’s stock exchanges are really to succeed, governments need to create an investor-friendly regulatory climate that streamlines trade and investment. The logic behind this is simple: if a country makes it easy for capital to enter, then more of that capital will end up in stock markets. Africa’s listed exchanges are clearly vital to the continent’s continued economic development.
Already, the growth in investment flowing in their direction is impressive. Given their small size and poor liquidity levels, this shows that there is enormous interest in investing in Africa, and a desire to find ways to do so beyond the traditional private equity route. The question that we should all be asking, then, is: how much money could be raised if Africa’s stock exchanges were all as well-regulated and crucially, as liquid, as the JSE?
Senegal: universal jurisdiction
Could an emerging legal principle for crimes against humanity make Dakar “The Hague of Africa”?
By Celeste Hicks
The trial of Hissène Habré, Chad’s former tyrannical ruler, has raised hopes that new systems of so-called hybrid justice can be developed. The Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), a new body established by the African Union (AU) within the current Senegalese court system, is hearing the Habré trial. It marks the first time that the courts of one African nation have tried the former leader of another African country, and the first time a universal jurisdiction case has proceeded in Africa. After an initial adjournment, Mr Habré’s trial recommenced in September. Mr Habré, who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture during his presidency. It is alleged that he personally presided over a network of secret police, known as the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), which was responsible for the arrest, torture and disappearance of political and civil society opponents. A Chadian truth commission estimated that as many as 40,000 people were killed and many more tortured during his rule.
Mr Habré’s dramatic attempts to disrupt the process have twice overshadowed the opening of the trial. In July he refused to speak to the presiding judge, dismissed his defence team and had to be carried out of court. When the case resumed on September 7th, Senegalese security agents wearing ski masks carried him to the bench and held him down while he shouted “Shut up!” at a court clerk who was reading out the names of his alleged victims. Despite the theatrics, the presiding judge, Gberdao Gustave Kam, has re-established order. Having been adjourned in July for 42 days to allow a court-appointed defence team to prepare—Mr Habré refused to meet or speak to them—the case is now proceeding. Nevertheless Mr Habré has now been forced to sit for weeks listening to the horrifying testimonies from former alleged victims, including accounts of “arbatatchar”—a stress position in which a detainee’s knees and elbows were tied behind their backs. In some cases, prisoners were forced to insert car exhaust pipes into their mouths while the engine was running.
The court heard about Mr Habré’s alleged systematic attacks on the rebellious Hadjerai and Zaghawa ethnic groups. It saw his cold comments in an official communiqué about 152 prisoners of war: “No detainee shall leave this prison unless in case of death.” In recent weeks testimonies from women who claim they were kidnapped and used as sexual slaves have been heard, as well as those from former detainees who spoke of watching fellow inmates die of disease or starvation, and then having to dig mass graves for their bodies. The story of how Mr Habré finally came to face justice is long and complex. It owes much to the determination of a group of victims and their lawyers, including Souleymane Guengueng, Jacqueline Moudeina and Clément Abaifouta, who documented hundreds of abuse cases and fought tirelessly for 25 years to bring him to court. A military coup led by his former defence minister and now Chad’s current president, Idriss Déby Itno, toppled Mr Habré in 1990.
As his power base dissolved, Mr Habré emptied Chad’s meagre coffers and fled to Dakar, Senegal’s capital, where he lived in an upmarket suburb. Ten years later, victims’ groups succeeded in persuading a Senegalese judge to indict Mr Habré. But Senegal’s then president, Abdoulaye Wade, seemed unwilling to hang a fellow African leader out to dry and the indictment went nowhere. Several attempts by the AU and Economic Community of West African States to establish courts to try him followed in the 2000s, which also failed because of legal wrangling and disputes over who should pay the bill. Victims even filed a complaint in Belgium, which has universal jurisdiction, a legal concept which allows states to try persons accused of crimes against humanity regardless of where the alleged crimes were committed and regardless of the accused’s nationality. But Senegal failed to respond to several extradition requests for the former leader, until Macky Sall was elected the country’s new president in 2012; he promised to resolve the issue after the UN’s International Court of Justice reprimanded the country for failing to respect its international obligations.
A budget for the EAC was announced—$11m provided by Chad, the European Union, the AU and the Netherlands, among others. Finally, in July 2013 Senegalese police arrested Mr Habré and detained him in the Dakar jail opposite the court. The case raises the question of whether this hybrid African justice model could offer an alternative to the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague. Many on the continent criticise the ICC and accuse it of bias for prosecuting only African tyrants who are extradited to Europe for trial. The EAC model has been praised for offering victims a more approachable system within a national court, and a way to repatriate their justice. “This approach can provide for compliance with international law and standards while bringing the trials closer to the victims and strengthening the skills and confidence of the local judges and officials who will continue in their national systems after the trials are completed,” said Stephen Rapp, former ambassador-at-large and head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the US State Department, who has been following the trial.
Andrea Ori, a representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in west Africa, agrees. “This is finally combatting the culture of impunity, and it’s important that national courts are able to do this,” he said. “The AU took responsibility for this, it’s not a Western process.” The case is also influencing many Chadians’ expectations of justice and the role it can play in improving governance. For many years the subject of Mr Habré elicited an often weary and pessimistic response from ordinary Chadians who had come to see impunity as a way of life. Although hopes were raised by Mr Habré’s arrest in 2013, it is only now that people seem to be taking an interest. Grants from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa totalling around $180,000 have allowed several Chadian journalists to travel to Dakar to cover the trial. The case is being filmed for the historical record, although the Chadian government has reportedly not allowed it to be broadcast. The case against Mr Habré has already had a profound impact on Chadian justice.
In late March, a criminal court in N’Djamena, the capital, convicted 20 of Mr Habré’s senior lieutenants of torture, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based monitoring group. The court sentenced Saleh Younous, the former head of the DDS, and Mahamat Djibrine, considered one of Chad’s most feared torturers, to life imprisonment. The court also ordered the government and the convicted persons to pay $125m in reparations to more than 7,000 victims. This trial complicated the investigations in preparation for the EAC case because many of Mr Habré’s accomplices are now not able to appear beside him in Dakar given that they are already in prison in Chad. Nevertheless it gave an unprecedented boost to the rule of law in Chad, as many of these figures had been living openly without fear of arrest since Mr Habré’s downfall. These developments show that the culture of impunity is finally being challenged, claims Reed Brody, counsel with HRW, which has been supporting the victims’ battle for justice for 16 years.
“I think what scares the power structure about the trial is that it is Chadian civil society, an activist sector that the government is doing its best to contain, which has brought Habré to justice,” he said. “That in itself is very subversive to an authoritarian system.” Much remains to be done, however. The case needs to proceed, reach its conclusion and pass a respectable verdict without being derailed by Mr Habré’s vocal rejection of the court’s authority. The issue of whether the principle of universal jurisdiction can be used in the future may also prove problematic after the AU issued a strongly-worded communiqué about its potential “abuse” following the arrest of a Rwandan general in London in July 2015 on a warrant issued in Spain. Although the initial signs are encouraging, any future attempts to create hybrid systems will need continent-wide political will to back them up, argues Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s west Africa director: “The general issue of impunity is far from being resolved at the level of the AU as far as the political and military elite are concerned. But I do think that the Habré trial opens up a whole new era in the fight against impunity, which could take a concrete form in the future.”