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On the first sunny day in March, a rally was held at the obelisk in Dakar where more than 300 Senegalese Muslims were in attendance. They came together to drink café touba, laugh loudly, and hold signs illustrating their religious and political views. After the arrival of one of the high marabout, the crowd fell silent, listening intently to what the man would say about the future direction of their country. After an hour the speech was over and it was clear the outcome of the upcoming vote on whether to enact President Macky Sall’s proposed constitutional referendum had sparked a cultural renaissance within the country.
Members of the Mouride brotherhood gather in prayer during the referendum rally in Dakar, Senegal.

“Laicite, means that there will be no religion. It means our state has no religion. It means when you get older you have the right to disobey your parents when you don’t share the same point of view. When your parents say something you don’t agree with you have the right to say ‘no’. And once you become mature, you can leave and do what you wish, without anyone saying anything about your whereabouts”  – Cheikh Ahmadou Kara Mbacke, Marabout and Party of Truth and Democracy (PVD) leader The public conversation around laicite, or separation of church and state, can be heard throughout the capital, on radios in taxis, on street corners over tea, and in marches aimed at protecting Senegal’s culture and religion.

A crowd of attendees welcomes the leader of Senegal’s PVD

The proposed referendum includes 15 major points ranging from a reduction of the presidential term from 7 years to 5, to the right to Senegalese political representation in the diaspora. But the issue gaining the most attention is the proposed separation of church and state, a concept many believe has no place in their devout, predominantly Muslim society.
“It’s not [President Macky Sall’s] fault. He found a colonized country here. First Léopold Senghor handed off to Abdou Diof then to Abdoulaye Wade and then this is what he found here, so he couldn’t do anything but base his regulations off of what he found here. The colonizers wanted to modernize Islam, and that’s what he found here. So the whites said if you want to be president, you have to sometimes wear what the Maras wear, to tell them what to do, and other times take it off. But we can’t accept them ruling our country forever! We don’t accept, we don’t accept, we will no longer accept”– Cheikh Mbacke to more than 300 listeners at the referendum rally.

Cheikh Ahmadou Kara Mbacke speaks in Dakar on the proposed constitutional referendum.

Graffiti artist and activist ‘Mad Zoo’ took to Facebook to launch a wake up call to the Senegalese people around the referendum.  As the voters prepare to make their decision on March 20th, more rallies are expected. Students of Univeristy Cheikh Anta Diop said former President Wade had a lot of influence on this generation’s political involvement.“Before if Senegalese people heard referendum, it would have passed and no one would have thought twice about it. But now, we’re like, ‘wait a second, we have a right, we have a voice, we care about the direction of our country’, Wade helped us get here” said law student Ousmane Doudou Faye about the involvement of his generation in the recent marches. “This is not a game, our leaders need to learn how to say ‘no’. Why should the colonizers still lead from a far? Why should we amend our constitution to what they know or like? Even if we have to starve, for 5 years or 10, we will succeed in being a proper nation, we just have to learn to say no.”– Ousmane Doudou Faye

A crowd listens to speakers during the referendum rally in Dakar.

While much of the rally focused on the role of religion in Senegalese society, the secular concerns expressed by students like Doudou Faye are also critical to the country’s future. Despite winning independence from France in 1960, Senegal’s monetary system and official language have remained the same as during colonization. Many like Doudou Faye say they are pushing for changes to the constitution in hopes that whatever changes are made, will better reflect the beliefs of the Senegalese people of today.
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