Travelling in West Africa – Sénégal & the borders with Guinea, The Gambia & Guinea-Bissau

With special thanks to our co-author and expert contributor Mr. Albert Diatta, Owner of Albert Protection. 

Albert Protection is based in Dakar, Sénégal providing privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) in the West African region. 

See the Albert Protection Facebook Page for additional details, testimonials and contact information.

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Sénégal – “Pays de la Teranga”

Sénégal is in sub-Saharan Africa. The Atlantic Ocean is to the West, Mali to the East, Mauritania to the North and Guinea and Guinea-Bissau to the South where The Gambia also shares 300 kilometres of borders with Sénégal. The Cap Verde islands are 550 kilometres off the coast. 

Politically, the country is one of the most democratic and stable on the continent and the “Senegalese Model” is often quoted as an example for other African nations who have struggled less successfully with the transition from colonialism and the integration of often diverse ethnic groups into a cohesive nation. 

Sénégal is known as “Pays de la Teranga” – meaning the country of hospitality. It is possible to walk the city streets without fear and there are few “no go” areas in the country. 

The people are friendly and hospitable and welcome foreign visitors with few exceptions. 

However, there are regions where caution is advised such as Casamance. This area has been affected by the activities of an armed separatist movement, the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC). 

Casamance is the area of Sénégal south of the Gambia and bordering neighbouring Guinea-Bissau to the south. The area includes the Casamance River. 

The region is made up of Basse Casamance and Haute Casamance with the largest city being Ziguinchor. The economy relies largely on rice production and tourism. There are beautiful beaches all along the coastline with Cap Skirring of particular note.

The “Confréries”

Sénégal has a population of fourteen million of which the vast majority (90%+) are Muslims adhering mainly to the Sufi school of thought. Sénégal is however not an Islamic State – it is a democratic republic. Muslim adherents are structured in various brotherhoods (not to be confused with “Muslim Brotherhood (MB)” the movement).

These orders trace their origins variously and include the Xaadir founded in Baghdad during the early middle ages; the Tijaniyyah founded in Fez, Morocco; the Mouride, the richest and most active; and the Layene based at Yoff which is north of Dakar. 

These groups are officially recognized by the state. Elements within a number of these groups oppose state authority and state structures. 

These “elements” are typically led by a Marabout or Muslim religious leader. These groups have formed militias in various parts of Sénégal and exert significant influence on regional politics. One of the leading figures in the militia chain of command is supposedly Sheikh Ahmadou Kara Mbacké.

The Brotherhoods – Geographically 

Broadly speaking the brotherhoods are based regionally as follows:  

  • The Tidjanes base is Tivaouane, a city located in the Thiès Region of Sénégal; 
  • The Mouride are based in Central Sénégal at Touba the holy city of Mouridism and the burial place of its founder, Shaikh Aamadu Bàmba Mbàkke. Next to his tomb lies a large mosque, completed in 1963; 
  • The Niasseyes identify with Kaolack, a town of 172,305 people on the north bank of the Saloum River and the N1 road in Senegal. It is the capital of the Kaolack Region, which borders The Gambia to the south; 
  • The Layene Brotherhood founded by Seydina Limamou Laye are concentrated around the capital, Dakar;
The other brotherhoods similarly have geographically specific power bases. 

Demonstrating the power of the Marabouts & the Brotherhoods in Senegal
(based on the experiences of Glenn Ojeda, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs)

In November 2012 a branch of the Mouride brotherhood known as the Thiantacoun held protests in Dakar demanding the release of their marabout Sheikh Bethio Thioune who had been arrested on suspicion of complicity in the murder of two people in the Thiès region of Western Sénégal

Bus services in the city were cancelled for thirty-six hours, cars were burned, barricades built and security forces were deployed to counter the threat. 

The protests resulted in a cabinet reshuffle and a military officer was appointed as Minister of the Interior. 

Thioune even in his role as a relatively minor figure in the Mouride brotherhood was capable of garnering the type of support amongst his followers that ultimately resulted in the abandonment of his trial and his release to travel to Europe ostensibly to receive medical treatment. 

In another example of the “state within a state” anomaly that the brotherhoods represent – former President Abdoulaye Wade the first Mouride President of Sénégal – was elected in 2000 with the public endorsement of the militant Mouride confréries leadership. Upon his inauguration Wade travelled to Touba – the holy city of Mouridism and the seat of its caliph. 

On arrival Wade and his entourage including the entire cabinet sat on the floor in front of the caliph’s seat and presented themselves as humble disciples. This gesture led to headlines at the time declaring that the “Republic kneels in front of the Mouride caliph.”

The Marabout enjoy Historical Precedence

During the colonial era the French were forced to use the marabout as intermediaries with the populace and it was via these structures that parallel and often usurp the central authority of the state that the fight for independence was organised. The endorsement of religious leaders is a must for individuals who seek positions of power and influence within Senegalese society and is a mandatory checkbox for those seeking advancement in the political hierarchy.

Shia Islam in Sénégal

Sénégal is a majority Sunni Muslim country where the Shia adherents (Shi’ites) are considered to be the most radical Islamists in the country. 

The Shi’ite presence grew in the late 1970’s after the Shah was overthrown in Iran. There are several thousand radical Islamists in Senegal distributed mostly in the southeast of the country in Tambacounda, the Kolda region mainly in the Vélingara Department and centred around a mosque in Dakar. 

The Shi’ites are closely allied with the Lebanese-Syrian Shi’ite community living in Senegal. Their religious leader is CHÉRIF Mohamed ALY AÏDARA. 

The Shi’ite community have close links with Iran who have declared that they will be hostile to any country that assists Saudi Arabia with the conflict in Yemen. This statement has a bearing on the conflicting loyalties of Sénégal‘s Shia and Sunni communities and presents a challenge for the country now that the two main players Iran and Saudi are in open conflict in the proxy war in Yemen. 

Relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran & The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 
(Excerpts from BBC.COM)

During the Wade presidency Iran withdrew its ambassador over an incident involving arms shipments to The Gambia. Relations were normalised recently. 

In May 2015 Sénégal announced that it was sending 2,100 troops to Saudi Arabia to assist as part of the Yemeni military campaign. Sénégal, a majority Sunni Muslim country, is the only non-Arabic country to join the Saudi-led coalition. This though is not the first time that the “jambars” will set foot in the kingdom. 

A much smaller contingent was sent to help “protect the holy sites” of Mecca and to honour “the historic ties between the two countries” 24 years ago. That operation ended tragically with a plane crash that killed 92 Senegalese soldiers.

Senegalese leader Macky Sall is using more or less the same reasons for taking troops to Saudi Arabia used then by former President Abdou Diouf all those years ago. Except that this time, the rejection is much wider.

Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in the government development programme known as Programme Senegal Emergent 2035 (PSE), and the decision to send troops to the kingdom is perceived by many Senegalese as using the blood of the jambars to fund the PSE. 

Senegal has long been a master at maintaining good relations with a variety of different powers. Saudi influence has increased in recent years, as seen in the number of mosques being built. But Senegal also enjoys good relations with Shia Iran, accused of backing the Houthis in Yemen, against the Saudi-led coalition. 

Both the US and former colonial power France also see Sénégal as a close ally against Islamist militant groups in West Africa. Senegal armed forces have a reputation of being among the best trained in Africa. 

Senegalese soldiers are currently deployed in four peacekeeping operations in the continent. In the past, they have been deployed in Haiti and Lebanon. But Yemen is a bloody battlefield, not a peacekeeping operation. And it is not clear whether the Senegalese public is ready to accept heavy casualties in a country as far away as Yemen.

Organized Crime 

Sophisticated organized crime is on the rise in Sénégal but there exists already a long history of drug trafficking, counterfeiting currency, weapons trafficking and gold smuggling. 

The state authorities and many of the Marabout disagree on the extent of organized criminality in the country. But some of the Marabout downplay the problem because of self interest. Recently eight diplomatic passports were granted to the son of a religious leader – a curious grant considering the son’s non involvement with any department of government or any foreign business interests. 

The Situation on Sénégal‘s Borders

Border security in the South is poor in many regions. In 2010, Nigeria intercepted a cargo ship from Iran ostensibly transporting construction materials but the cargo was in fact weapons destined for The Gambia. The worry in Sénégal was that these weapons were to be sold in the bush for purchase by the MFDC rebels. 

The bush makes it difficult to secure the borders between The Gambia, Sénégal and Guinea-Bissau. By contrast in the north of the country borders between the Sénégal and Mali are closely monitored since the death of Abou Zaid the Tuareg rebel leader killed in Mali during Operation Serval. 

There is widespread border banditry in the gold zones particularly Sabodala. Sénégal has supported Military Zone No. 4 with hardware and troops and two companies of 120 men conduct patrols in the ​​Kedougou and Bakel areas. From Bakel it is possible to cross into Mauritania via canoe. 

Photo: Barriers on the roads approaching the border with Guinea. 

Photo: Approaching the checkpoint at Niassa

Photo: Checkpoints on the roads in Oussouye Department, one of the departments located in the Ziguinchor Region. The military conduct ID verification as they hold an extensive database on members of the MFDC. 

Photo: Checkpoint on Bignona Road.  
Photo: Farafény checkpoint in Gambian territory guarded by the police, paratroopers and several members of the Gambian secret service.  
Photo: This is the military camp at Diaroumé in Kolda close to Sédhiou. This area has seen several attacks in the past as it is close to The Gambia. 

Photo: Senegalese army conducting mopping up operations on the Bignona Road. 
Photo: This photo shows a village on the Bignona Road which is almost empty as the people who refused to cooperate with or contribute to the rebels have fled.