Collaboration, Modernity and Colonial Rule: Sidiyya Baba and Mauritania
By David Robinson
Throughout his life Sidiyya Baba effectively and consistently pursued a strategy of consolidation of his family's position. For the last 25 years he pursued that strategy in open cooperation with the colonial authorities. He ensured the prominence - indeed the pre-eminence -- of his family among the Mauritanian elite during the colonial period, and provided a striking example of modernity. He shaped French attitudes and the historiography of Mauritania. More than his contemporaries and his maraboutic rival Saad Buh, he foresaw the end of the anciens régimes of the region, including the one managed by his grandfather.
Baba was not, however, able to translate his multi-faceted social capital beyond the colonial setting. Preoccupied for many years with simple survival, he was not able to devote sufficient energy to the preparation of his children. The colonial reality, in the form of French sovereignty, presented a difficult problem for the citizens of the Dar al-Islam. Some of the most articulate Muslims saw Baba as "official clergy" of the French regime, as someone who refused to "defend the cause of religion." The limits of Sidiyya cohesion appeared shortly after his death. His zawiya disappeared. His sons and daughters began to go their separate ways, with their tents, followers and flocks.
But Sidiyya influence remained considerable in the early years of independence, thanks in part to the family’s high level of Islamic and Western education and considerable experience in administration. But it could not easily withstand the ideological commitments of subsequent decades and of the “Islamic world.” Moktar ould Daddah, the first president of independent Mauritania, was Baba’s grandson. But an Islamic Republic of Mauritania, based in Nouakchott, north of Trarza, and committed to arabization and attachment to the Mediterranean "heartlands" of the faith, could not easily accept the importance of a colonial Mauritania, created from the south, administered from Saint-Louis, and dominated by a maraboutic family from Trarza. The Sidiyya have experienced a dramatic decline in influence in recent decades.