Sahel: Salafist leaders, unexpected allies of putschist regimes

“Revolutionary march”, “fight against imperialism”… The terms resonate strangely under the high arcades decorated with ceramics of the great mosque of Niamey, capital of Niger, in front of the national television cameras

Sahel: Salafist leaders, unexpected allies of putschist regimes

“Revolutionary march”, “fight against imperialism”… The terms resonate strangely under the high arcades decorated with ceramics of the great mosque of Niamey, capital of Niger, in front of the national television cameras. On this first Friday in February, Salafist imam Souleymane Maiga Mounkaila participates, alongside civil society activists, in a “prayer of support” for the decision of the new military authorities to withdraw their country from the Economic Community of States of West Africa (ECOWAS).

The high place of religious life in Niamey, like the streets and social networks, was at the heart of the mobilizations in favor of the military after the coup d'état which overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, 2023. On the "place of resistance", where, for months, thousands of demonstrators demanded the departure of French troops from the country, preachers mingled with musicians and "pan-Africanist" activists to harangue the crowd in praise of the generals, presented as liberators. Each with their arguments. “When it is the politician who speaks, the Muslim expresses reservations. But when we tell him that it is the prophet who is speaking, he wants to go to battle,” Imam Mounkaila told AFP.

As in Burkina Faso and Mali, also the scenes of forceful coups perpetrated by the army over the past three years, religious leaders, particularly Salafists, have emerged as unexpected allies of the new military regimes.

Anti-French slogans

In Niger and Burkina, the regimes benefit from the support of religious leaders, “better structured” and “more vocal” than their other supporters, notes Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, deputy director in charge of the Sahel at the International Crisis Group (ICG) . And if in Mali, imam Mahmoud Dicko is now one of the most ardent critics of the regime and calls for the return of civilians to power, he was first one of the main instigators of the popular protests which caused the fall from President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, in 2020, and support from Colonel Assimi Goïta.

In Ouagadougou, the accession to power of young Captain Ibrahim Traoré in 2022 – the first Muslim head of state since 1980 in a country where Islam represents around 60% of the population – facilitated the mobilization of the Wahhabi community, mainly embodied by the Sunni Movement of Burkina Faso (MSBF). These movements, which "mobilize around the idea that Christians have monopolized the political management of the country since independence", try to "influence the course of the transition by giving a greater place to Muslims", analyzes Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim.

Imam Mohammad Ishaq Kindo, spiritual leader of the MSBF trained in Saudi Arabia, calls in his sermons to support the war effort against the jihadist groups which are rampant across a large part of the territory. Its mosque regularly welcomes ministers who come to pray during festivals such as Tabaski. And the Salafists are at the forefront of demonstrations in support of the military transition, taking up the anti-French slogans popular in the region and calls to strengthen cooperation with Russia, whose flags they brandish.

This anti-Western discourse is not new and has been based, for around twenty years, "on the failure of Western development policies and the corruption of elites", underlines the Franco-Nigerian anthropologist Jean-Pierre Olivier. of Sardan. The democratic regimes resulting from the 1990s, supported by the former French colonial power, "have generated major disappointments in the face of which a certain form of return to moral order poses as the only alternative", he told AFP .

“Religious Entrepreneurship”

Principle of secularism, women's and homosexuals' rights have also sparked heated debates which revealed deep divisions between certain elites and part of the population. “The West dictated to our leaders its wishes on the political, security and cultural levels, which are diametrically opposed to the values ​​of Islam and our cultures,” summarizes imam Souleymane Maiga Mounkaila.

The Malian authorities followed the most rigorous precepts of religious people, notably prohibiting the use of shisha. In Niger, street prayers and wearing the veil have become the norm since the early 2000s, and Koranic schools have spread throughout neighborhoods. Since the coup d'état which brought General Abdourahamane Tiani to power, some have gone so far as to preach in military fatigues on television or in the street.

“Religion represents important social capital and the regime is trying to legitimize its power by winking at these preachers,” says Abdoulaye Sounaye, a researcher at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin. For their part, “the imams are riding the popularity of the junta” and the “fashionable sovereignty” through a form of “religious entrepreneurship” that is often opportunistic, according to Mr. Sounaye.

But despite a growing influence in Sahelian societies, the political weight of these movements remains limited for the moment in the face of hard-line soldiers who have suspended the parties in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. The new Constitution adopted in July 2023 in Mali thus maintained the principle of secularism of the State, ignoring the demands of fundamentalists.