REMOBOKO Junior Research Fellow and a doctoral candidate at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin
Can you tell us more about the nature of students’ debates on campus at the Université Abdou Moumouni in Niamey?
Talking and debating on campus is probably one of students’ favorite activities, especially in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, which has the greatest number of enrolled students among all the faculties. Students often talk about the current social, political, economic and sometimes religious affairs occurring in the Nigerien society. But they’re very keen on discussing international “hot” news too. The security situation in the whole Sahel region, the presence of military forces in Niger and its neighbouring countries, ongoing geopolitical conflict in the Muslim world, etc. What happens in France is often scrutinized. Debating is part of students’ daily interactions, within friend circles, between classmates or roommates. But this activity may take place in a rather formal way too. Student groups often organise conferences followed by debates at the Place AB, an amphitheater that welcomes all kinds of activities and gatherings dedicated to students. These groups are for instance the Student Union, the Christian or Muslim student associations, but also smaller groups like the student club of a faculty department (philosophy, sociology, psychology, etc.), student “embassies” (student clubs coming from the same Nigerien region or town) or even a Panafricanist group. To some extent, the campus is a snapshot of the Nigerien society with a few international students coming mostly from West African francophone countries. Although Nigerien Muslims form the largest of these groups, the campus’ diversity fosters rich debates on a variety of topics. What caught my attention is the way students address their history. History in Niger and West Africa is intriguing because it seems to be very much in the making, something that still needs to be agreed upon. Because of this greater social diversity as I highlighted above, people seem to acknowledge the importance of formulating and bringing different historical narratives together and producing a broader national one for a relatively young republic that has been independent since 1960. This process needs a consensus that is hard to reach as many groups address the past differently.
What is precisely at stake in these historical narratives?
I think the diversity of the socio-religious, ethnic and diasporic landscape found on the university campus is fascinating because it shows how crucial history is for nation-building. And this is what the university is – or was – supposed to achieve from its inception in the 1970s in Niger: to produce the future ruling and administrative elites of the new, independent nation. This process is fundamentally a negotiation between several actors, especially politicians and historians. Students – and not only history students – may have a say too as they become conscious of their social and intellectual status and of the role they might play at a later stage in society. But it is also an ever changing process and negotiation as society and its social constituencies and sensibilities evolve through time. Today’s Niger don’t face the same challenges as during the first decades following independence, and so does the university. For instance, religious actors who pervaded the university sphere a couple of decades ago try to participate in this endeavour. Producing history is not just about writing scholarly books. Different speakers may disseminate their own interpretation, version, or vision of history and contribute to fuel debates on historical knowledge and truth. These debates are crucial to grasp because they indicate what kind of historical narratives dominate, and what it tells us about the present context. In other words, specific interpretations of the past highlight very much the actors’ agenda but also what their audience wants to hear and yet memory is necessarily selective. By listening to only certain sets of historical narratives, students may not be able to reconnect a – mostly distant and forgotten – past with the present they want to change. A historical fact that is mobilised again and again in students’ rhetorics is the French colonial era. The immorality of this era and its deceptive, inauthentic and inadapted legacy – in other words, some characteristics of the word boko, broadly meaning secular education – are thus targeted by students, but also and maybe mainly by religious actors.
What narratives are mobilised about the colonial era?
Students at the UAM are mostly concerned with daily things that relate to their future individually. Will they get their diploma? Will they find a job? Will they earn enough money? Who are they going to marry? But some of them seize these debates as they feel they may play a role, have an impact or even change society, bring Niger forward. They start by trying to shape their social environment and engage with such questions and debates on the history of what is currently called Niger and issues inherited from the past and the colonisation can be addressed and wounds healed. Of course, a dominant discourse condemns the persistence of colonialism – neocolonialism – and thus refuses to see in it something that belongs to history. In fact, this part of history is not contested. What is contested is its interpretation in a current context, and here is where religious discourses come into play. For the campus imam, Islam had provided people with human rights long before the enlightenment thinkers did. For Christians, one would jump back to the life of early Christians to find biblical narratives that help them make the difference as a minority in their society. For Panafricanists, Christianity may be criticised because of its link to colonialism and one should remember that Africa had a civilisation before Europe had. While most of the actors often remind their attachment to Niger, they mobilise religious frames that go far beyond the borders of this republic, both in time and space, and thus may conflict with each other. Bringing these different sensibilities and interpretations of the past into a collective, national one, is the greatest challenge that politicians, religious leaders, historians and students face these days for their political project. These actors mobilize metanarratives – whether Islamic, Christian or Panafrican (drawing on the Kemet for example) and set them as an encompassing historical frame, rather than make them fit into the national context. The way history is constructed between global and local pasts is insightful in the Nigerien context as individuals and groups try to reconnect with their past, but also to cope with a painful colonial past that shook or even erased large parts of the history of today’s Niger. The question of historicization is crucial in the university context we’re researching because it is the site of national knowledge production but also a political tool of the nation for training new social and political elites.