Three Questions to Dr. Frédérick Madore

Could you tell us more about your background, and why you decided to join REMOBOKO and Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO)?

Before joining ZMO, I was previously a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, and a Part-Time Professor at the University of Ottawa. I completed my Ph.D. in History in 2018 at the Université Laval in Canada.

This position for the Remoboko research group was quite appealing since there is a significant overlap between my research interests and those of the Remoboko project. For instance, I have worked and published on Muslim student associations in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. My research is comparative and explores the history of Islam and Muslim societies in Francophone West Africa from the 1950s to the present. I have conducted extensive fieldwork in Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Togo, focusing on Islamic activism among youth and women, their appropriation of media, and Muslim politics. Before joining ZMO, I was also engaged in a research project on Muslim minority communities of Benin and Togo since the late colonial era.

I appreciate the opportunity to be part of a team working on religiosity and higher education in West Africa, and to go beyond the tendency to study Islam and Christianity independently from each other.

How would you describe your current research project, the one you are conducting within the framework of REMOBOKO and ZMO?

At ZMO, my research project is entitled “Salafism and Pentecostalism on University Campuses in Benin and Togo since the 1970s: Lived Religion in ‘Secular’ Contexts.” It examines religiosity on the campus of the Université d’Abomey-Calavi in Benin and the Université de Lomé in Togo. The project engages four sets of research questions and analytical perspectives.

The first set of questions is related to Christian-Muslim Encounters. Studying competition, rivalry, conflict and coexistence between different religious groups on campus is an important part of my research. Are public universities contributing to religious polarization especially with the rise of Salafism and Pentecostalism?

However, I also want to approach religious pluralism beyond the conflict/interfaith dialogue or violence/tolerance dichotomy. I’m particularly interested in how Christian-Muslim encounters are shaping how the faithful “perform” their religion and can adopt similar modes of proselytizing, media practices and organizational techniques. In other words, the interplays of borrowing and boundary-making, sharing and exclusion, mimicry, etc.

Related to the focus on how religiosity is experienced in multi-religious settings is the “lived religion” approach, I will assess the plurality of ways in which university students practice their religion and make their religious identity meaningful in their everyday lives.

Basically, the study seeks to explain why religion now occupies such an important place in students’ lives and in the academic sphere, which was formerly dominated by leftist and secular ideologies.

What does this greater religiosity say about students’ aspirations for a better life? Understanding the process of becoming a religious activist through life trajectories will be central

Thirdly, my project will reflect on how religious activism, ostentatious religious signs and markers, as well as ongoing debates on campuses about the role of religion in the public sphere affect the university as a secular educational institution. How has the rise of religious activism on campuses redefined the Western academic model of the public university and its secular intellectual culture? What does it tell us about the historical trajectory of the university in these two countries?

And related to this is the issue of governing religion and religiosity on campus; how have university administrators and faculty managed religious accommodations and regulated the growing religiosity on campus?

The last set of research questions is what I’m calling “The making of new elites.” Universities in Sub-Saharan Africa have historically been highly politicized institutions. They have acted as an important vehicle of elite formation and reproduction.

I want to examine the sociopolitical roles assumed by this young religious elite trained in secular universities. More specifically, to what extent are religious groups calling into question the leadership of “traditional” secular student unions as the main representative body of all students?

I also want to access the capacity for Christian or Muslim student groups on campus to express divergent opinions in relation to the discourses of the “official” or “self-proclaimed” representatives of their religious community.

What inspired you to start writing about student activism and religiosity on university campuses?

The large body of scholarship on student activism in West Africa has tended to focus on revolutionary and secular ideologies while overlooking religion despite the increasing number of religious groups on campuses since the 1990s.

Recent studies have stressed the importance of studying universities to understand contemporary religious dynamics in the region. Regarding Benin and Togo, much of the literature concerns the key role of student protests in the advent of the national conferences in the early 1990s

Surprisingly, little research has investigated religiosity and higher education despite the enduring role of religion in the social and political life of both countries. Historically, the Catholic Church has occupied a dominant position in Benin and Togo. However, since the 1990s and 2000s, the thriving charismatic Pentecostal and evangelical movements have exerted a growing political influence.

Missionaries from Nigeria and Ghana played an important role in the popularity of Pentecostalism in Cotonou and Lomé. The influence of Evangelical and Pentecostal movements at the state level is particularly visible in Benin. In 1996, Mathieu Kérékou, the former Marxist dictator, made a political comeback. “Kérékou II”, as he was popularly known, appeared as a new and converted man who had subjected himself to the power of God. He won the 1996 and 2001 presidential elections. Kérékou successor, Thomas Boni Yayi, was also a born-again Christian and a pastor in a church of the Assemblies of God in Cotonou

While the Muslim community of Benin and Togo have historically played a very limited role in national politics, recent events have attracted attention for an apparent Islamic awakening. In Togo, Muslim leaders played an important role in the opposition movement behind the anti-government protests that broke out in 2017–2018. In Benin, in 2019, a well-known imam from Cotonou was elected to the National Assembly.

Finally, I think this topic is important because while recent reports on the deteriorating security situation in Burkina Faso have raised fears of jihadism spreading to neighboring states bordering the Gulf of Guinea, including Benin and Togo, Islam in this region remains mostly unknown.

Many analysts and journalists have highlighted the recent spread of Salafism and Saudi Arabian-funded NGOs in the region, which is misleading and problematic in many ways. By focusing on the more fundamental and longer-term dynamics of social and religious change in the region, I want to offer a corrective to this focus on the “radicalization” of Muslims.

Trois questions à Bello Adamou Mahamadou

Pouvez-vous nous parler des manifestions religieuses estudiantines à l’Université ABDOU MOUMOUNI (UAM) de Niamey ?

Ces dernières années, l’UAM est marquée par une expression croissante de l’identité religieuse de la part des étudiants aussi bien que des autres composantes de l’université que sont les enseignants-chercheurs et le personnel administratif et technique (PAT). Que ça soit de façon somatique et/ou langagière, chacun exprime son appartenance religieuse sans gêne, contrairement aux années antérieures où la religion était perçue comme dégradante. À titre illustratif, du côté musulman, cette expression s’observe à travers le port des tenues religieuses comme le hidjab et le niqab par les étudiantes, et le port de pantalon s’arrêtant au niveau de la cheville ou le port ostensible des chapelets par les étudiants. Au niveau communautaire, on observe non seulement l’exercice de culte en congrégation, mais aussi la mise en place des associations religieuses par les différents groupes religieux avec pour mission entre autres l’assistance aux fidèles nécessiteux. Sur le plan prosélytique, on note l’organisation de diverses activités dont les conférences, les séminaires de formation, les cours religieux (l’apprentissage de la lecture du coran, l’enseignement des hadiths…) animés soit par ces associations, soit par des acteurs isolés.

Comment se fait la construction de l’identité religieuse au niveau personnel des étudiants ?

La plupart des étudiants religieux que nous avions rencontrés lors de notre recherche témoigne, avoir construit leur religiosité après leur inscription à l’UAM. L’environnement religieux de cette université a joué un rôle important dans cette nouvelle adoption. Cet environnement est caractérisé non seulement par la diversité des acteurs, mais aussi par la liberté de l’exercice de culte dont jouissent les étudiants. Pour conceptualiser l’adoption de l’identité religieuse, nous avons utilisé le concept de conversion religieux dans le sens où celle-ci peut être au sein d’une même religion (conversion de l’intérieur) ou vers une autre (conversion externe), pour parler comme Hervieu-Léger. La conversion de l’intérieur fait allusion au fidèle qui construit son cheminement religieux au sein d’une même religion. C’est le cas par exemple d’un étudiant musulman qui embrasse le salafisme ou d’un chrétien qui se converti au pentecôtisme, après avoir entré en contact avec ces courants religieux sur l’espace universitaire. Pour les qualifier, nous avons fait usage du concept de radical (un mot anglais) qui veut dire, comme en français d’ailleurs, une adoption rigoriste des recommandations religieuses. La deuxième conversion traite des étudiants qui renient leurs religions d’origine au profit d’une nouvelle ; que ça soit de l’islam vers le christianisme ou vice versa. Du fait de son caractère novateur, nous avons qualifié de sabon tuba, une expression haussa qui veut dire littéralement ‘’nouveau converti’’.

Comment ces convertis s’approprient-ils cette identité religieuse ?

Un certain nombre de traits caractérisent ces deux convertis. D’abord, on observe un respect strict des recommandations de sa nouvelle religion, qui se traduit par une pratique rigoriste. En effet, que ce soit sur le plan vestimentaire, comportemental ou cultuel, le sabon tuba comme le radical se démarque des autres fidèles par leur volonté de suivre à la lettre les exigences religieuses. Ce respect témoigne de leur volonté d’atteindre un degré de piété plus enviable que celui dont ils avaient antérieurement. En le visant, nos convertis renient leur passé qu’ils considèrent comme un égarement. Ensuite, tout comme ils rejettent leurs pratiques religieuses antérieures, ils rejettent les fidèles (leurs anciens compagnons) qui continuent à les respecter. Ils sont au retour rejetés par leurs anciens compagnons qui les considèrent comme des renégats à bannir.

En plus, ces deux groupes de convertis se distinguent aussi par leur volonté d’apprendre et/ou d’approfondir leur religion en suivant, comme nous l’avions dit précédemment, diverses formations religieuses, au sein ou à l’extérieur du campus universitaire. Enfin, ayant construit une religiosité jugée exemplaire, le converti se donne comme mission la diffusion des valeurs religieuses auprès de leurs anciens coreligionnaires. Malheureusement, dans une situation de rejet réciproque, la prédication de la « Bonne nouvelle » n’est pas facile.

Three Questions to Vincent Favier

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.

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