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You are here:Home>>Strategic Research & Analysis>>Political Islam: The Experience of Nigeria and Senegal
Thursday, 03 January 2013 04:31

Political Islam: The Experience of Nigeria and Senegal

Written by Buya Jammeh and Prince Charles Dickson
Nigeria, Senegal flags Nigeria, Senegal flags


“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” Antonio says to Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.   In other words, religion is often used and misused by politicians to gain power.


The centuries-old passage carries new meaning as the political arena in North Africa is increasingly characterized by politicians integrating their Islamic faith into the public square. This phenomenon, described as Political Islam, has raised religion-state concerns throughout the region. Witness the tension in Egypt over a new constitution that many say would impose Islamic law.


Our countries, Nigeria and Senegal, are no exceptions.


In both nations, there has long been an intricate relationship between Islam and politics.


According to Barrister I. Ndagi in “ The Role of Muslims in Politics”, he notes “Reading of the history of Islam in Nigeria… tells me that politics driven by Islam had been part of Nigeria’s landscape since about 1804 when Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio actualized his thoughts contained in the work:  Masa’il al-Muhimma, and mobilized the populace against the tyrannical rulers of Hausa Land”.


Senegal also has a long history of Islamic involvement in politics.


Leopold Senghore, the nation’s first president, “came to power due to the influential role played by the Murides, one of the most powerful and influential religious brotherhoods in Senegal,” said Bakary Domingo Mane, a journalism professor at Institute Superior Science Information and Communication.


“President (Abdoulaye ) Wade also succeeded in his re-election bid in 2007 because he gave the impression that the then- Khalif Serigne Salieu Mbacke had given his disciples the directive to vote for him so that he  would build their mosques,” Mr. Mane added.


The Muslim is defined as he who submits completely to the will of God. But given that some define politics as “activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices,” we must ask the question:  Should Muslims renounce participating in politics?


Our answer is a categorical NO!


It stands to reason that whether the Muslims participate in politics or not, political activities have been and will continue to shape our collective lives one way or other.


And even more fundamentally, Islamic history is lucid to the fact that the Prophet was ‘a politician as well as …the conveyor of the risalah’. Similarly the rightly guided leaders that succeeded him ‘were also politicians,’ albeit ones that followed the Prophet’s Sunnah in establishing just administration.


Appreciated against this background, we submit Muslims’ critical concern at the moment should be how the Islamic virtues of transparent and selfless service and the moral values of prudence and accountability will be introduced and integrated into our nations’ polity so as to make the difference of not only redefining politics per se, but to also give new meanings to political activities in the country.


Religion and Violence in Nigeria.


Sadly, in Nigeria, violence is being committed in the name of religion.


The official activities in Nigeria are conducted under the aegis of the secularly driven Constitution.  With the coming of President Jonathan Goodluck, a Christian from the Southern part of the nation, the Christians are believed to be in charge and calling the shots at the expense of Muslims.


Still, Islam has remained very significant in the nation’s polity and social life. It is indeed reasoned that Nigeria cannot be understood without Islam.


However it is also incontestable that the second generation of Nigeria’s Muslim politicians has seemingly only perfected the dexterity of exploiting Islam to win themselves votes at the polls. Thereafter hardly is anything heard of them until the next polls are due.


Nigeria has found itself in this state of affairs because there is an obvious disconnect in the virtue and value systems between the present breeds of Muslim politicians and their first generation compatriots who midwifed the country to independence.


Consequently, the new generation Muslim politicians seem to have found more meaning in monetary and material gains from politics, as against selfless and transparent service to their communities.


The negative drift of the nation’s political platform from the cherished virtues of dedicated transparent service and accountability in its worst form is seen in elected representatives and sects that choose to use Islam as the platform for perpetuating vicious evils.


Nigeria’s most deadly Islamist sect, Boko Haram, recently detonated multiple bombs in the city of Kano. Curfew has been imposed and the city, the state and the entire nation is engulfed in fear and uncertainty. Several lives have reportedly been lost. This group appears unrelenting in its campaign.


Kano has joined the ranks of northern states such as Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Bauchi, Plateau and Niger , where the terror of Boko Haram holds sway. Religious crisis orchestrated by Muslim fundamentalists is not new to this northern city, but these attacks have brought a frightening dimension to Islamic militancy in the region.


The spokesperson of Boko Haram, Abdul Qaqa, told journalists that the sect carried out the attacks on the city because the authorities had refused to release their members arrested and detained by the police.


These attacks sent very clear signals to the authorities in Kano and beyond:  Embrace our cause or be destroyed.


This militant group has targeted churches and southerners or anyone they perceived to be opposed to their cause of implementing sharia law and enthroning Political Islam.  This is characteristic of the totalitarian nature of Political Islam, a socio-political and economic order based on sharia.


Boko Haram, which loosely translated means “opposed to Western education”, began as a fringe movement among a group of Islamic preachers on the streets of Maiduguri a few years ago. Now it has turned to a real threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence and a terror to the world.


Unfortunately, many analysts continue to shy away from the truth that Boko Haram is a jihadist Islamic group with a political agenda.


Instead many analysts continue to blame the attacks and crisis orchestrated by this militant sect on the injustices, poverty and marginalization of the North. Some commentators have made it seem as if Boko Haram are northern equivalent of the Niger Delta militants fighting to address social, economic and political marginalization of the region – even though the group has made it clear that it is  opposed to western education and wants sharia implemented in Nigeria.


Boko Haram militants are not asking for jobs. They are not agitating for any financial reward or compensation. Their cause is religious. Their agenda is Islamist. They want to turn Nigeria into an Islamic empire by force.


Nigerians must begin to acknowledge the jihadist agenda of Boko Haram and try to find out how the teachings of Islam, particularly as contained in the Koran or the Hadith, were propagated or twisted to breed this terrible monster. We need to know how these militants are being motivated to embark on this self destructive mission. We need to identify the cells and networks that are recruiting, training and brainwashing these militants.


A different story in Senegal


Senegal, like Nigeria, is a secular state dominated by Muslims with five different religious brotherhoods called Tariha.  It is a country known for its religious tolerance and good democratic credentials.  Yet in recent elections, Senegal has been introduced to Political Islam.


Religious leaders’ involvement in politics has been criticized by some who fear the danger of the interests of one faith being placed above the best interests of all citizens.


Some Senegalese religious guides contested the July 1,  2012, National Assembly elections, triggered by what many of them see as unfair or unequal representation of views in parliament.  They succeeded in securing at least 10 seats in the West African country’s legislative body.



The religious leaders argued that their participation is needed need to set moral standards in the political setting and governance system in the country, contending that many conventional politicians are only there for their own self-interests.

“Their (religious leaders’) involvement in the political arena is not a new phenomenon. Because, for instance, if you look at Serigne Modou Kara form his party, for a long time but the party was quiescent. I think the reason they are involved is because people have value in politics now and they want … new ethics in the political platform,” Mr. Mane, the journalism professor, said.


Mr. Mane, who is also head of the political desk at Sud Quotidien, one of the biggest Senegalese daily newspapers, said the culture of politics in this country has changed, which is why people have decided to elect religious leaders at the country’s National Assembly.


He also said the presence of men like of Serigne Mansur Sy Djamil in the legislative body could affect changes in the day-to-day management of the country because he has the intellectual capacity and the experience.


Mr. Mane doesn’t believe the participating of religious leaders will pose any dangers to the citizens.  “Senegal is a secular state,” he said. “ I don’t think they will influence the introduction of sharia law in this country.  Let’s take for example Imam Mbaye Niang.  He has been a member of parliament for a long time but he never endeavors to promulgate about sharia in the parliament.”


What the people of Senegal should expect, he said, is for the elected religious leaders in Parliament to change the modus operandi in the country and nurture good moral values, even if they are based on Islamic principles.


The minority Christians are less involved in Senegal politics, he noted, because they are less interested and politics does not merge with their philosophy.  They also don’t wield as much power, he said.


Leon Sylva, head of Youth Confederation of Maria Imaculere Church in Parcelles Assinies (MIPA), a suburb of Dakar, said Christians there prefer following the divine teaching of the creator than involving their religion in politics.


Politicians rarely honor their promise to electorates, he said.  “This is why we prefer doing our service to the people through godly means.”


Imam Biram Pouye, a member of the Movement de la Reform pour la Development Social (MRDC) party, shares a different perspective. He said Allah brought us prophets who would guide us to live a better life on earth.


“If you are leading something it easily helps you to pass your message well to the people, therefore, being at the decision making level facilitates a faster way of realizing your goal on particular campaign,” Imam Pouye emphasized.


“What is more important are the needs of the people,” he added. “The prejudice against us hasn’t dissuaded people from electing us in the parliament.  Imagine we had only one religious leader in the previous legislature and five years later we have 10 religious leaders in the Parliament.  Then in the next five years we will be counting one hundred religious leaders in the legislative body.”


Why get so involved in politics?


“The good morals we used to have in the society are eroding away,” he replied. “We as religious leaders we have been using Mosques to calling on the society to nurture good moral values but that alone is not enough this we think is good to come forward to the political field and reinforce our campaign against such bad communal norms.”


Not everyone in Senegal agrees.


“It is a danger to entrust these religious leaders with a place like the legislature where they enact laws that will determine how the country should be government, therefore, it is good that they are a minority in the parliament,” said Maget  Diouf,  a commuter.


Alimatou Ndiaye ,  a market vendor, said religious leaders are just there for selfish interest, adding that they can’t effect any change in the country. “I expected them to stay in their traditional roles as spiritual leaders,” she said. “I think that would have been better.”


The political role of Islam in Nigeria and Senegal, as it is in Egypt and Syria, is at an important juncture.


The temptations are great to manipulate religious fervor into political power. But a proud history grounded in the virtues of transparent and selfless service offers hope that politicians and others motivated by Islamic principles can contribute to a more just society.


While the devil may be in the details of building new governments in North Africa, in the end it will be Muslims, Christians, secularists and others who together decide the future of their nations.




Born in Bakalar, The Gambia, Buya Jammeh worked as a journalist in his native country for nine years and was elected as an officer of The Gambia Press Union until he was fired by the pro-government Daily Observer due to his advocacy for press freedom in the country. After challenging President Yahya Jammeh’s comments against slain journalist Deyda Hydara, Buya himself was long persecuted by the government and in June 2009 went into exile in Senegal, where he works for Radio Alternative Voice Gambians, an online media that breaks the information blockade inside The Gambia. From Senegal, he collects information from reporters inside The Gambia and prepares it for broadcast via the Internet.


Prince Charles Dickson is a freelance Journalist, blogger, and media practitioner of over a decade standing. One time correspondent chapel vice president with expertise in religion and conflict reportage, Investigative writing and developmental journalism. Has continually covered ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria's volatile north. He is a columnist in several mainstream and online news outlets. Writing on good governance, religion, social justice and peace and anti-corruption.

He is a member of, Nigerian Union of Journalists, Guild Of Editors and Global Editors Network, the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism and The International Association of Religion Journalists/Writers









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