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Out of a population of roughly 21 million, Niger’s Muslims represent about 80%. It is a Sunni Islam (only about 5% is Shiite), which is generally moderate, widely influenced by the Sufi confraternities and still soaked with animist beliefs.

But as often happens in very poor countries (60% of Niger’s population is below the poverty threshold and, according to the UN, it is the country with the lowest development rate in the world), in part due to a harsh lifestyle without expectations, there is room for undesirable social scourges like corruption, illegal traffics (70% of the migrants that land in Italy travel through Niger), criminality and, of course, Islamic terrorism.

The endemic droughts plague the population, 80% of which lives off of agriculture and herding. The majority of children are affected by malnutrition and the country has a very high mortality rate. Even democracy is a rare occurrence in a country where coup d’états are a recurring theme.

And there are ethnic feuds and the eternal fight between the nomadic Tebu and Tuareg populations and the nonmigratory Peul and Haussa. In addition to all this there are the refugee camps, where thousands of Malians live after escaping terrorism, just like the 15 thousand Nigerians in Diffa.

In the Sub-Saharan belt, Niger’s case is not the exception but the rule. So apart from endogenous terrorism, born and developed from the widespread poverty, there is the exogenous one coming from nearby countries like Mali, Nigeria and Algeria.

Islamic terror cannot be defeated on the military level alone, where even the local government is struggling due to the lack of numbers and quality among its troops (that’s why foreign armies were called in), it must be defeated on the social side, by a strict control over the Islamic organizations that can help keep a more moderate approach to religion.

Meanwhile, the country bans religiously-inspired parties, thereby trying to prevent radical Islam from getting a foothold into politics.

On the other hand, this ban has favored the founding of parties that are semi-clandestine. Among these there are the Islamic Alternative Party and the Islamic Ummah Front.

Alongside these formations that try to exploit religion politically, there is a strong presence in Niger of Islamic associations that operate legally and that allow for the spread of an often radical form of Islam; a sort of osmosis between the legal Islamic associations and the clandestine Islamic political parties.

Among these, the most important are:

• the ‘The Niger Association for appeal, unity and solidarity’;
• the ‘Association for the spread of Islamic culture’;
• the ‘Islamic Association of Niger’.

The three associations above are believed to be affiliated with the aforementioned Islamic Ummah Front and their political program includes:

• the introduction of Islam as a State religion (despite the lay constitution);
• the introduction of a religious appeal, in the first part of the Constitution, that says ‘in the name of God merciful and forgiving’;
• the adoption of a religious education system to reaffirm the country’s Islamic identity.

Niger’s constitution and its laws

Niger’s new constitution, approved in 2010, says in article 8 that all religions will be respected without preferences of the sort. The following article, 9, prohibits parties, unions or associations created on religious, ethnic or regional bases. A specific Ministry presides on the country’s religious issues. The State recognizes both Muslim and Christian national holidays. Every religious group must register at the Interior Ministry, although the procedure is just a formality, and the construction of places of cult must receive the Ministry’s authorization.

There exist no public funding or promotion for religious associations, although the Islamic Association of Niger (a government group) is authorized to broadcast one, weekly, program on the State television (the only TV station in the country).

niger delta terrorists

The influence of radical Wahabi Islam

Despite these attempts to marginalize religion with respect to the political activities of the State and the fact that such activity is exercised within a specific legal framework, Niger has seen the spread of Islamic associations, the most dangerous of which are the Wahabi ones. They are dangerous not only because of the radical ideology that they promote but because they are supported by Saudi financiers – and in a poor country such as Niger is, money is more convincing than ideologies.

One of these associations is “lzala toul bida’a wa ikamatu essouna” (the Society of Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunna), which was founded in 1978 in the Nigerian state of Jos and then spread to other countries of the Sahel, including Niger. The association carries out activities of proselytism and spreads the Islamic message, the “Dawa”, and is connected with the “World Muslim League”, a direct product of the Wahabi clergy.

The lzala is a sworn enemy of the Sufi confraternities like the Tijanyah and the Qadiryah, guilty of spreading a moderate version of Islam which is different from the religious precepts. It is a dogmatic clash. The lzala has attempted to form and finance paramilitary groups, especially in Niger.

When religious coexistence fails and terrorism jumps in

The combination of endemic poverty and diffusion of radical Islam has caused the emergence, in Niger, of both clashes between religious groups and of Islamic terror.

In Niger’s past there is no trace of religious incidents save for the sporadic clashes in the years 1998-2000 with the baptist community in the city of Say. It must be noted that Say, like Kiota, Agadez and Madarounfa, are considered by Niger’s Muslim communities to be “sacred” cities, so the presence of other religions in the area has never been smiled upon.

Niger’s greatest social problem up to a few years ago was the coexistence between the Tuareg minority, of Arab origin, and the rest of the country, of African origin. This had caused an armed conflict that produced the peace talks between the Tuareg rebels of the “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Sahara” and the central government in 1995, which were followed by a cessation of the armed struggle, even on the part of the “Democratic Renewal Front”. All things considered, the fight was more of an ethnic struggle rather than a religious one, being that both parties were Muslim.

Today, however, things have changed for the worse, going from a tolerant Islam to a radical one, thus rocking the peaceful coexistence of different religions.

In January 2015 there was a wave of violence against Christians during the days following the attack of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. 72 Christian churches were attacked and burned (about 80% of the country’s Christian churches), the homes of Christians were vandalized and ransacked; there were tens of dead. The instigator of the attack has yet to be named but there are suspicions that the events could have been piloted by radical Islamic associations with the support of opposition parties. Christian religion has been stigmatized by its association with the French colonial period.

The next phase was characterized by the infiltration of terrorism, which had, to that day, been imported from abroad, as was exemplified by the numerous attempts to kidnap foreigners and the repeated attacks against the people of Diffa and Tillabéri. But Boko Haram in nearby Nigeria, AQIM (Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) in Burkina Faso, Al Muorabitoun in South Algeria and North Mali, which made an alliance in March 2017 with Ansar Eddine of Mali (thus forming the “Jamaat Nusra al Islam wal Muslemin” - “Movement for the Support of Islam and of Muslims”, recently affiliated with Al Qaida) pose an imminent threat for Niger, since there exist no border controls in the area and the terrorists are free to move undisturbed throughout the region.

arlit niger uranium mine
Uranium mine in Arlit, Niger

Dangerous perspectives

Since Niger is a predominantly Muslim country, Islam has not been a decisive element so far in tracing the nation’s political history, but rather a uniting and defining element.

The Tuareg nomads converted to Islam (although they kept their cult of spirits, called “djinn”) around the eleventh century, just like the Haussa and, later, the Fulani. Yet Niger’s Islam is now taking a different course.

The main problem is with the authority of Niamey, which cannot face the threat of Islamic terrorist on its own and has sought the help of the French and of the USA, with whom they signed military cooperation agreements.

Western powers are also convinced that Niger should not fall in the hands of Islamic terror and should instead be a stronghold against the phenomenon in the region. But waving aside geo-strategic talk, the fact that Niger is the world’s fourth producer of uranium is probably not a marginal detail either.

For what it’s worth, compared to neighboring countries, Niger is moderately secure as a nation. But it’s getting worse. The region of Diffa, near the border with Nigeria and Chad, has been in a state of emergency since 2015, and there is a curfew since 2014. There have also been terrorist attacks in the areas. The same happens in the area around Tillabéri. A number of humanitarian NGOs have begun to clear out of the region for security reasons. In the least serious of these cases, family members were evacuated. And another threat comes from the connection between traffickers, criminals and terrorists. Although, more often than not, the roles are interchangeable.