Niger embraces Islam, but the lay state holds solid

By: Vincent t'Sas

Broadcasted on BICNews 7 December 1997

FEATURE

NIAMEY, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Islam is thriving in impoverished Niger.

Residents report stricter observance of some tenets of orthodox Islam in the former French colony, and growing support for the idea of an Islamic republic.

But while neighbouring Algeria struggles with a Moslem fundamentalist nightmare, there is little sign that radical religious politics have started to take root in Niger.

``More than ever before, Islam is growing here but I do not foresee an Islamic republic in the near future,'' Zakari Maikorema, historian and director of Niger's Institute for the Study of Social Sciences, told Reuters.

Fundamentalist Islam thrives alongside poverty as experience from Iran and Algeria to Egypt and Afghanistan has shown.

``Increased poverty does give wings to the Moslem extremist movement. But they are small wings, they won't get far,'' a government official said.

His country is among the poorest in the world, and a 1988 population census showed that 98.7 percent of Niger's then 6.5 million people were Moslem.

The population has since risen to nine million while the economy has shrunk.

CALL TO PRAYERS

In the capital Niamey, the Koran plays a key role. At night, crowds gather for hours in the dusty streets in front of mosques to listen to preachers explaining the Holy Book of Islam.

Mosques have powerful public address systems, and piercing voices remind believers when it is time to pray. The elegant bridge that spans the Niger river is covered with hand-written phrases praising the Prophet Mohammad.

``There is a desire for an Islamic republic here. But the post-colonial lay state is solid even while temporarily it is lacking means,'' Maikorema said. ``I don't think in the short term there are enough learned men among fundamentalists here who could to set up and run an Islamic republic.''

Before Ibrahim Bare Mainassara took power in a 1996 coup, fundamentalist Moslems staged street protests, stoning women wearing Western mini-skirts and tearing down family planning posters.

APPEASEMENT

Scattered street action broke out in February -- posters promoting condoms were torn down in Niamey -- but things have been relatively calm since.

Some analysts attribute this to government appeasement.

The condom posters have not been replaced, and the Mainassara government made three Moslem feasts national holidays.

Mini-skirts are no longer seen in public.

Others say the political climate has changed.

``We are not in a democracy any more and therefore people are more careful with what they say,'' Maikorema said.

``It also shows Moslems here are not as fanatical as in, for instance, Algeria.''

Driver Mohammed Konate said, ``I wish we had an Islamic republic. We would not be so poor and the rich would not be so rich.

``Now we don't have the freedom to fight for that.''

Niger's Moslems can be very pious but most remain tolerant of other ways of life, according to one foreigner living in Niamey. ``There are still many bars in Niamey and on some national holidays so much beer flows that there is a shortage the next couple of days.''

RELIGIOUS ADVISER TO PRESIDENT

But she too has noticed changes. ``In the six years that I have lived here I have seen change. People have become more strict. In my street there are rich Nigerians whose women hardly ever come out, and if they do they wear veils and even gloves,'' she said.

Mainassara, elected president in a disputed July 1996 poll, has appointed preacher and intellectual Male Moussa Al Kahera as Special Presidential Adviser for Religious Affairs.

Members of government consult religious teachers.

At the same, there is no shortage of women in Niger's security forces, the civil service and government.

At the state mining company ONAREM, the Koran lies prominently on the desk of geologist El Hahmet Mai Ousmane.

Ousmane is a leading member of the orthodox Association for the Propagation of Islam in Niger, or ADIN-Islam, one of the 19 Islamic organisations that grew in the early 1990s.

He says orthodox Moslems feel closer to former army leader Mainassara than to the civilian government he ousted. But he admits to a sense of disillusion.

``Certain officials live in luxury, they keep mistresses, they are corrupt,'' he says. ``They go over-dressed in beautiful boubous (traditional robes) to the mosque...where do they get the money?''

Ousmane concedes Niger is not ready for an Islamic republic. ``Our people are not well enough educated, but we continue educating them and more and more live according to God's law.''

Moktar Ould Bah, a Mauritanian, is a former director of the Islamic University of Niger, where more than 400 students read Islamic Sharia law among other subjects.

``Only in Algeria and Tunisia are there political parties which are directly related to Moslem fundamentalism...certainly not in Niger,'' he says.

``There is violence in Algeria because Moslem intellectuals feel excluded. In Niger, there are maybe a few tribes who feel excluded, but certainly not the Moslems.''

  Copyright 1997, Reuters News Service

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