Muslims in West Africa have been organizing themselves into political blocs and intervening in elections since at least the late colonial period, but in the last two decades West African Muslim organizations have participated in democratic politics in particularly dramatic ways. Senegalese marabouts have run for office. In the summer of 2009, Malian Muslim activists successfully blocked the implementation of reforms in family law. And now, with a constitutional referendum approaching in post-coup Niger, Muslim leaders in that country are organizing an electoral boycott on religious terms:
[The proposed new constitution] formalises a separation of powers between the secular state and Islam in a country 98 percent of whose 15 million citizens are Muslim.
“Separating state and religion means quite simply that Allah does not figure as a priority in this state funded by the money of Muslims — that you can govern Nigeriens with all sorts of atheistic, anti-religious ideologies and ideas,” said Harouni Fodi of the Islamic association Anassi.
The country’s Muslim groups are seen as influential, having either blocked or forced changes in a number of planned reforms on family law or women’s rights in recent years.
Anasi, according to this site, stands for the Nigerien Association for Islamic Da’wa and Solidarity, and a book result (Richard Labévière’s Dollars for Terror, which I have not read and cannot vouch for) says that Anasi has enjoyed substantial influence in southern Niger in politics, education, and preaching since the early 1990s.
Niger has gone through several rounds of democratization since that period, and Islamic organizations have been involved in different ways each time. They have not gotten everything they wanted. As elsewhere in Francophone West Africa, there are tensions between the colonial inheritance of “laicite” and increasingly organized Muslim factions that want a greater role for Islam in state affairs. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the proposed boycott represents Muslim antagonism toward the state – this is politics, after all, and one possibility is that the boycott is simply a reminder to secular and military elites not to forget Muslim voting blocs. I do not anticipate that the boycott will derail the referendum, but it will be interesting to see whether Muslim pressure compels changes to the proposed constitution or to the calculations of aspiring civilian rulers in Niger.