Nigeria and the Islamic University of Medina’s Dawra: An Interesting Anecdote

Last week, while doing a quick Google search to confirm the life dates of Umar Fallata (see below, I came across this obituary for the Nigerian Muslim religious leader Isa Waziri (1925-2013). The obituary contains an interesting anecdote about the dawra (tour), a kind of educational and recruitment initiative by Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Medina. The dawra, as I discuss in my book, was a key mechanism for recruiting Nigerian students to Medina; worldwide, Nigeria was one of the countries where the University conducted the most tours. The dawra was a key early step in the careers of several prominent Nigerian Salafis.

But as the anecdote makes clear, the Saudi and African scholars who ran the dawra took pains to make sure that it was not just a Salafi affair:

I saw one great quality with Shaikh Isa Waziri around 1994 during the annual Dawra, which is a course for Arabic teachers organized by the Islamic University of Madina under the leadership of Shaikh Abdalla Zarban Al-Ghamidi.  A dinner was organized at Da’awah Group of Nigeria in which almost all the Islamic Scholars in Kano were present. Equally present at the dinner was late Shaikh Umar Fallata, a highly respected Islamic scholar who teaches in the Mosque of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

It was an interesting event, because despite all the differences between Izala and Tariqa, many prominent Islamic scholars from Tijjaniyya, Qadiriyya, and Izala were present. But one thing you cannot miss during the dinner was that Shaikh Isa Waziri was the rallying point among these scholars, some of whom do not get along publically. On that day, I saw some wonders, because some of the scholars that members of the public thought would look away when they meet each other were so respectful of one another. You wouldn’t be completely wrong if you suggest that sometimes our scholars dribble the followership.

Not only was Waziri a prominent shaykh from the Tijaniyya Sufi order, but the dinner included figures from both the Tijaniyya and the Qadiriyya, the two most prominent Sufi orders in northern Nigeria. This is not to say that there are no tensions between Salafis, who are often vehemently anti-Sufi, and Sufis – it would have been quite fascinating to attend that dinner! – but it is to say that sometimes stereotypes don’t hold true. Moreover, as the author of the obituary points out, sometimes public hostility can give way to private cordiality.

The anecdote raises two other points:

  1. African scholars who took up residence in Saudi Arabia and became part of the Saudi Arabian religious establishment also, often, became key links between Saudi Arabia and Africa. One can see that in the case of this anecdote and Umar Fallata. The best English-language source on Fallata is Chanfi Ahmed’s 2015 book on West African scholars in the Hijaz. See also here (Arabic) for an official Saudi Arabian biography.
  2. I think a lot about the idea of a “fragmentation of sacred authority” in the Muslim world (see here and here). That’s on display in this anecdote too, as the author of the obituary argues that no scholar in northern Nigeria today can play the unifying role of someone such as Waziri. No one wants to fall prey to a distorting nostalgia about the past – it’s not like there were no intra-Muslim conflicts during the twentieth century! – but it does seem like the Muslim world, and various Muslim communities, are much more internally fragmented than they were even a generation ago.

Niger: President Issoufou’s Trip to Saudi Arabia

Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou and a delegation of cabinet ministers and other senior government officials traveled to Saudi Arabia from approximately May 10-12. The visit is not unusual, but in light of Senegal’s recent decision to send troops to support Saudi Arabia in its military venture in Yemen, there has been more attention to Saudi-Sahelian relations. So it is interesting to look at the content of Issoufou’s trip, which centered on themes of Saudi investment in Niger and Islamic solidarity between the two countries.

Upon his arrival in Riyadh (French), Issoufou met King Salman. This was Issoufou’s first visit since King Salman took the throne in January, so Issoufou gave both condolences on the death of King Abdullah and congratulations on King Salman’s coronation. In addition to meeting the Foreign Affairs and Education Ministers, Issoufou met (French) Finance Minister Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Assaf as well as Hajj Minister Bandar al-Hajjar. With al-Assaf, Issoufou discussed the Saudi Fund for Development and its projects in Niger.

(Unfortunately the Fund’s website does not have a country page for Niger, but the Saudi embassy in Niger provides a few details here, writing that the Fund works in “health, education and the construction of dams, as the fund is now building seven health centers in seven regions in Niger and the [sic] of 150 primary schools project. You can also read about a dam project in Mali here [Arabic].)

Issoufou’s other meetings concentrated on spurring greater Saudi investment in Nigerien businesses and development.

After his stop in Riyadh, Issoufou visited (French) the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and made ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage) in Mecca. He then met the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah. (Niger was a founding member of the OIC and hosts the Organization’s Islamic university for Francophone Africa, located in Say near Niamey.) Issoufou also sat down with the vice president of the Islamic Development Bank, and the Bank and the Government of Niger signed a financing agreement for a road between Tébaram and Tahoua. See the Bank’s announcement here.

It’s a busy travel season for Issoufou – this week he is in Ghana for a summit of the Economic Community of West African States.

A Look at Relations between Niger and Saudi Arabia

On Thursday, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou traveled to Saudi Arabia (French) accompanied by his wife and several major cabinet ministers. On the trip he has been meeting with Saudi royalty, including King Abdullah, as well as religious leaders, government officials, and businessmen. The trip focuses broadly on improving bilateral relations and in particular on encouraging Arab investment in Niger. Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, has attracted investors from different parts of the world – most notably, French companies in the uranium sector and Chinese participation in the petroleum sector.

In his remarks to Saudi Arabian businessmen Issoufou stressed agriculture, natural resources, and infrastructure as major investment opportunities. Talk of Arab investment in sub-Saharan African agriculture will sound alarm bells for some, who warn of an Arab “land grab” on the continent, but there are other ways to understand relations between Niger and Saudi Arabia.

It was interesting to read about Council of Saudi Chambers Chairman Abdullah Al-Mobty’s emphasis on historical linkages between Niger and Saudi Arabia:

Earlier in his opening remarks, Al-Mobty said the two countries enjoy friendly relations based on common understanding and feelings of fraternity. He recalled the historical visit of the late King Faisal, who went to open the first Arabic school in Niger in 1962. He said that the current ambassador of Niger in the Kingdom is a graduate of that school.

I have not found documentation of the 1962 visit but Faisal, as King, did make a high-profile visit to Niger, Chad, Uganda, Senegal, and Mauritania in 1972, a period when Saudi Arabia’s international leadership, especially in the Muslim world, was growing. Israel had defeated Egypt in 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abd al Nasser (a rival of the Saudis for leadership in the Arab world) had died in 1970, and Saudi oil wealth was growing. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the resulting oil embargo, many sub-Saharan African states strengthened relations with the Arab world even more, and in most cases broke relations with Israel as well. Niger was one such country. After the 1974 coup, Niger strengthened its ties to the Arab world and its self-presentation as an Islamic country (for more, especially about how graduates of Arab universities played a role as diplomatic links between Niger and Arab countries, see Abdoulaye Niandou Souley’s article in the 1993 collection that bears the somewhat misleading title Le radicalisme islamique au sud du Sahara).

This does not mean that Nigerien-Arab relations, or Nigerien-Israeli relations (restored in 1996, but broken again in 2002), have been static since the 1970s. Nor am I suggesting that either side is operating without calculation – now as in the 1970s, Niger needs investment, and Saudi Arabia wants political allies as well as investment opportunities. But I am saying that the Nigerien-Saudi Arabian relationship is a multi-dimensional one with a significant history. It will be interesting to see what comes of Issoufou’s visit.

Boko Haram and African “Wahhabism”

Wahhabism is a word I hear a lot in reference to Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. The original word refers to a movement centered on the eighteenth century reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, who lived in present-day Saudi Arabia and whose descendants have helped dictate the interpretation of Islam that prevails in the Kingdom. There’s always been some level of exchange between Africa, including West Africa, and Arabia, but in the twentieth century there began to be talk about West African “Wahhabis” – that is, Muslims who allegedly emulated a “harsh, Arab Islam” and rejected “peaceful, tolerant, African Sufi Islam.”

The “Wahhabis” were often, indeed, reformers who criticized certain practices, like making protective amulets, as un-Islamic, but “Wahhabism” in West Africa has looked a lot different than its cousin in Arabia. The label, in West Africa, was also used far more by reformers’ opponents – French colonists and African Sufi leaders, for example – than by the reformers themselves. The label had the effect of blurring complexity then, and because it’s still in use today, it still does.

Boko Haram is an Islamic sect in Northern Nigeria that rejects Western-style education, secular governance, the authority of the Nigerian state, and Islamic interpretations that run counter to its own teachings. Muhammad Yusuf, the group’s leader until his death in 2009, could potentially be labeled a “Wahhabi” – except that other “Wahhabis” in Northern Nigeria rejected many of Yusuf’s ideas and were horrified by Boko Haram’s use of violence. The label “Wahhabism” can’t capture even the main thrusts of these debates.

These problems of terminology came to the fore yesterday, when news agencies reported Boko Haram’s assassination of a local cleric, Ibrahim Birkuti. “Radical Cleric Gunned Down in Nigeria,” one headline read. How was he radical? The article doesn’t say, except to tell us he was a “Wahhabi.” But read on:

Ibrahim Birkuti was shot by a motorcycle-riding gunman thought to be a member of Boko Haram sect outside his house in the town of Biu, 200km south of Maiduguri where the sect has carried out most of its attacks in recent months.

Birkuti, a Wahabbi cleric and an imam of a mosque in the town has been critical of Boko Haram ideology especially its rejection of Western education and its resort to violence, his neighbours said.

The BBC does not label Birkuti a “radical,” but it does speak ominously of his membership in the “Saudi Arabian-inspired Wahabbi group, which has been gaining ground in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria in recent years.” AP goes further:

Birkuti had been critical of Boko Haram’s violence and belonged to the Wahabbi group, a splinter faction of Sunni Muslims.


Wahabbi members advocate for the implementation of Shariah law in Borno state through peaceful means.

The final sentence makes no sense on two counts: First, Borno State did adopt shari’a, in 2000. Second, many Muslims in Northern Nigeria advocated for the peaceful implementation of shari’a – we need another criterion, then, in order to say how and why “Wahhabis” are “a splinter faction of Sunni Muslims.” There are differences that set reformers like Birkuti apart from Sufis, other sects, and Nigeria’s many “non-aligned” Muslims, but the news agencies have not identified them satisfactorily. They have not even said what Birkuti and his group called themselves – and a good guess might be that Birkuti labeled himself simply a “Sunni” (another loaded term, in this context, but for different reasons). What then?

The salient points about Birkuti’s ideological/sectarian affiliation are, for me, Boko Haram’s continuing campaign of violence against rival clerics, and also the fact that many Muslims of different strands and different beliefs reject Boko Haram’s ideas and methods. The ferocity and the complexity of the theological debate in Northern Nigeria is precisely what Boko Haram is trying to shut down in with a killing like this – it is too bad that the press also works, in a much different way, to obscure that same complexity.

Sunday Africa Blog Roundup: Nigeria and Qaddhafi, Mauritania and Israel, Sudanese Elections

Loomnie points us to two articles on Nigeria and Qaddhafi. Speaking of Nigeria, Elizabeth Dickinson looks at Acting President Goodluck Jonathan’s new cabinet nominations.

The list seems designed to send two messages: To the international community, it gives all the “right” signals of stability. To the Nigerian politburo, it says get loyal or get out.

Kal examines Israel’s place in Mauritanian politics in the wake of Mauritania’s decision to sever ties.

The immediate domestic context has to do with three factors: (1) President Ould Abdel Aziz’s shaking popularity, a result of economic woes and his political style; (2) his handling of criticism on the anti-terror law, which has led him to denounce his opponents as “pro-terrorist,” causing them great offense and the supreme court’s declaration that the law is unconstitutional has also got him riled up; and (3) opposition push back, led by Messaoud Boulkheir who attacked the president on the Israel card which has frequently been raised as one of Ould Abdel Aziz’s “accomplishments”.

A few posts on the Sudanese elections:

Chris Blattman on African states.

Two political African hip hop videos, one from Senegal and one from Somalis in Kenya.

[UPDATED]: Two more: Gregg Carlstrom at The Majlis discusses al Shabab, and Tamsin Carlisle at The National talks solar power in Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

What are you checking out? Any new Africa blogs out there?

Yar’Adua Returns to Nigeria

News broke yesterday that President Umaru Yar’Adua was returning to Nigeria from Saudi Arabia, where he had been recuperating from an illness since November of last year. Yar’Adua’s Vice President Goodluck Jonathan recently took over as acting president amidst serious debate regarding the constitutionality and desirability of a transfer of power.

What will be the consequences of Yar’Adua’s return? News organizations seem unsure, especially since no reliable information has circulated about the president’s health. The Financial Times (see last link) wonders how this event will affect the lead-up to next year’s presidential elections, but there are more immediate questions as well: Will Yar’Adua resume his full duties? If so, what moves will he make regarding the Niger Delta crisis and other problems in the country? If not, will he formally abdicate his office?

Some news organizations imply that Yar’Adua and Jonathan are proxies in a struggle between broader sections of the Nigerian elite. That formulation might take too much agency away from these men, both of whom are talented politicians. But certainly the question “Who will lead Nigeria?” resonates on a number of levels beyond just that of the individual head of state. In any case, the presence of both men in the same space makes the need for a resolution of the question, at least on a formal level, more urgent.

Nigeria: Acting President Goodluck Jonathan

Nigerian Vice President Goodluck Jonathan officially became acting president yesterday (President Umaru Yar’Adua, who suffers from a kidney illness, is receiving treatment in Saudi Arabia). It seems that Jonathan enters that role with substantial political support. I have not succeeded in finding a vote count, but both houses of parliament passed resolutions designating Jonathan as acting president. The parliament’s moves come partly at the prompting of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, which itself passed a resolution calling for the power transfer earlier this week. At least one member of President Yar’Adua’s cabinet also urged a transfer.

Abuja, Nigeria

The Financial Times writes that some “political insiders suggested the national assembly’s move was a political compromise” that brings together “the disparate strands of the Nigerian elite.”

But the Times and other outlets also note that some elites are unhappy with the transfer. VOA quotes a senator from Yar’Adua’s home state, Katsina, who believes a transfer would be unconstitutional. And – back to FT – he may be right.

The motion seems to depart from the constitution’s provision for dealing with a presidential absence. This requires Mr Yar’Adua, who suffers from a heart condition and a chronic kidney problem, to write to the national assembly if he intends temporarily to transfer powers to his deputy on health grounds.

Mr Yar’Adua has declined to do so – a reluctance that many blame on an inner circle determined not to relinquish power even temporarily.

Consequently, the national assembly’s motion may have no legal force. “They are not backed by the constitution,” said Rotimi Akeredolu, president of the Nigerian Bar Association, which has petitioned the courts to force a handover of interim powers. “At this point in our democracy we should try as much as possible to stick to procedure.”

Under the constitution, only the cabinet has the power to declare Mr Yar’Adua incapacitated. It has so far refused even to send a medical team to assess the president’s health. Under these circumstances, it is unclear how forcefully Mr Jonathan will be willing govern.

The BBC also suggests the transfer to Jonathan could disrupt unspoken rules among Nigerian elites considering the power balance between North and South.

For his part, Jonathan is projecting calm and calling for unity. I have seen no sign that he wants to usurp Yar’Adua’s authority, and perhaps that reassures some people who are not totally on board with the new arrangement. But it’s a complicated moment nonetheless.