Late last year we went to Agadez, the biggest city in northern Niger, to research what makes people adopt radical beliefs. We found widespread support for the adoption of sharia. This is not the first time that research has revealed popular backing for the implementation of sharia in Niger. A 2013 Afrobarometer survey found that 67% of Nigeriens supported the inclusion of sharia in their constitution.
Many non-Muslims and indeed some Muslims see support for sharia as an extreme and often dogmatic position. This is especially the case when those who support sharia live in a secular democracy and enjoy many of the freedoms afforded by such a governance system. Niger has been a secular state since its independence from France in 1960. For 30 years, Niger was ruled by a series of authoritarian regimes before popular demands resulted in the formation of a multiparty democracy in 1992. Although three military coups temporarily have rocked the stability of the country since 1992, the last two elections in 2011 and 2016 were declared free and fair.
Why do Nigeriens support sharia?
So why do many Nigeriens want their state to implement sharia when they enjoy a relatively stable secular democracy? In semi-structured interviews, we asked people about the major problems in the Agadez region, what they thought of either the current system or sharia, and which system they thought would be better at addressing problems in Agadez. People complained about the unjustness of high levels of poverty and lack of opportunities for young people. But the reasons for their support for sharia go deeper than dissatisfaction with the economic situation in northern Niger. Among many interviewees, we encountered a perception that secular democracy has failed to deliver on its promises.
Many people recognised that democracy promotes free speech, but often argued that such freedom brings negative consequences. Without restraints on speech, interviewees reported that people disrespect each other with impunity.
Meanwhile many interviewees associated secularism with corruption and lack of morality. The ease with which judges could be bribed and criminals could escape punishment was widely identified as a feature of secularism. An unemployed youth from a poor suburb in Agadez said:
‘If a trafficker [of humans or goods] is caught, he is imprisoned for a period. And even if he has committed a serious crime, after several days, he is let free again. It’s a system for the rich… because with their power, they can corrupt people.’
However, the picture was not entirely negative: some people thought that aid and development projects (which come about because the Nigerien government is closely aligned with Western powers) could improve some aspects of life in Agadez, particularly education. But few thought the current political system would solve the range of problems facing the region.
This lack of faith contrasts with the hope and idealism invested in the vision of sharia. Comments like ‘If we had sharia, all these problems would not exist’ and ‘All societal ills are a result of the non-application of sharia’, were common.
People thought sharia would resolve corruption, as leaders would be accountable to God. Under sharia, they expected nepotism to be a thing of the past. A young female university student remarked: ‘If we had sharia ... people would be employed on the basis of their qualification.’
A prevailing view among liberals is that punishment under sharia is overly harsh and discriminatory against women. However, for many interviewees in northern Niger, a justice system informed by sharia law was something they understood as a force for good. The experience of many years of state failure to provide law and order has perhaps convinced people that harsher punishment is the solution. Many interviewees also expected that sharia’s strict laws on behaviour and dress would bring about positive social changes, and that prostitution and adultery would disappear.
Most supporters of sharia that we interviewed were far from extreme in their position. Many recognised the difficulty of changing their governance and legal system, for example predicting conflicts between Christians and Muslims and interference by world powers to prevent sharia from being implemented. Few were dogmatic in what they thought should be the governance system in Niger. Some recommended a hybrid system; others suggested adopting sharia incrementally. Still others thought it better to support the current system to keep the peace.
What should the response be?
So what should the response be to rising support for such radical change as introducing sharia in Niger, where 98% of the people are Muslim? As in any political context, support for radical change needs to be understood as a criticism of the current system. Niger is highly corrupt and, for those with money and the right connections, it is easy to bribe one’s way out of criminal charges. Whether these and other problems identified by interviewees are due to secularism or democracy and whether they could be solved by implementing sharia is a question that needs to be treated objectively. Looking at evidence from countries and federal states that have implemented sharia would be a first step towards treating this criticism seriously.
However, in the current global political climate, too often those supporting the implementation of sharia are seen as extremists or at least, sympathetic towards extremist groups. A key concern of practitioners working on countering violent extremism programmes in Niger is whether those who support sharia are more vulnerable to radicalisation by violent extremist groups. Once you suspect someone of being a fundamentalist or an extremist, it is much more difficult to have a constructive debate about the – often valid – reasons why a person would hold such views. Instead, we look for signs of adhering to conservative Islam, lack of education and poverty as factors that apparently explain extreme opinions.
This matters because over the last few years, there has been a huge increase in funding for countering extremism. Project activities often include promoting moderate Islam, increasing access to formal education (with moderate messaging) and job creation.
But as long as corruption and nepotism increase and criminals continue to avoid punishment, support for sharia is likely to increase in places like northern Niger. Until those designing programmes to counter extremism start engaging with the critique of secular democracy that supporters of sharia make, they risk excluding those who support sharia from one of the core foundations of democracy – critical debate. Indeed, suspecting those who support an alternative to secular democracy of being extremist sounds like, ... well, a dogmatic position.