ABOUT 15 years ago, Niger’s main university had one mosque and students mingled freely. Now, there are at least 12 places of worship and male and female students sit in separate canteens for meals.
“If you come here at prayer time you will see most of the students leave the classrooms and rush to the mosques,” said Idrissa Gado, a geography student at state-run Abdou Moumouni University in the capital, Niamey. “The greatest imams preach here.”
President Mahamadou Issoufou, 64, will regulate the expansion of the strict Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam if he wins re-election on Sunday in the world’s fourth-largest uranium producer, according to his interior minister.
The mining engineer is pushing to keep out militants inspired by Wahhabi teachings operating on three of its seven borders, including the one with Libya where Islamic State has bases.
At least 50 people have died in the past four months in attacks carried out by Islamist militants on hotels popular with tourists in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Preachers espousing Wahhabism, which promotes a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and originated in Saudi Arabia, saw their influence grow in West Africa in the 1990s. Backed by money from the Gulf states, they opened mosques and Islamic schools and introduced a stricter interpretation of Islam than the version that’s traditionally practiced in the region, the International Crisis Group said in a report last year.
“There are groups that finance mosques, they come from the Middle East or the Gulf states—that’s not really the problem,” Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou said in an interview Feb. 3. “What we need to do is to organise and regulate all of that, so that there’s some control.”
Niger’s military, backed by French troops and U.S. drones, is fighting to keep militants at bay in a territory twice the size of Texas. To the south, Nigeria’s Boko Haram launches attacks across the border, while militants linked to al-Qaeda roam its western border with Mali. Weapons, cash and fighters have flowed from Libya since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011, creating space for Islamic State to expand there.
At the same time, Nigerien society is becoming increasingly conservative. Almost all public buildings host a mosque, most women wear veils that cover their heads and chests, and meetings start with a Muslim prayer—practices unheard of 15 years ago, said Niamey-based anthropologist Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan.
Resentment against the state, unemployment and frustration over the breakdown of public education have contributed to the spread of conservatism, De Sardan said in an interview. Even if followers of Wahhabi Islam are a minority, the ideas of Wahhabi preachers are now mainstream. “Today, a lot of men refuse to shake hands with women,” he said.
Niger is the world’s least developed country, ranking last in the United Nations Human Development Index out of 188 nations surveyed last year. Daily life hasn’t improved for most Nigeriens since Issoufou came to power in 2011, and his government has failed to create jobs for the large youth population, according to the International Crisis Group.
Niger’s $8 billion economy will probably expand 5% this year, from 4.6% last year when a drop in commodity prices curbed revenue. Paris-based Areva, the builder of atomic reactors, operates a uranium mine in Niger.
Politicians inspired by Wahhabi teachings have won local elections and entered government bureaucracy, said Moulaye Hassane, an Islamic scholar at the university of Niamey.
“They believe the secular state is corrupt and that they offer an alternative,” Hassane said. “The groups aren’t united enough for a leader to emerge, but they have followers everywhere.”
Issoufou will face 14 candidates on Sunday. Niger’s elite is forced to negotiate with religious groups while it’s also trying to safeguard the secular state in a country with a predominantly Muslim population, said Rahmane Idrissa, a Nigerien political analyst at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
Politicians “don’t want to be told what to do by people who use religion as leverage, but they will have to devise a strategy to counter the influence of extremists,” he said in an interview. “The problem is that nobody wants to be seen as attacking Islam.”
Back at the university, Gado, the geography student, said that while he doesn’t identify with the Wahhabi movement, he approves of the expanding influence of religion on campus.
“Fewer students smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol,” he said. “Solidarity between students has improved a lot.”