Secularism at risk in Sub-Saharan Africa's secular states: the challenges for Senegal and Mali

Secularism is being challenged in several Sub-Saharan African states which have long guarded it as a principle of governance. Its preservation is important for the protection of women's rights from religious interventions.

by Fatou Sow, International Director of WLUML

Secularism is being challenged in several Sub-Saharan African states which have long guarded it as a principle of governance. Its preservation is important for the protection of women's citizen rights from religious interventions.

Sub-Saharan Africa includes all of the States to the south of the Sahara. It makes up a large part of the continent, subdivided into four big regions: west Africa, east Africa, central Africa and southern Africa. The largest Muslim population lives in north Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt), but one in three people in sub-Saharan Africa is also Muslim. This population lives mainly in west Africa (Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Chad, Ivory Coast, Niger, Guinea, Nigeria etc.). There are also significant Muslim communities in central and east  Africa, although these vary in size according to the country (Sudan, Chad, Tanzania, Somalia, the Comoros, etc). Islamisation goes back a long way in this region, although again this depends on the country. My interest in the links between religion and politics relates only to west Africa and those states where populations are majority Muslim. The questions which interest me concern the links between Muslims (and not Islam as a religion) and politics, and the impact of this link on societies. I prefer to talk of Muslims, rather than Islam as a system of beliefs and values.

If the world of the Islamic Umma is not a homogenous one, contrary to what the elites would like us to believe, then Muslim populations in sub-Saharan Africa are equally heterogeneous. They share the same pillars of Islam, but they live their religion rooted in local languages and cultures and in accordance with the religious values of the land. There is not a strong Arab-Islamic cultural heritage here, which makes these differences more pronounced. This is most notable in the degree of secularisation of laws and political systems.

In west Africa, Mauritania is the only country which, for political reasons linked to its history, is an Islamic republic. This was established early on in its 1961 constitution. Islam is the state religion and the President of the Republic is required, by statute, to be a practising Muslim. Nevertheless, the constitution ‘guarantees each individual freedom of conscience and the right to practice their religion subject to the limitations imposed by morality and public order’ (Article 2).

The west African states have made secularism a core principle of their constitutions, most notably the francophone states. They have preserved a French breed of secularism - laïcité - inherited from the colonial period, which asserts the separation of religion and the state. The Anglophone states are also all secular, but their brand of secularism is looser on the question of separating religion and politics since this principle is not part of the United Kingdom tradition; it is less a question of secularism than one of protecting religious freedom. In this vein, certain states in the north of Nigeria have declared themselves Islamic despite the fact that this runs contrary to the constitution of the Nigerian federation. Other states, like Chad and Niger, claim to be secular and yet have failed to promulgate a family code for fear of straying from Islamic ‘customs’.

As secular states, Senegal and Mali are of interest for a number of reasons. Both old French colonies, they declared their independence in 1960. Their legal systems, which draw on local and/or Islamic customs for the regulation of private affairs, were integrated into colonial legislation. Both countries were significantly islamicised between the 7th and 11th centuries and now count a large Muslim majority. Their minority Christian communities are also active in society. Secularism has allowed each religious group to preserve its rules.

Although Islam remains a very influential religion, in social life as in politics, the two states claim to have been secular since independence. The current constitution of Mali (1992), revised in 1999, claims in its preamble to ‘solemnly pledge to defend the republican form and secular nature of the state’. The Senegalese constitution, the latest revision of which was in June 2009, stipulates in Article 1: ‘the republic of Senegal is secular, democratic and social.'

Senegal is therefore a secular state. Secularism is written into all of the constitutions which the country has adopted since 1960. Political institutions and legal texts which have managed the country for some 40 years, on the whole, make no explicit reference to religious obedience or even to Islam, the main religion, as a source of law and order, with the exception of the family code. However, every so often debate resurfaces between the defenders of secularism as a symbol of the republic, and those who would see it abolished in the name of the Muslim religious identity of the majority of Senegalese citizens. Religious programs have come to flood the media, both radio and television. They have never been so conservative and anti-women’s rights. In 2004, a consortium of Islamic associations proposed a Personal Status Code for Senegal to replace the Family Code which has been in place since 1972. The logic? The latter was judged to be too secular and therefore, not Muslim enough.

Debate over secularism was very lively when the new 2001 constitution was being drafted. This was several months after the political ascent of the Senegalese Democratic Party who wanted to take out all reference to the principle. During the last presidential elections of 2012, religious powers were encouraged to support candidates. This was problematic to the extreme. The election campaign was hijacked by the questioning of secularism and by those revendicating a more important place for religion, notably Islam, in institutions and for religious leaders in political affairs. Even the opposition parties bent to the discourse: they did not defend the principle of secularism in a clear way for fear of losing votes. That’s at least what they feared.

The law on equality which gives women an equal footing in electoral lists was voted in in 2010 by the parliament with much difficulty. Those opposed to the law drew primarily on religious arguments which they were happy to state quite openly: Islam does not recognise equality between the sexes. In the local elections of May 2014, Touba, a Muslim village, put forward a completely male list of candidates. Despite its illegality, this list was upheld by the state. No woman sits on the town’s local council.

As for Mali, it is difficult to sum up the situation in a few words. The first signs of the rupture of the secular pact were apparent in the debacle over the Family Code. The political authorities caved to the pressure of Islamic associations when they tried to reform the Family Code to encourage more equality between the sexes and social justice for women. The reform was years in the making and was the object of several consultations with political parties, civil society organisations and religious associations. In 2009, once the Code had been adopted, the associations protested in the streets of the capital, Bamako. The President suspended the Code and subjected it to revision. In 2011, the Parliament adopted a new, totally backward Code which perpetuated, if not aggravated, discrimination against women. But for Mali’s crafty Islamic High Council, it respected the rules of Islam.

The threat to secularism has aggravated with the serious political crisis which has shaken the country since 2012. The crisis was linked to the events taking place in North Africa over the same period. The phenomenon of ‘tourag irredentism’, which dates back to the independence period, served as a catalyst for the Malian crisis. Mali’s history is marked by 50 years of episodic trouble, followed by talks, accords, then ruptures between the state and political groups in the north. On 17th January 2012, after several bloody confrontations with the army, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MLNA) declared Azawad’s independence, making it an Islamic State. They received the solid support of several Islamist groups (Ansar dine, the Movement for the Uniqueness and the Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Al-Qaeda in Islamic Magreb (AQMI), Boko Haram (Nigeria), etc.) All of these movements were well armed, more so than the Malian army charged with defending the territory. Faced with the incapacity of state authorities to control the situation, a coup d’état put an end to the civil regime of President Toumani Touré in March 2012.

In 2012, jihadist movements occupied the entire north of the country up to Timbuktu and Gao. They finished by expelling MNLA from the region and declaring sharia to be the fundamental law. In the face of the complete powerlessness of the transition government put in place under African and international pressure, atrocities were committed against local populations; administrative buildings were destroyed, religious edifices and mausoleums were vandalised and invaluable manuscripts of African and global heritage were mutilated. In January 2013, the French military operation, Serval, led with the significant support of Chad and Niger, put an end to the jihadist armies’ advance towards the capital and their occupation of the North. A new President was elected in July 2013. Whilst maintaining secularism as a republic principle, the President began his inauguration speech with a long verse from the Koran. The crisis in the north is still not resolved. And jihadist groups keep appearing on the ground to launch surprise terrorist attacks.

The challenging of secularism which is gaining political terrain, the strong presence of Muslim laws in family codes, and the resurgence of the question of Islam all invite us to question the evolution of Islam as a religion and also as a political and identity politics in these two countries. The resurgence of the Islamic discourse of the 1970s and 1980s took place in the context of a crisis of modernity. There’s no doubt that this encouraged Senegalese and Malian Muslims to rethink and reconstruct their identity and their faith.

But bringing the issue of women’s identity back into the religious realm in Muslim societies puts their citizen identity in danger, as the women of north Africa feared at the heart of the Arab Spring. Their citizen identity is at the heart of democracy and modernity as in unfolds on the continent. How can we protect this in the face of religious assaults against family, political, social, sexual and reproductive rights? The right to contraception and abortion remain highly contested rights.

We must conclude that secularism is a rampart worth preserving. Political analysis of events in Mali and Senegal show how the ups and downs of secularism weigh heavily on citizens’ rights. There are numerous discourses which seek to subject these populations and especially women to a religious and cultural order, despite the democratic gains at the start of the 21st century. For women, reclaiming their rights from the hands of political and religious institutions is at the heart of their fight for democracy and modernity.

Translated from the French original by Jennifer Allsopp.

This article was originally published by Open Democracy on 14 October 2014 and is available here:

Secularism at risk in Sub-Saharan secular states