Why Are There Few Islamist Parties South of the Sahara?

Alexander Thurston, University of Cincinnati

For Islamic movements, the Sahara has often been a bridge, rather than a barrier.[i] The Maliki school of jurisprudence, various Sufi orders, and even jihadists have all crossed the desert, sometimes finding greater purchase south of the Sahara than north of it.

Given these trans-Saharan religious connections, why are there so few Islamist parties south of the Sahara? In North Africa, Islamists are key players in politics. In Muslim-majority countries in the Sahel region and West Africa, however, there are no Islamist parties of any strength. This paper contrasts the fates of Islamism in North Africa and the Sahel.[ii] I argue that the political and religious space available to Islamism is smaller in the Sahel and nearby northern Nigeria than in North Africa, for three reasons.

First, there is the greater hegemony of clerical models of religious authority in the Sahel and Nigeria, in comparison with North Africa where clerics maintain substantial authority but where lay-led activist groups have also acquired a substantial share of the religious field. Second, there is a triple interaction between constitutionally-imposed secularism in most Sahel countries, the lack of Islamist mobilization in the Sahel in the 1970s and 1980s, and the way that liberalization in the 1990s favored French-educated technocrats in the Sahel and military-civilian networks in Nigeria. Third, there are demographic contrasts between North Africa on the one hand and the Sahel on the other hand, particularly the latter region’s relatively lower rates of middle class formation, urbanization, and formal education, as well as higher rates of religious diversity in parts of the greater Sahel. Together, these factors have shrunk the political, social, and religious space available to would-be Islamist movements.

Diverging Paths for Clerical Authority

Since the colonial period, clerical hegemony has largely continued in the Sahel and West Africa, whereas lay Muslims have taken leading roles in North African activist movements. In West Africa and the Sahel, there are effectively no equivalents to Western-educated, lay Islamist leaders such as Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi or Egypt’s Muhammad Morsi. There are few equivalents even to Sudan’s Hasan al-Turabi, who came from a scholarly lineage but who was himself a French- and British-trained lawyer.[iii]

One factor is that Sufism became a pillar of colonial governance in the Sahel and Nigeria.[iv] Sufi shaykhs’ influence often carried over powerfully into the postcolony.[v] Certainly, Sufism was and is crucially important in North African society and politics: for example, in Sudan, the Khalwatiyya Sufi order is the social base for the Democratic Unionist Party,[vi] and Sufi models of authority have influenced movements such as Morocco’s Justice and Charity Organization. During the twenty-first century, the governments of Morocco and Algeria have made efforts to promote Sufism, presenting Sufism as a counterweight to Islamism and Salafism.[vii]

Yet Sufism’s role in North Africa’s post-independence politics has sometimes been more limited than in the Sahel. North Africa even saw a degree of state-directed anti-Sufism, particularly in Qadhafi-era Libya, that had no parallel in the Sahel countries or Nigeria. Meanwhile, Islamic modernism had a greater impact in North Africa than in the Sahel, and modernist intellectuals had a substantial impact on the development of Islamist parties there.

The prominence of Sufism in the Sahel and West Africa helped to sustain models of clerical authority that were picked up even by Sufis’ competitors. Even amid a “fragmentation of sacred authority,”[viii] the model of the religious community headed by a shaykh has not been supplanted—or even seriously challenged—by  the model of a bureaucratic organization headed by lay Muslim activists. For example, in northern Nigeria, Salafi preachers draw massive audiences but the popularity of the Sufi orders continues. Salafis reject esotericism and belittle Sufis’ claims that their own shaykhs are saints, but Salafis still locate much religious authority in the shaykh’s ability to claim a place in a world of knowledge transmitted through clerics.[ix] Nigeria’s main Shi‘i movement, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, is headed by a lay activist, Ibrahim al-Zakzaky who reinvented himself on the model of a Shi‘i Ayatollah.

In defining the sources of religious authority, Sufis and Salafis have more in common with each other than they do with the lay intellectuals, scientists, doctors, engineers, and others who have often led Islamist movements in North Africa. In northern Nigeria, the only properly Islamist figures are a relatively limited coterie of university-based intellectuals who wielded policy influence during the phase of shari‘a implementation in northern states (especially 2000-2007), but who lack mass followings.[x] The durability of Sufism in the Sahel has also periodically brought Salafis into political coalitions with Sufis, particularly in Mali. Sahelian movements and coalitions that superficially resemble Islamism, and whose demands parallel those of Islamists elsewhere, nevertheless occupy different religious niches than Islamist movements in North Africa and beyond.

Laïcité, Liberalization, and History

Although most of northwest Africa was colonized by France, former colonies emerged into independence with very different formal descriptions of the roles that Islam should play in politics. In North Africa, the Moroccan and Libyan monarchies foregrounded Islamic referents and claims to authority, and the one-party states in Algeria and Mauritania also invoked Islamic values.

In North Africa, Islamists experienced a period of formation, growth, and/or revival in the 1970s and 1980s.[xi] The 1980s and 1990s brought the promise of a democratic opening – but incumbents frustrated the ambitions of their challengers, especially Islamists. Since the early 1990s, and especially since the Arab Spring, the trajectories of Islamist movements across North Africa have been diverse, ranging from shorter or longer periods in government to differing experiences of repression. If there are any generalizations to be made from these experiences, one might be that North African Islamist movements’ longevity today owes much to histories woven long before the Arab Spring and even long before the abortive openings of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Networks forged during the 1970s and after proved to be substantially durable, even as young Islamists today wrestle with the challenge of devising new strategies following disappointments such as the 2013 coup in Egypt.[xii]

This history of North Africa’s Islamists has only weak parallels on the other side of the Sahara. In the Sahel and West Africa, post-independence constitutions, as well as subsequent constitutions in the 1990s and after, enshrined the idea that states were laïc. Laïcité did not automatically foreclose prospects for Islamist mobilization. In the Sahel and Nigeria, however, underground movements that appeared under authoritarianism, such as Mali’s Ançar Dine (not to be confused with the jihadist Ansar al-Din), tended to be led by clerics and to be oriented less toward capturing state power and more toward piety. Meanwhile, top-down, state-backed councils and/or ministries, often dominated by clerics, exercised significant control over several Sahelian countries’ religious fields from the 1970s on.

When democratic openings and liberalizing forces swept parts of West Africa in the 1990s and 2000s, the beneficiaries were not Islamists. Rather, elections in Sahelian countries were won by French-educated technocrats who had typically served in the recently overthrown governments. In Nigeria, the victor of the 1999 election was a former military ruler, and retired generals and their networks have played substantial roles in the country’s politics ever since. Across the region, opposition politicians share much in terms of background, education, and outlook with those they aim to replace. Recurring party fragmentation and party switching have also blurred ideological differences between incumbents and their main challengers.

Clerics and would-be Islamists largely adjusted to these formally laïc democratic theaters. Politically-minded clerics endorsed or opposed particular candidates, and organized protests around controversial legislation. Such clerics typically intervene in politics not as the representatives of Islamist organizations but as the spokesmen for imagined moral communities. In the Sahel, clerics have periodically questioned the suitability of laïcité for their Muslim-majority societies,[xiii] but over roughly three decades of democratic experiments, explicitly Islamist organizing has remained minoritarian.

In Nigeria following the 1999 transition, northern states implemented “full shari‘a codes” that would have been the envy of North African Islamists – but the implementers of those codes were politicians from major parties. The politicians in turn constituted government committees dominated by clerics, often specifically by Sufis. Some of the northern politicians most vocal about instituting shari‘a went on to have conventional careers in the Nigerian context, switching parties when advantageous and showing no Islamist inclinations in, for example, federal cabinet positions. In short, moments of political opportunity have been profoundly different between North Africa and the Sahel, and the actors positioned to move into political openings have also been very different.

Different Demographics

Demography is not destiny, including for the fates of Islamist movements. Yet demography is one factor in shaping the constituencies available for Islamists and would-be Islamists. Much of the literature has emphasized the middle-class base of some Islamist movements,[xiv] including the parallel service sectors that the Muslim Brotherhood and others have developed.[xv] Historically, moreover, North African Islamists have tended to be strongest in cities. For example, in the 2011 Moroccan parliamentary elections, the Islamist Parti de justice et développement’s strongholds were the country’s largest cities.[xvi] Another key constituency for Islamists has been university students and other educated youth.

By virtually all of these measures, sub-Saharan Africa looks much different than North Africa. Just comparing Algeria and its neighbor Mali, for example, one finds that the rate of urbanization in the former was estimated at 73% in 2018, versus 42% in the latter; per capita gross domestic product was $4,115 in Algeria, versus $900 in Mali; and tertiary enrollments were 51% in Algeria, versus 6% in Mali.[xvii] Lower rates of urbanization, per capita GDP, and tertiary enrollments in the Sahel shrink the available constituencies for the kind of urban-based, middle-class, well-educated Islamist movements found in North Africa. Meanwhile, although I do not want to perpetuate stereotypes of predatory Sufi shaykhs exploiting peasants, it might be hypothesized that clerical authority remains stronger in the Sahel partly because the structure of the population is different than in North Africa.

Parts of the Sahel also have very different religious demographics than do the North African countries. Whereas much of both North Africa and the Sahel is virtually 100% Muslim, some of the Sahel countries – Burkina Faso and Chad, and also Nigeria as part of the greater Sahel – are roughly half Muslim. Having a religiously plural society is not necessarily an obstacle to forming Islamist parties: one could imagine scenarios in which Islamists might argue that their message is best poised to mobilize a democratic majority in particular contexts. Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC, in power since 2015) has periodically been accused by some Nigerian Christians of covertly functioning as an Islamist party, given that its primary electoral strength is in the Muslim-majority north and the heavily Muslim southwest, and given that many of its top leaders happen to be Muslims. In the case of the APC, the charge of Islamism has little merit, and Islamist voices have remained relatively marginalized at the national level in delicately balanced countries such as Nigeria and Burkina Faso. The top Muslim politicians in the more religiously diverse Sahelian and West African countries have tended to present themselves as national leaders rather than as the champions of Islam.

Another demographic issue concerns the relatively greater ethnic diversity in the Sahel and Nigeria as compared with North Africa – although as Hisham Aidi and Afifa Ltifi’s papers in this collection make clear: race, ethnicity, and identity are deeply contested and complicated in North Africa, ostensibly part of an “Arab World.” With that said, only in two Sahelian countries – Niger and Burkina Faso – is the largest ethnic group estimated to represent more than half of the population, and even in those two countries these groups (the Hausa and Mossi, respectively) constitute the barest of majorities.[xviii] Some religious communities in the Sahel and Nigeria are strongly associated with particular ethnic groups. At the same time, as noted above, Sufi orders, Salafi preaching networks, and even jihadist movements have often crossed ethnic and racial lines in their recruitment in the Sahel and Nigeria. The cross-racial outreach and recruitment of Mauritania’s Tewassoul Party,[xix] moreover, provides a model that aspiring Islamist organizers in nearby countries might follow, were it not for the other constraints they face.


If the space available to Islamists in the Sahel and Nigeria has been small, the status quo is not immune to challenge. In 2019, the Malian cleric Mahmoud Dicko – the most prominent Islamist-like figure in the country – founded the “Coordination des mouvements, associations et sympathisants.” Although not branded as Islamist, the organization might enable Dicko to run candidates in parliamentary elections and even run for president himself. On the other hand, the factors discussed above – clerical authority, formally secularist systems, and a relatively small middle class – remain entrenched in the Sahel and Nigeria, suggesting that this region is unlikely to replicate the strength





[i] Roman Loimeier, Muslim Societies in Africa: A Historical Anthropology (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013), Chapter Three.

[ii] For the purposes of the paper, North Africa includes Sudan as well as Mauritania, a country that is arguably both North African and Sahelian. Because of northern Nigeria’s long-time integration into Sahelian dynamics, I include Nigeria as part of the greater Sahel.

[iii] For a recent biography of Turabi, see W. J. Berridge, Hasan al-Turabi: Islamist Politics and Democracy in Sudan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[iv] David Robinson, Paths of Accommodation: Muslim Societies and French Colonial Authorities in Senegal and Mauritania, 1880-1920 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000). See also Jonathan Reynolds, “Good and Bad Muslims: Islam and Indirect Rule in Northern Nigeria,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 34:3 (2001): 601-618.

[v] Leonardo Villalón, Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[vi] On the role of Sufism in Sudan’s “Islamic State,” see Noah Salomon, For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), especially Chapter Two.

[vii] Ann Marie Wainscott, Bureaucratizing Islam: Morocco and the War on Terror (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[viii] Ousmane Kane, Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria: A Study of the Society for the Removal of Innovation and the Reinstatement of Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2003).

[ix] Alexander Thurston, Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[x] I am thinking of figures such as Ibrahim Suleiman of the Centre for Islamic Legal Studies at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

[xi] One important treatment of this period is Abdullah al-Arian, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[xii] On these strategic deliberations among young activists, see Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), Chapter Four.

[xiii] Abdoulaye Sounaye, “Ambiguous Secularism: Islam, Laïcité and the State in Niger,” Civilisations 58:2 (2009): 41-57.

[xiv] See, for example, Aaron Rock-Singer, Practicing Islam in Egypt: Print Media and Islamic Revival (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[xv] Janine Clark, Islam, Charity, and Activism: Middle-class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004).

[xvi] A useful map of the results can be found at https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/medihal-01088388/document.

[xvii] World Bank data.

[xviii] CIA World Factbook data as of March 2020.

[xix] See Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, Prêcher dans le désert: Islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie (Paris: Karthala, 2013), 222-227.