Meet the new researcher: Abdourahmane Idrissa

Abdourahmane (Rahmane) Idrissa recently started at the ASCL as Assistant Professor in Islam in Contemporary Africa. We interviewed Dr Idrissa about his research topics and future plans.

What has been the focus of your research?
I have two research interests, one being the politics of Islam and secularism in Africa, mainly Sub-Saharan Africa, and the other, state formation in African contexts. Regarding the first focus, I will launch a research project in Mali this summer, where the situation has taken many interesting turns. Much of the northern, and parts of the central regions of the country are in the throes of conflicts that are largely fueled by Salafi ideologies. Salafi ideologues also play a critical role in Mali’s democratic politics in the capital, where their leadership has a strong influence on many top politicians, including the head of state. Moreover, even though they are a small minority in the country, Salafi have an outsize impact on the religious discourse in Mali, in ways that are very clearly threatening to secularism in the public square. At the same time, there is a pro-secularism discourse, including from some religious groups, and the violence of Jihadists in the north is evidence to many that there is wisdom in supporting some form of secularism. Of course, neither Islam nor secularism can be defined in absolute terms, even though we are often tempted to do that. Context matters, and what we are seeing in Mali is a struggle to define both the right kind of Islam and of secularism in a country – and region – where that issue clearly matters enormously today.

How will you conduct your research in Mali? This is quite a sensitive matter.
It is sensitive indeed, and that is precisely what makes it worth researching. This summer will just be spade work for me, exploring the terrain, developing a feeling for it. Essentially, what I will be doing is trying to assess the variation that obviously exists between the various denominational communities apropos these issues. So I will wish to have conversations with leading people in different Islamic persuasions – the Wahhabiya (Salafi), the Sufi orders, Ançar Dine International, the Soufi movement, the Nko movement –, Christians, and also people committed to the promotion of secularism in the public square. Based on the results from these interviews, I will be able to design a research project that will also include, of course, the approach that would need to be adopted given the sensitivity of the matter.    

What about your second focus, state building in African contexts?
Well, I started from those African contexts, which may also be called, ‘the African experience’. There is a specific African, especially Sub-Saharan historical experience, in particular with regard to what happened in the past two, three centuries. In that period, most of Sub-Saharan Africa was integrated into the modern world and its hegemonic Western political and economic systems in the same way, via European colonialism, and most of the subcontinent was then affected by a set of structural processes, in ways that are distinct from how such integration happened elsewhere. The defining characteristic of this, let’s say, modern African experience is the breathtakingly rapid, large-scale nature of changes that it brought about in the structures of life across the continent. Think, for instance, of all the ecological or environmental change, the revolutionary phenomenon of population growth, urbanization in what used to be largely a continent of villages and clan settlements, the emergence of new cultures and entirely new social groups, all of this occurring within a century; that is, through the lifespan of just three generations.
The socio-cultural group to which I myself belong, school-educated, Europhone Africans with a mixed modernist culture, did not exist at all in 1920, or even in 1930, in my country of Niger. Niamey, the capital of Niger, was a group of hut villages that had less than 5,000 people in 1920. It now has 1.5 million people, high rises, tens of thousands of cars, interchanges, and people who read Marcel Proust and write blogs. Today, this has resulted in strikingly diffracted conditions in Africa, where you sometimes have the impression that you’re living simultaneously in the middle ages and in the age of the hypermodern. So the fundamental question I am asking is, what type of sovereignty could effectively cope with this? What type of leadership could make the most of these particular circumstances? Of course, that is a rather philosophical interrogation. Philosophy is good, but for now, I am grappling with it rather through history, by looking at the processes of state formation that are shaped by this experience, by these contexts. One of the book projects I’ve been working on for the last two years is a history of modern state formation in Niger, reaching back to colonial rule, and looking at the ways in which sovereign elites have tried to build the bases for state sovereignty in the concrete context of Niger, which itself is one expression of that African experience I just described. 

Can you elaborate on the book?
At the moment, my research is especially about the developmentalist period in Niger, say after 1945 until the mid 1980s. This was a time when sovereign elites dreamt of accomplishing what they called the total transformation of the country, meaning, building it up from scratch. But the only resource they’d got then was peasant labour, and the production of groundnuts, which was basically the only foreign exchange earner available. No significant local capital accumulation, practically no investments from the rich world. So they set about to transform peasants into modern, productive farmers, a kind of social engineering in fact. This has led to some fascinating outcomes, also some rather surprising phenomena. For instance, in Niger, peasants in the rural areas were familiarized with television before urbanites, because the government used television to educate them. But the challenge was to accumulate enough capital rents from the groundnut economy to transition into something more enriching, since when you rely on groundnuts, you essentially sell a commodity and buy everything else, and so you are always in deficit. Niger failed here for several reasons, including the continuing decline in the market value of groundnuts and the continuing rise of the price of the manufactured goods that were imported. And then, of course, the early 1970s was a period of drought and distress during which farmers were allowed to focus on food crops, and stopped paying taxes.

Was this a turning point in Niger’s economy?
A huge turning point. This was basically the end of the developmentalist social contract through which sovereign elites were trying to build the state. In fact, it was signaled by a coup d’état, in April 1974, when the military removed the single party government that had been in power since independence. The military regime attempted renewing this social contract by using the boon of uranium, they called it the “development society”. The tack was a little different from the one followed by the previous government, it was more about food self-sufficiency than about rent crops, basically because the government thought they no longer needed to extract money from the rural economy, since they had yellow cake. So farmers needed not produce for export, only for feeding themselves and the cities. But the uranium windfall was short-lived. By the end of the 1970s, there was a glut in the international market and the commodity became worthless almost overnight. Meanwhile, Niger had saddled itself with debt, because it had good credit, due to both its uranium and the fact that there was lots of capital, both petrodollars and Eurodollars, slushing about on the financial markets in search of return. The debt became crushing because it was denominated in US dollars and Niger’s currency was pegged to a devaluing French Franc. All of this, plus a new drought in 1984, eventually forced the developmental project to a screeching halt by the mid-1980s.  

You founded a think tank in political economy in Niger a couple of years ago. Why?
I founded the EPGA (Economie Politique & Gouvernance Autonome) because I wanted to familiarize people, especially young people, with the problems of political economy. In Niger, as in many other countries in Africa, especially the French-speaking part, people are illiterate in economics, and even more so, in political economy. They are obsessed with politics. But you cannot appreciate what’s at stake in politics unless you grasp the political-economy context, it’s like trying to study vegetation without looking at soil and climate. And politics tends to be more about opinion, political economy, more about understanding. At the beginning, in 2011, my idea was to focus on what I thought were the three major issues of Niger’s political economy: youth employment or, as I called it, socio-economic integration, migration, and population growth. I also wanted to keep EPGA independent from the Niger government, but in retrospect, that was perhaps a mistake. Without government support, we tended to become a consultancy paid by northern organizations. But that has also led to some productive partnerships, for instance with Clingendael in the Netherlands. We worked on migration, and more recently on security and governance problems in the Sahel borderlands. Still, I want to try to work more with the government and I have started building a relationship with the ministry of justice in Niger for research on judicial reform. This is in relation with a project they have started to put in place, and that would make legal assistance available to populations that have been totally lacking it so far. In fact: the majority of Nigeriens confronted with modern law – modern law as opposed to customary or religious justice.

Niger is a country of transit regarding migration. What do you think of the EU’s attempts to curb migration from Africa, and its claims to address the root causes of migration?
I have conducted research for the Fredrich Ebert Stiftung about this. It is specifically about the impact of EU migration policies on the economic-political development of African countries. I did fieldwork in Nigeria, Niger and Mali for this. A key finding was that the EU and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) do not have the same understanding of the causes of migration. The EU focuses on what, from the point of view of ECOWAS, are symptomatic issues, things like youth unemployment, bad governance, lack of border control, and culture. This is because the EU have defined migration as a problem or a crisis, so they need to find “causes” for it. If you have a problem, if you are sick, there are causes for it, right? But from the point of view of ECOWAS, migration isn’t a problem, it is a structural phenomenon related to imbalances in the regional economies and that has both negative and positive dimensions. In most countries, there is too much labour in relation to land and capital, and migration is a way to regulate the imbalance. It has been going on for decades within West Africa and also from West Africa towards other Sub-Saharan regions. It has only become a problem or crisis when West Africans started to also migrate towards Europe. So the EU seeks to address this so-called problem by using targeted social policy and repression, but I don’t see how this would lead to any productive outcome.

What do you recommend?
For ECOWAS, the ultimate goal isn’t to stop migration, but to make it profitable to regional economies, to find a way that labour, both skilled and unskilled, could be allocated to areas of growth in optimum fashion. But this supposes a level of governance efficiency and political will that no West African state is achieving right now. Cote d’Ivoire was actually able to do this on its own in the 1960s-70s, but I find we don’t very much study our own models in Africa.
Now, as for the EU, I cannot tell them to stop seeing this as a problem, but if they want root causes, they should look hard at the welfare situation in African countries. Family welfare is central to African lives, and there are no working welfare systems covering the masses in African countries. A good chunk of migrant remittances is for welfare, not productive activities. If African states are encouraged to develop functional welfare systems, much can change quite dramatically, and not just on the migration front. One solution that the African side proposes is related to the fact that there are actually labour needs in Europe and the EU could develop a migration policy that would include guest workers and other labour allocation programs. That way, it would be easier to control who gets in, how one gets in, and how and when one gets out; and it would also be easier, politically speaking, for African leaderships to accept repatriation policies for irregular migrants.
One thing I also found during my research in West Africa is that the EU has funded Nigeria and Mali to develop migration policies; they have funded Niger to develop a migration strategy. But they themselves do not have a migration policy! The only thing they have is to tell migrants to ask for asylum. This corresponds to the idea that migration is a problem originating in Africa – hence the solutions have to be developed there – and the Europeans need just throw money at it and hope it will go away. That’s neither pragmatic, nor rational, nor responsible.


Idrissa, A. (2018). Weakened States and Market Giants: Neoliberalism and Democracy in Niger and West Bengal. Africa Development, 43, 3.

Idrissa, R. (2018). Les Trajectoires du salafisme politique au Sahel. Le cas du Niger. Politique africaine, 1, 149.

Idrissa, R. (2017). The Politics of Islam in the Sahel. Between Persuasion and Violence. Routledge.


2017-2018. Humboldt Experienced Researcher. University of Göttingen, Germany

2013-2019. Director, think tank Economie Politique et Gouvernance Autonome, Niamey, Niger

2016-2017. Research Fellow, Society, Work and Politics Institute. University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

2011-2013. Coordinator, Programme Economie Politique et Gouvernance, Niamey, Niger

2009-2011. Global Leadership Postdoctoral Fellow. Universities of Oxford and Princeton, UK and USA

2009. PhD in Political Science, University of Florida, USA

2003. MA of Political Science, University of Kansas, USA

Interviews with other newly started researchers:

Lidewyde Berckmoes, Assistant Professor in Regional Conflict in Contemporary Africa

Annachiara Raia, University Lecturer African Languages and Cultures