Bamako. It’s 3:30am and someone has been singing verses from the Koran non-stop for well over an hour. Not very loud but very persistent. He must be keeping hundreds awake at this hour but clearly no-one is going to tell him to be quiet.
Every afternoon the reception area in the court of the Maison de la Presse in Conakry turns into a miniature mosque. When I witnessed it for the first time I will freely admit to feeling upset. More precisely: my secular, social democratic and most of all my journalistic sensibilities were upset: why bring evidence-free religion into a building that supposedly celebrates evidence-based reporting? I was told that it was not a problem.
Dakar. The city centre goes into shutdown. Large groups of people, chain of 99 prayer beads in hand, stroll through the narrow streets and settle in any place where there is still space. The Plateau becomes one large open air prayer session for the duration of the Friday afternoon prayer, the most important one of the week.
What is going on ?
The rise of Islam in this part of the continent is neither extraordinary nor inexplicable. After Independence, formerly French territories like Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger were run by political elites that singularly failed their people. No better place to go to than, once again, that epic novel by Ahmadou Kourouma, En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, a novel I want to see on every Global Top Ten Must Read list. As Kouroumah shows, the political elites combined the rhetoric of modern nationalism and democracy with styles of leadership that had roots in local traditions. But the people at large did not see a clever hybrid or a government by the people for the people. They saw kleptocrats who served themselves and their families and in-laws, their friends, and the interests of the former colonial power, especially France. Everybody else came dead last.
Meanwhile, in came another belief, carried along by a large group of mostly Western individuals. In tandem with sections of that already discredited political elite, this imported gospel was called:
Nobody was really sure what in Heaven’s name this meant, not least because the high priests (at first) and high priestesses (later and in larger numbers) kept changing the definition every other year. First, development was to come through big, state-coordinated plans. Then culture had to be promoted and women too – not at all a contradiction in most of West Africa. Then the state had to be dismantled and decentralised while corruption had to be fought and good governance promoted. For a while, building infrastructure would bring development but then environmental degradation had to be halted. And security had to be promoted, in countries where the army had taken over power (often with widespread popular approval) but then had been allowed to turn into undisciplined racketeering machines. Exceptions duly noted.
And the people? The saw armies of Four Wheel Drives come and go, bedecked with an increasingly bewildering array of logos and labels. And they stayed poor.
I am writing this from Mali, a country that has had more than its unfair share of these multiplying and often contradictory development fads rammed down its throat. The development faith gained its disproportionate influence because of the money that was attached to it, which the elites, correctly, identified as another resource to be exploited. And the fads it brought along across the decades were always, always, always the result of development in donor countries.
As a result, Mali is the prefect example of a development state where development rhetoric was on everyone’s lips. A country where foreign-organised workshops, notoriously, passed for news items on state television. But the rhetoric is losing all of its relevance. Fast. ‘I live less than an hour away from Bamako and my village has no electricity, no safe drinking water and not even one decent primary school. ‘ It is these and other statements (including the absolutely dismal performance of the education sector in spite of Millennium Goals rhetoric) that should compel all of us to come clean and give the development experiment in Mali and elsewhere its proper name.
An abject, catastrophic failure.
The people, still poor, have already done so. They are turning elsewhere, to another imported religion but one that arguably has older and deeper roots. Islam does not promise material gain through “development”. In fact, it does not promise development at all. Neither does it change priorities every two years. Islam has a number of immutable basic tenets that, like the five calls to prayer, can act as anchors in peoples’ lives. It also has a good number of very practical rules that people can live by; solidarity is one of them, no matter how modest one’s means. In short, if offers an outlook on life that is a much closer to the majority’s lived experience than any kind of rhetoric emanating from air-conditioned offices and cars. The people do not own aircons; they own cheap ventilators.
The Sufi tradition predominates here and revulsion at the vandal hordes that invaded northern Mali and the ugly killing sprees by Boko Haram is virtually universal. This is not the kind of Islam that compels people to go and fight in Syria or Iraq, with a few exceptions here and there. What it does do, is offer refuge. The political elites have failed, the security details steal and everyone sees the Development Gospel for the scam it is.