Does electoral inclusion constrain jihadist radicalisation in Africa?

The Zanzibari Salafi preacher Msellem Ali Msellem at a rally against the Tanzanian Union in May 2012 | Photo: Zanzibar Daima

Jannis Saalfeld, Christof Hartmann

Since October 2017, Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province has been plagued by a jihadist rebellion which so far has resulted in up to 2,000 deaths and the displacement of more than 400,000 people. The uprising erupted in the context of escalating tensions between the Mozambican government and an extremist youth sect whose origins can be traced to the  2000s. Indeed, over the past three decades, jihadist milieus dominated by militant Islamist preachers have emerged in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

In countries like Uganda, Nigeria, and, most recently, Mozambique, such milieus have transformed into domestic rebel groups. In others, they have assisted the expansion of external insurgent movements “going transnational”. In Kenya, for example, Somalia’s Al-Shabaab group has operated in a symbiotic relationship with a local network of jihadist clerics supporting the rebels discursively and supplying them with Kenyan fighters. Finally, even where, as in Tanzania, their development has so far not been followed by the outbreak of fully-fledged rebellions or the diffusion of foreign insurgencies, jihadist milieus have become involved in significant political violence. Against this background, in our new INEF project “Party Competition and Collective Jihadist Radicalisation” in sub-Saharan Africa, which is funded by the German Foundation for Peace Research, we investigate whether and under what conditions the electoral process has constrained the formation of jihadist milieus.

Does the ‘inclusion-moderation’ hypothesis hold for African countries?

Since the early 2000s, the study of political Islam has been increasingly shaped by the so-called “inclusion-moderation” hypothesis, i.e. the idea that by weakening the appeal of hardline ideologies and actors, electoral inclusion pushes oppositional social movements and political parties towards non-extremist modes of political action. Regionally, research to test this hypothesis has largely focussed on the role of Islamist parties in the Middle East. By contrast, the religiously diverse societies of sub-Saharan Africa have been largely neglected when it comes to investigating the relationship between party competition and Islamist (non-/de-)radicalisation.

In our project we address this gap. Taking into consideration that the formation of religious parties is illegal in many African states, we study electoral inclusion in terms of the cooperation between secular elites and Islamic lobby groups as well as individual activist clerics. As political Islam in sub-Saharan Africa is dominated by Salafism, we focus on Salafi actors. Does the electoral inclusion of these actors constrain the formation of jihadist milieus? Interestingly, the few existing Africanist assessments suggest quite the opposite.

Inclusion as a driver of radicalisation

For instance, studying the political activities of the Council of Imams and Preachers in Kenya (CIPK), Sebastian Elischer finds that the involvement of Salafi mainstream leaders in Kenyan electoral politics contributed to the rise of Salafi-jihadist entrepreneurs. According to Elischer, the incorporation of CIPK preachers into Kenya’s clientelist political settlement alienated many Muslim youth. Specifically, Elischer shows how the CIPK facilitated the expansion of a nascent jihadist milieu by actively campaigning for Christian political leaders like Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta without securing tangible benefits for the country’s Muslim minority in return. Against this background, Elischer goes as far as diagnosing “the incompatibility of religious purity with the modus operandi of Kenyan party politics” (Elischer 2019: 16).

Elischer’s argument is echoed by Liazzat Bonate’s assessment of the alliance between Mozambique’s ruling party Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Mozambique Liberation Front, Frelimo) and the Salafi-dominated Conselho Islâmico de Moçambique (Islamic Council of Mozambique, Cislamo). Since the introduction of multi-party politics in the early 1990s, Cislamo representatives have been cooperating with Frelimo in the electoral arena, calling for Muslims to vote for the ruling party, and supporting it financially. Bonate contends that this closeness is among a number of factors that have generated widespread Muslim grassroots disenchantment with Cislamo in northern Mozambique, thereby facilitating the emergence of anti-state fringe groups. Hence, she highlights that “CISLAMO is not an uninterested party to the conflict in Cabo Delgado.”

Secular group divides and Salafi non-radicalisation

In our project we go beyond the conventional inclusion-moderation hypothesis by exploring the relationship between Salafism and secular social cleavages, and by examining how this relationship shapes the impact of electoral competition on Salafi activism. While Salafism is often perceived as inherently anti-secularist, there is evidence that in some cases, the political involvement of Salafi actors has been primarily driven by non-religious group divides. For instance, in his extensive work on the history of Islamic reformism in Ethiopia’s Bale region, Terje Østebø finds that in the 1990s, the local Salafi Ahl al-Sunna movement turned into a strong proponent of Oromo nationalism, “advocating for the notion of Oromumma, a community based on ethnic exclusiveness, rather than that of the Ummah” (Østebø 2010: 31). In his view, this demonstrates, “a largely secularist thinking among the Salafis, detaching religion from public and political life” (Ibid.: 31). In a similar vein, Abdulai Iddrisu traces how in northern Ghana, an emerging Salafi movement took sides in the Dagbon chieftancy conflict. Specifically, he argues that as result of several random events, in the 1960s a fierce Sufi-Salafi socio-theological rivalry eventually started to overlap with the secular succession dispute between the Andani and Abudu Royal Gates. Guided by these insights, we contend that if Salafi movements have historically become tied to secular group divides, the “electoralisation” of these fault-lines effectively constrains these movements from shifting towards jihadism.

By testing this hypothesis based on the comparison of sub-national developments in Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya and Mozambique, we seek to underline that while jihadism has undoubtedly turned into a substantial security threat in sub-Saharan Africa, there also exist regional settings that have proven resilient to the rise of militant Islamist entrepreneurs. 

Cited literature

Elischer, Sebstain (2019): “’Partisan Politics Was Making People Angry’: The Rise and Fall of Political Salafism in Kenya.” The Journal of the Middle East and Africa, 10 (2), 121-136.

Iddrisu, Abdulai (2013): Contesting Islam in Africa: Homegrown Wahhabism and Muslim Identity in Northern Ghana, 1920-2010. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.

Østebø, Terje (2010): Islamism in the Horn of Africa. Assessing Ideology, Actos, and Objectives. Oslo: International Law and Policy Institute.


Jannis Saalfeld, M.A.

Room: LS 034
Phone: +49 (0)203-379-3847
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Prof. Dr. Christof Hartmann

Room: LF 325
Phone: +49 (0)203-379-2046
Staff Portfolio