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Religion, Morality and Boko in West Africa: Students Training for a Good Life (Remoboko)

Remoboko is a study of religiosity and how it affects secular education (boko, in Hausa) in West Africa. It focuses on the presence, competition and conflict between secularism, Salafism and Pentecostalism on two campuses of the Université Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger, and the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. It examines how students that seek a degree that would insure them a better life, resort at the same time to Salafism and Pentecostalism. How boko in this context is both appealing and rejected is at the core of this project.
The fact that Pentecostals and Salafis have become influential on West African campuses is a development that indicates a transformation in the moral references and geographies of the university, but also in the ways in which secular education is perceived and valued. In Niger and Nigeria, the two countries the project covers, boko is criticized for being morally corruptive, culturally alienating and socially unfit because it supposedly lacks grounding in religious norms. For example, in targeting secular schools in both countries, the organization Boko Haram has illustrated the problematic nature of this concept and the dark side that its appropriations may have.
Across Africa, Salafis and Pentecostals have targeted learning institutions as they reject religious practices and values which they deem as inauthentic and dangerous, especially for students as future leaders of their communities. In that process, as one may notice on campuses across West Africa, students have become religious actors in their own right, challenging and redefining conceptions of good life and being student. In most cases, this situation has created new opportunities for religious discourses to shape interactions in an institution that used to be viewed as irreligious or not-religious enough, and criticized for its immorality.
Is religious activism on campus then signaling the de-secularization of academia? How is this affecting the “secular” which has shaped both the philosophy of the university and its practices? What is then the impact of these developments on the university as an institution of training, critical thinking, knowledge production and socialization? How can fostering critical abilities and enlightening the minds of students be reconciled with nourishing and imbuing souls with absolute certainties? How do these developments affect attitudes towards academic training, interactions among students, with teachers, gender relations and campus regulations? How do university authorities then manage the diversity and the pluralism, but also the competition, friction and outright clashes these developments entail? How does this affect the experience of being a student, a good Muslim and a good Christian? To use Max Weber’s formula, how are the “salvation goods” Salafis and Pentecostals offer, contribute to make life good?
It is important to keep in mind that this “religionizing” emerges, on campuses previously dominated by leftist movements and secular ideologies (Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, Laicit√©). Therefore, beyond the issues that emerge with Salafi and Pentecostal co-habitation of the campus, this project engages the overarching question of the redefinition of the ‘student’ as an intellectual and social-cult model. As it is the campus, lieu par excellence of the secular, that undergoes this change and transformation process, a key goal of the project is to understand the re-entanglement first, between religious traditions, and then, between the religious and the secular. This will allow us to look at these sources of norms in the same setting and in a new light.
Remoboko is a Leibniz Junior Research Group and runs from June 2018 until May 2023. It is based at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient of Berlin (ZMO) and is funded by resources of the Leibniz Competition. The project is headed by Dr Abdoulaye Sounaye.