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Religion and Educational Reform in the Sahel: Senegal, Mali, Niger

Religion and Educational Reform in the Sahel: Senegal, Mali, Niger

A project led by Leonardo Villalón

Reforming religious education in the Sahel

The Religion and Educational Reform research project examines the social, religious, political and institutional dimensions of parallel efforts at reforming religious education in three countries: Senegal, Mali and Niger. The project was carried out as one of seven research streams of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, an international research consortium headed by the Overseas Development Institute (London UK) and funded by the UK Department for International Development and the Consortium for Irish Aid (2007-12).

In much of postcolonial Africa education as a public good has been poorly delivered, and of sharply declining quality in the post-colonial period. At least part of the reason for this is the fact that in many countries—and perhaps especially in Francophone Africa—the institutional structures of educational systems that were inherited from colonialism have been a very poor “fit” with societal demands and cultural realities, and this is at least part of the reason for the widespread failure of educational policies to foster developmental outcomes.

Informal religiously-based education

Across the Muslim majority countries of the Sahel, one societal response in the post-colonial period (and indeed beginning well before independence) to the bad “fit” between the provision of public education and social expectations has been the development of a vast parallel system of informal religiously-based education, outside the official state system, and created largely in explicit response to the limitations of the state educational system.

These unofficial “informal”, or “parallel” schools have developed in widely varied forms and levels, ranging from very basic Qur’anic schools to quite sophisticated Franco-Arabic schools. Seeing them as competing with the official educational systems, states variously attempted to suppress, control, or ignore these alternatives throughout the first three decades of independence. The policies played out differently in each country and at different times, but in each one hears regular stories of government efforts to force children to attend the official state schools, and of the strategies and ruses by parents to resist. As Louis Brenner noted in surveying Mali’s educational policy twenty years ago, the underlying theme of the story is “a profound conflict between government policy and an opposition to it expressed by means of Islamic education.”

Following gradual but significant changes that have occurred in both the domestic and the international governance contexts in the past two decades, however, a number of factors in the 1990s prompted a broad array of countries in Africa to embark on significant experiments in reforming education, and galvanized a renewed attention by the international community on education as a key factor in development. In the context of the Francophone and Muslim countries of the Sahel, one striking aspect of the reform processes have been the attempts to bring the informal and semi-formal religiously-based educational systems more squarely into the formal state system, or at times to reform the formal system to borrow characteristics from the informal, such as the introduction of religious education in state schools.

New reforms

To be sure, there is a long history of debates about the relationship of religion to educational policy in the region, and there are parallel debates elsewhere in the Muslim world. But given the long history of post-colonial policies of maintaining Francophone and secular education, these reform efforts are truly unprecedented in the Sahel. While still in development, and although the extent of their impact has yet to be fully seen, the very fact of undertaking such reforms marks a significant departure from previous policy in the region. The education sector is thus a key example of how the intersection of political liberalization in the name of democracy and the changing social contexts of the past two decade have allowed for—and sometimes driven—significant shifts attempting to reform institutions and align policies with prevailing social demands.

Three Sahelian countries

The research stream on “Religion, demande sociale, et reformes éducatives au Sahel” of the African Power and Politics Programme (APPP) involved a comparative fieldwork-based study of the politics of educational reform in three Sahelian countries—Niger, Mali and Senegal—all of which were fairly well advanced in the implementation of reforms. In all three of these countries the stated motivation for reform was the argument that bringing educational institutions more into line with local social realities and expectations will help to make things work better by creating systems that will work with social and cultural realities rather than against them. These reform efforts thus represent institutional changes consciously fashioned to “go with the grain” of African social realities. Specifically in this instance the reforms align policies with the strong preferences and prevailing cultural norms of parents in the Muslim Sahel.

In all three countries the state-led reform projects have attempted to incorporate or capture the flourishing parallel educational systems, while also trying to impose some degree of formalization, thus resulting in the creation of what might be considered new hybrid systems. These reforms have themselves been made possible by changes in the nature of the state, and of state-society relations in the era of liberalization that has occurred since the early 1990s. In many ways, the arguments now driving the reform efforts in these countries were unthinkable in earlier decades. These new initiatives have been made possible and have been promoted by key actors due to changes in the governance context, themselves the product of gradual and incremental societal changes set in motion in the period of political liberalization of the 1990s. The research project sought to closely examine both the parallel arguments for and similarities in the process of reform in these cases, as well as document the variations and specificities of each country.

Institutional framework

The research project has been carried out as a collaborative undertaking between the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida and the Laboratoire d’Etudes et de Recherches sur les dynamiques Sociales et le Développement Local (LASDEL) in Niamey, and codirected by Leonardo A. Villalón and Mahamane Tidjani Alou. The project built on an initial set of interviews carried out in all three countries by Villalón in 2008. Building on this, an initial planning meeting was held in June 2009 at LASDEL, including Abdourahmane Idrissa, who was to serve as research coordinator, to plan out the fieldwork. A research team composed of field assistants in each country was set up: Mamadou Bodian for Senegal, Issa Fofana for Mali, and Ibrahim Yahya Ibrahim for Niger.

The teams worked along with Villalón and Idrissa in carrying out both extensive interviewing with key actors as well as ethnographic observations of sample schools in each country. In Niger, under the direction of Tidjani Alou, further ethnographic studies of individual schools were carried out by Ali Bako, Issa Tahirou, and Mokhtar Abdourahmane.


Individual country reports, available below, present the core research results, and develop in detail the experiences of the reform project in each of the three countries. An examination of the politics of educational reform in all three countries is also available in a chapter authored by Villalón. In the hopes that the research will be relevant to policy makers interested in the role of religion in development projects, a policy brief presenting some of the main lessons from the research is available in English and in French.

Villalón, Leonardo A. and Mamadou Bodian. 2015. “Islam et réforme éducative au Sénégal : tensions et négociations vers un modèle hybride.” In État, Sociétés et Islam au Sénégal. Un air de nouveau temps?, edited by Abdourahmane Seck, Mayke Kaag, Cheikh Guèye and Abdou Salam Fall. Paris: Karthala.

Villalón, L.A. 2012. “Rethinking Education in the Sahel: Democracy, Religious Change, and the Politics of Reform,” In Ellen Lust and Stephen Ndegwa, eds. Governing Africa’s Changing Societies: Dynamics of Reform. Boulder: Lynne Rienner publishers.

Villalón, Leonardo A. and Mamadou Bodian. 2012. “Religion, demande sociale, et reformes éducatifs au Sénégal: Quand l’Etat introduit l’éducation arabo-islamique dans l’enseignement publique pour concurrencer l’école franco-arabe et capturer les daara.” African Politics and Power Programme Research report 5.

Villalón, Leonardo A., Abdourahmane Idrissa and Mamadou Bodian. 2012. “Religion, demande sociale, et reformes éducatifs au Niger: Quand l’Etat redynamise l’école franco-arabe, reorganize les écoles ‘Islamiyya’, et essaie de capturer les écoles coraniques.” African Politics and Power Programme Research report 6.

Villalón, Leonardo A., Abdourahmane Idrissa and Mamadou Bodian. 2012. “Religion, demande sociale, et reformes éducatifs au Mali: Quand les acteurs sociaux poussent l’État à encadrer la transition des médersas arabo-islamiques au system franco-arabe.” African Politics and Power Programme Research report 7.

Villalón, Leonardo A. and Mahaman Tidjani-Alou. 2012. “Religion and Education Reform in Africa: Harnessing Religious Values to Developmental Ends?” African Power and Politics Programme Policy Brief 7 (English).

Villalón, Leonardo A. and Mahaman Tidjani-Alou. 2012 “Religion et réforme de l’éducation en Afrique: Exploiter les valeurs religieuses au profit du développement.” African Power and Politics Programme Policy Brief 7 (French).