Slogans such as “revolutionary march” and “fight against imperialism” reverberated incongruously around the soaring ceramic arches of Niamey’s largest mosque, as the television cameras rolled.

Salafist imam Souleymane Maiga Mounkaila joined Sufis and civic activists in a “prayer of support” for Niger’s new military rulers on the first Friday of the month.

That it’s being held in the great mosque of the West African country’s capital “is no accident”, they say.

Just as on social media and the streets, this high place of religious life in Niger is at the centre of efforts to drum up support for the army officers who overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum in July.

On the capital’s Resistance Square, thousands had gathered for months demanding French troops leave Niger’s soil.

Preachers rubbed shoulders with musicians and pan-Africanist activists who whipped up the crowds with speeches extolling the glory of the ruling army officers they liken to liberators.

“When it’s politicians who talk, a Muslim expresses reservations. But when you tell him it’s the prophet who is speaking… he wants to go into battle,” Mounkaila told AFP.

In Niger — as in Burkina Faso and Mali, which have also undergone military coups since 2020 — religious leaders and especially Salafists have emerged as the unexpected allies of the new military authorities.

– ‘More space to Muslims’ –

In winning the support of religious leaders, the largely popular regimes in Niger and Burkina enjoy backing that is “better structured” and “more vocal” than other support tends to be, Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, of the International Crisis Group, said.

Mali’s influential imam, Mahmoud Dicko, may well be one of the ruling junta’s most vociferous critics. But he started out by supporting junta chief colonel Assimi Goita.

In Burkina’s capital Ouagadougou, the young captain Ibrahim Traore is the nation’s first Muslim head of state in 42 years — in a country where around 60 percent of the population is Muslim.

His rise to power in 2022 gave a boost in Burkina Faso to the followers of a purist form of Islam called Wahhabism, which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia, and principally represented by the African nation’s Sunni Movement (MSBF).

Such movements gain a following “around the idea that Christians have monopolised the political running of the country since independence”, Yahaya Ibrahim said.

They attempt “to influence the course of the transition (back to civilian rule) by giving more space to Muslims”, he added.

– ‘Return to moral order’ –

Mohammad Ishaq Kindo, a Saudi-trained imam and leading MSBF spiritual figure, uses his sermons to appeal for support for efforts to push back jihadists implanted in large parts of the country.

Ministers regularly come to pray at his mosque on festivals such as Tabaski, the local term for Eid el-Adha.

In Mali’s capital, Bamako, the Salafists’ political role has been bolstered by imam Dicko.

He was one of the main instigators of demonstrations that helped lead to the fall of former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in 2020.

While the links have loosened in Mali, in Burkina the faithful are still at the forefront of manifestations of support for the military transition.

The kind of anti-French slogans that are in vogue in various countries in the region, as well as calls for closer ties with Russia whose flags they brandish, are common.

The democratic regimes of the 1990s, supported by former colonial power France, “caused major disappointments”, he told AFP.

Faced with that, “a certain form of return to the moral order arises as the only alternative”, he said.

– ‘Riding junta’s popularity’ –

The principle of secularism, women’s and gay rights have also prompted difficult debates, revealing deep schisms between some of the elite and a section of the population.

“The West dictated to our leaders its wishes on the political, security and cultural fronts, which are diametrically opposed to the values of Islam and our cultures,” Mounkai

la, the imam, said.

Some of the strictest religious precepts have been enacted by Malian authorities, including banning shisha bars to crack down on hookah smoking.

Friday prayers in the street and the wearing of the veil have become the norm in Niger in recent decades.

Neighbourhood Koranic schools have also sprung up.

Since the coup that ushered in General Abdourahamane Tiani, some religious leaders go as far as preaching on TV or in the streets dressed in military fatigues.

“Religion represents important social capital,” Abdoulaye Sounaye, a researcher at Berlin’s Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient said.

“The regime is trying to legitimise its power by giving these preachers a nod,” he added.

The imams, meanwhile, are “riding on the junta’s popularity” and declarations about restoring sovereignty through a form of often opportunistic “religious entrepreneurship”, Sounaye said.

Despite their growing influence in Sahelian societies, the political weight of the religious movements remains limited for now, however.

And military leaders maintain a tight grip, with political parties in Niger, Burkina and Mali suspended.

Mali’s new constitution, adopted in July, retained the principle of state secularism, ignoring fundamentalists’ demands.