Politics and Religion: Politics and African Religious Traditions

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Africa is home to nearly 600 million people. Christianity and Islam are leading religious traditionseach has in excess of 250 million followers in Africa. As a result, there are declining numbers of followers of traditional indigenous religions and very few atheists or agnostics. Both Islam and Christianity were imported into Africa in the historical past. Islam gradually spread over the last thousand years, whereas Christianity was imported by and intimately associated with Europeanespecially British and Frenchcolonialism beginning in the late nineteenth century.

Social Dynamics

The main analytical problem involving an understanding of the relation between religion and politics in Africa is the region's astonishing multifariousness of religious beliefs, ethnic divisions, cultural distinctions, and political modes. Africa is marked by a high degree of political and religious heterogeneity, making a study of politics and religion in the region complex but rewarding. To ascertain the nature of the contemporary relation between religion and politics in Africa, it is necessary to take into account the impact of European colonialism, especially from the 1880s, as it was the primary modernizing force throughout the region. One of its key impacts wastheoretically, officially, and ostensiblyto divide Africa's religious world from its secular and, hence, political sphere.

Within Western social sciences, theoretical dividing lines between politics and other social actions are relatively clear cut. Such disciplinary divisions between, for example, political science, sociology, and economics frequently lead to assumptions that a complex reality can be neatly compartmentalized. However, the relation between politics and religion in Africa cannot be so easily compartmentalized. Not least of the problems is the difficulty in deciding where religion ends and politics begins. For example, during the colonial period, religious movements were often simultaneously anticolonial political movements and fundamentally concerned with both sociocultural and religio-spiritual reform. As such, in looking at Africa's colonial period it is difficult to be clear whether individual religious, political, or social objectivesor a mixture of all threewere paramount when seeking to account for the motivations of certain groups and organizations. Overall, it is more analytically satisfactory to perceive such movements as involving a combination of motivations that often defy easy or precise pigeonholing.

Generally, religion relates to politics in Africa in ways that are themselves linked to the particular historical and developmental trajectories of individual societies, whether traditional or modern. In traditional (i.e., precolonial) African societies, the relationship between religion and politics was always a close one, for religious beliefs and practices underpinned political power, while political concerns permeated to the heart of the religious sphere. Rulers were not only political heads but also religious leaders whose well-being was closely linked to their people's health and welfare. The modernization that accompanied European colonialism led to a secularization of public life and a practical separation of politics and religion at the state level. As a result, the notion of politics not only involves general relations of power but also relates to the workings of formal political institutions (e.g., legislatures, executives, presidents), as well as focusing attention more generally on issues of authority, legitimacy, power, and equity.

In seeking to peel away the layers of interaction between religion and politics, it becomes clear that each issue has several dimensions in Africa. However, attempts to arrive at an analytically precise definition of the term religion is fraught with difficulties because no consensus exists as to the proper understanding of what religion in Africa is. Theologians are interested primarily in understanding the nature of its individual or collective spiritual significance. Anthropologists see religion as one, albeit an important, component of the cultural aspects of Africans' social life. Sociologists seek to identify and examine religion's general and specific social imports in the countries of the region. Political scientists look for signs of political activity associated with religion, as they are keen to assess religion's political roles, especially in relation to specific groups and organizations. For example, they may question to what extent a certain religious group also serves as a vehicle of sociopolitical change. Such differing assessments of the nature of religion in Africa suggest that it would be most constructive to note its combined spiritual and material dimensions. This involves both personal belief systems as well as group ideologies, which together help to motivate individuals and groups to behave in a variety of ways. Clearly, most Africans would regard themselves as religious people, believing in a God (or gods) who looks over them and helps guide what they do. In addition, many believe that religious worship, or involvement with religious organizations, is an important means to try to improve their current earthly positions. In other words, it can be difficult to discern whether an African's individual religious motivations are primarily religious, political, or social.

Social dynamics in Africa may best be viewed as an entwined triple-stranded helix of state, class, and ethnicity. The metaphor of the triple strand is useful in understanding the political and social role of religion in Africa, with the three strands of the helix comprising religion, ethnicity, and politics. Each appears to be a facet of most Africans' individual worldviews, and in certain situations and at certain times, one element may, as least temporarily, dominate the others. For example, sometimes religious beliefs or solidarity will serve to form the main context for political action, with political concerns imbued with religious notions that help determine the nature of a particular group's collective response. Examples in this regard include recent political developments in both Nigeria and Sudan, where interreligious conflictin both cases between Muslims and non-Muslimsreflects an array of both spiritual and material concerns that interact within very fluid boundaries.


This points to how religious and political power have developed historically in and between African religious traditions. The nature and characteristics of the contemporary African state are in large part a function of the legacy of the colonial era, a period of time that ended in most cases, in the 1960s. During the main period of European colonization in Africa (1880s1914), the two main colonizing countries, France and Britain, were themselves evolving their own democratic political systems. However, the political institutions both countries created in Africa during colonialism were little, if anything, more than naked instruments of domination. With administrative networks often grafted on to preexisting institutions, European hegemony and security were very closely linked.

Colonial administrations attempted to employ religion as a tactic in their pursuit of political domination. Yet religious interaction between ordinary Africans and the colonial authorities was by no means a straightforward relationship between dominance and dependence. Africans often used their religious beliefs as a means to adjust the relationship between themselves and colonial authorities in their favor (as far as possible). Whether through the founding of independent churches or via Africanized modes of Islam, religious leaders sought to create and develop socially and communally relevant and popular religious organizations. Such religious organizations tended to function well during the colonial period because they served as appropriate focal points for ordinary people's attempts to come to terms with and to adapt to the forces of change (summarized as modernization), that were a result of the intrusion of European rule. In other words, such religious organizations functioned as statements of social, political, and economic interaction as well as important foci of community aims and strategy.

European mission churches, on the other hand, were an important facet of attempted colonial cultural domination. They had both repressive and liberating functions as agents of European superiority and political domination. However, they were also purveyors of modernization, especially Western education, the acquisition of which was quickly noted by many Christian Africans as the key route to advancement in colonial society. Preexisting Muslim communities, however, reacted to European-inspired modernization by attempting to deal with its impact without compromising Islamic ideals. Other Muslim groups adopted armed struggle against the Europeans, especially during the period from the 1880s to 1914, when they were soundly defeated by the superiority of the Europeans' military technology.

The consequences of the colonial period for the relation between religion and politics in Africa were profound. Consequently, it is appropriate to regard the nature and characteristics of religion's role in politics in contemporary Africa as a result of the multiple changes occasioned by European colonialism. The few territories that did not undergo entrenched and formal foreign control (Liberia, Ethiopia, and several others) nevertheless absorbed European-led modernizing influences almost as though they had. Colonies, where a majority of the population were neither Christian nor Muslim during the period of colonial rule (e.g., Guinea-Bissau, Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso], and Sierra Leone, where traditional African religions were followed by the great majority of local populations), were nevertheless ruled by Christian Europeans. As a result, the various traditional religious activities had to function within the Europeans' legal jurisdiction. In addition, throughout much of Africa, Muslims had to coexist with and be bound by European power, as they were ultimately under the latter's control.

It is important to note that the role of mission Christianity as an institutional force during the colonial period was not simply one of undifferentiated support of temporal political power. Whether or not the colony was settler-dominated was significant for an understanding of the relationship between Christian missionaries and colonial authorities. If large numbers of settlers were present (e.g., Kenya, Algeria, and South Africa), then there was a complex relationship that developed between the white settler community, Christian missionaries, and colonial authorities. On the other hand, where substantive numbers of white settlers were absent (as in most of West and west-central Africa, as well as Uganda), then Christian missionaries and the colonial authorities tended to develop clearly mutually supportive relationships.

Yet because various Christian churches (Roman Catholic, as well as a variety of Protestant denominations) were in direct competition for converts, there was rivalry between them. Sometimes, however, a truce would be declared in face of the common enemy of Islam. When Islam appeared as a key threat to Christian dominance and well-being, steps were taken to try to undermine its attraction by offering Western education to putative converts. However, where Islam was already religiously and culturally dominant, as in vast swathes of North, northwest, and East Africa, then the temptation of Western-style education and its attendant material rewards was usually insufficient in the face of cultural and community solidarity to win many, if any, converts to Christianity. However, sometimes after serious opposition (e.g., in the West African empire of El Hadj Oumar against the French, the Hausa-Fulani empire against the British, and in much of Muslim Somalia prior to World War I) Muslim leaders were generally pragmatic enough to reach a modus vivendi with the colonial authorities. It is noteworthy that a particular form of transnational Islam, or pan-Islamism, was of great concern for colonial rulers in the early years of the twentieth century. Especially around the time of World War I, many European colonial administrations were worried that both Germany and the Turkish Ottoman Empire were in tandem politically, seeking out and cultivating African Muslim leaders to be allies in their strategic rivalries with Britain and France. But in fact there was virtually no realistic chance of a pan-Islamic movement developing in Africa at that time because African Muslims wereand still areoften fundamentally divided, whether by ethnicity, nationality, area of domicile (urban or rural located), their view of the role of Islam in both private and public spheres, or a combination of these factors.

Modernization and Christianity

As in the early twentieth century period in Africa, contemporary trends relating to the relation between religion and politics in Africa often reflect not only what occurs locally, but are also connected to what takes place outside the region. As is often noted, over the last three decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, religion has generally had a considerable impact on politics in many regions of the world, not just in Africa. One common explanation points to a resurgence of religion in the face of failed or flawed modernization. That is, the earlier widespread affirmation that modernization (i.e., the growth and spread of urbanization, industrialization, mass education, economic development, scientific rationality, and social mobility) would combine to diminish significantly the social position of religion in the region has not been substantiated.

In Africa, what are widely perceived as unwelcome symptoms of modernization, such as a perceived breakdown of moral behavior (especially among the young), educational overliberalization, and generally worsening social habits, are frequently linked to persistent governmental failures throughout the region to push through and consolidate appropriate programs of social improvement. Reactions in many African countries not only to failed modernization but also to ideas such as democracy spread by globalization were often focused in vociferous demands for incumbent governments to resign. In such protests, religious leaders were frequently well represented. In many African countries in the 1990s, mass protests occurred in which millions of ordinary people took to the streets to protest at their venal and corrupt governments.

A consequence of such protests was that, in the 1990s, many African countries underwent at least a degree of democratization. This involved a series of widespread political upheavals, focusing on demands for qualitative political change as well as more and better economic and human rights. This development reflected a reawakening of civil society's political voice, with trade union officials, higher-education students, businesspeople, civil servants, and, in many African countries, Christian leaders coordinating and leading protest efforts. Such demands were later focused by professional politicians as integral parts of political programs. The hope was that following democratization elected leaders would tacklewith energy, resourcefulness, and imaginationthe pressing economic, political, and social problems of the continent.

African demands for both democratization and economic change were the result of a rediscovery of political voice by long quiescent interest groups who were encouraged by international developments, most notably the shift away from Communism in the former Soviet Union. Concerns were exacerbated by years of popular frustration and disappointment, for the promises of independence had turned out, almost everywhere, to be hollow. Frequently, senior Christian figures were instrumental in the clamor for political and economic changesfor example, in South Africa, Kenya, and various francophone West African countries. Christian, especially Roman Catholic, leaders were often prominent in prodemocracy campaigns opposing, denouncing, and frustrating authoritarian regimes and, in several cases, these campaigns were successful in removing entrenched governments from power.

It is significant that such Christian leaders were not, on the whole, in the forefront of demands for similar political reforms during the twilight of colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s. Why was this? The simple answer is that in the 1950s and 1960s senior Christian leaders in Africa were almost always Europeans. Such people tended overwhelmingly to support the conceptif not always every aspect of the practiceof colonial rule for three main reasons. First, they shared racial bonds with colonial administrators. Second, they believed that colonial rule had provided much-needed law, order, and European civilization to Africa. Third, both religious leaders and secular rulers were members of the same socioeconomic elite, with a class stake in the status quo. In short, class, racial, and institutional bonds bound Christian leaders to the colonial regimes.

During the 1960s and 1970s, mainline Christian churches swiftly Africanized, with control shifting from Europeans to Africans. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, leaders of mainline African Christian churches were significantly involved in demands for democracy. For example, senior Christian figures were involved in national democratization conferences in seven francophone African countries in the early 1990s; these were events held to ascertain the best ways to deliver appropriate political reforms, notably democratization. At times, Christian leaders were very prominent in the fight to oust nondemocratic governments. Such people tended to have prodemocracy convictions for three main reasons: (1) because of personal conviction, (2) because their Christian beliefs encouraged this notion, and (3) because many among their followers were palpably suffering from the effects of poor governments, especially economically and in terms of human rights abuses. Given their perceptions of their Christian leaders as spiritual guides, and in the customary absence of independent and effective political parties, ordinary Christians quite naturally turned to their religious leaders as appropriate figures to take action on their behalf. In short, Africa's recent democratization was linked to the individual and collective efforts of many Christian leaders and was a testimony to their tenacity, clear-sightedness, and lack of fear of the consequences of their actions in leading popular protests.

Such leaders were in a privileged position to head such protests because of the general, although not uniform, Christian institutional independence and integrity throughout much of Africa. In the postcolonial period, African political leaders have generally accorded a high level of respect to leaders of the main religious institutions, both Christian and Muslim. Because most mainstream expressions of both Christianity and Islam tended to be unidentified with the main interest groups, whether ethnic or class, their leaders stood on relatively neutral ground and thus could serve as a mediating element when social or political conflict occurred. Consequently, leaders of both religious traditions were often key interlocutors between state and society. Many were highly respected figures whose own personal desires and preferences were believed to be subsumed by their concern to mediate disinterestedly between followers and the state.

Islam and the State

Regarding the relation between Islam and temporal power in contemporary Africa, it is often suggested that Muslims are less concerned with or interested in democracy than are many Christians. Certainly, African Muslim leaders were not, on the whole, in the forefront of demands for political changes in the 1990s. It should be noted, however, that two of the seven francophone countriesMali and Niger, which held national conferences on new political arrangements in the 1990sare both strongly Muslim countries. On the other hand, Islam is often regarded by Western analysis as an authoritarian, even totalitarian, religion whose proponents sometimes seek to impose fundamentalist visions as a putative means of purifying society. What such fundamentalists are said to want, namely Muslim (sharī ʿah ) law, is regarded as anathema by non-Muslims.

Three issues contextualize a contemporary discussion of the political role of Islam in Africa. First, there are a number of versions of Islam in the region. Many Africans belong to ūfī brotherhoods. In addition, many ethnic groups, especially in West and East Africa, converted historically to Islam en masse, some of whom are also members of ūfī brotherhoods, so these ūfī groups may also have an ethnic dimension. Orthodox conceptions of Islamnearly always Sunnī in Africaare the province of the religious elite, the ʿulamāʾ (religio-legal scholars). Thus, in Africa, Islam is a multifaceted term covering a number of Muslim interpretations of the faith.

Islam in Africa can be divided into at least three distinct categories, corresponding to extant social, cultural, and historical divisions. The first includes the dominant sociopolitical and cultural position of Islam found in the emirates of northern Nigeria, the lamidates of northern Cameroon, and the shiekdoms of northern Chad. In each area, not only is religious and political power typically fused in the hands of a few individuals, but, over time, class structures developed based on extant religious differentiation. Second, there are the areas where ūfī brotherhoods predominategenerally in West and East Africa, and especially in Senegal, the Gambia, Niger, Mali, Guinea, Kenya, and Tanzania. Finally, in a number of African states, Muslims, fragmented by ethnic and regional concerns, are politically marginalized into a minority bloc, as in, for example, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo.

The second factor is that Islamic fundamentalism is rare, although not unknown, in tropical Africa. ūfī Islamthe faith of many African Muslimsis actually a frequent target for Islamic fundamentalists found within the ʿulamāʾ and their secular allies because it is regarded as a primitive or degraded form of Islam that must be reformed or purified. Such fundamentalist interpretations of Islam are of particular political importance in Sudan (where it is the ruling ideology) and in parts of northern Nigeria, where conflict (with thousands of deaths since the late 1990s) between Muslims and Christians has long been an important politico-religious issue.

Third, there is ambivalence in the way that many Muslims regard the concept of liberal democracy itself. Many Muslims oppose Western interpretations of democracy, in which sovereignty is said to reside with the people because it is seen as a secularized system negating God's own sovereignty. The ʿulamāʾ are typically strong supporters of the status quo, not least because it allows them integral involvement in running the affairs of Muslims in their state. They exert influence by controlling national Muslim organizations. As a result, a partnership with state-level politicians is of crucial importance.

See Also

African Religions, overview article; Christianity, articles on Christianity in North Africa and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa; Islam, article on Islam in North Africa.


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Jeffrey Haynes (2005)

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Politics and Religion: Politics and African Religious Traditions