When Society is Not Civil: Threats to Religious Freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa

by vaughn_admin  //  

June 30, 2016

On August 4th, the United States is hosting a first-ever “Africa Summit.” African heads of state are visiting Washington, DC to engage in discussions about US-Africa relations and common concerns. However, issues of human rights violations, especially in the realm of religious freedom, will not likely be on the agenda. On Cornerstone, we use the occasion of the Africa Summit to reflect on the dire state of religious freedom in sub-Saharan Africa.

By: Robert A. Dowd

As the Africa Summit gets underway, it is good for us to take stock of the state of religious freedom in sub-Saharan Africa today. While there is a long history of Christian-Muslim tolerance and accommodation in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, tensions between Christians and Muslims are on the rise in some parts of the region and religious freedom is under attack. It is important for sub-Saharan Africa’s leaders and those who have an interest in the future of religious freedom in the region to effectively weaken the forces of religious intolerance that have emerged. In order to do so, it is necessary to understand where the region’s religious intolerance is coming from and why those who would curtail religious freedom are attracting others to join them.

With notable exceptions, including Sudan and Eritrea, the most serious threats to religious freedom in sub-Saharan Africa are not coming from the state in the form of repressive legislation, but from groups that seem beyond the reach of the law. Some of these groups are militias, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Seleka and Anti-Balaka in the Central African Republic, the Ansar Dine in northern Mali, and Al-Shabab in Somalia and eastern Kenya. These groups seek to violently impose their religious worldviews on others and/or to cleanse states or parts of states of those who believe differently than they do. Some groups, less violent in approach, seek to enshrine their religious law as the law of the land or otherwise privilege their religious communities at the expense of others. 

Let’s take the cases of Nigeria and the Central African Republic. Although freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitutions of both countries, governments have not protected the religious freedom of citizens. In Nigeria, it appears to be mostly a problem of strategy. The Nigerian government’s strategy to impede militant groups that would severely restrict religious freedom has relied almost exclusively on force. For example, the government has sought to kill or capture members of Boko Haram. While there is a role for force to protect the innocent, this strategy, which relies on force alone, is not working. Boko Haram continues to run roughshod over northeastern Nigeria and has proven itself capable of attacking other parts of the country. In the Central Africa Republic, the problem is mostly a problem of state capacity. The state is extremely weak, and a situation of lawlessness exists in much of the country, with the Anti-Balaka militia killing Muslims or driving them out of the country. 

While a myopic strategy and/or poor state capacity explain the growth of groups seeking to curtail religious freedom, poverty and misrule explain their initial rise. It should come as no surprise that northeastern Nigeria, home base of Boko Haram, has been one of the most impoverished regions of Nigeria and that most people in the Central African Republic have been mired in poverty and subjected to misrule for as long as they can remember. The evil twins of poverty and misrule give rise to frustrations and make it easier for groups to effectively engage in scapegoating. 

In many sub-Saharan African countries, most of this scapegoating has been focused on ethnic others rather than religious others. However, in impoverished settings where both Christian and Muslims are present in large numbers, groups are separated by ethnicity as well as religion, and where groups are segregated from each other spatially, religious scapegoating has been on the rise. Economic growth and human development are necessary, albeit insufficient, conditions to effectively combat groups that seek to abolish or curtail religious freedom in sub-Saharan Africa. Religious freedom will be most secure where people enjoy greater economic and physical security. 

Nonetheless, it is impossible to achieve sustained economic growth and human development without a certain degree of religious tolerance and respect for religious freedom in the first place. The question is, how can such mutual respect and tolerance be built and enhanced? While the state has an important role to play, I propose that religious civil society may have an even more important role to play in fostering respect for religious pluralism and promoting religious freedom. 

Without totally dismissing efforts to promote smarter state strategies and strengthen the capacity of the state to confine and weaken groups that want to restrict religious freedom, in the long run, the most effective way to preserve and promote religious freedom in sub-Saharan Africa is to bolster the efforts of grassroots religious-based associations that are dedicated to religious tolerance, inter-religious dialogue, and cooperation. There are religious-based efforts that seek to encourage religious tolerance and freedom in those parts of the region where religious freedom is most under attack, and they deserve more support than they often receive. They get little attention because the groups preaching intolerance and using violence to impose their visions of society grab all journalistic and scholarly attention. The Christian-Muslim Unity and Development Initiative (CM-PIN), the Imam and the Pastor initiative, and the Inter-Faith Mediation Centre in Nigeria are examples of such efforts. In the Central African Republic, the Catholic Church has been working to weaken the Anti-Balaka, but it has lacked the support needed. 

While the state certainly has a role to play, religious civil society has an indispensable role to play in securing a future for religious freedom in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa’s leaders and all those interested in the peace and prosperity of the region would do well to find creative ways to support grassroots movements, associations, and institutions that preach tolerance and bring Christians and Muslims together.

Rev. Robert A. Dowd, C.S.C. is an assistant professor of political science and founding director of the Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

This piece was originally authored on August 4, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.