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Religion and the State


The modern African state system is a new political concept that came about from the struggle for independence. These states are organized in the matrix of the two great religious traditions: Islam and Christianity. The secular hegemonic nature of the founding of these states brings into play the political meaning of these religious traditions. Religion in Africa is projected as a part of a continuum in the debate about the "national question": Who shall rule, and how shall the state be governed? Several historical conjectures indicated that religion would have a say in addressing the question of governance. These historical conjunctures include:

  1. The institution of apartheid in South Africa with the blessing of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa.
  2. The Africanization of the leadership of the Christian Church at the same time that African nationalists were replacing the European colonial governors.
  3. The rise of modern anxieties, culture of crime, and graft and corruption in the political arrangements of the new states, causing life in many of these states gradually to become vulgar, morally degraded, depraved, and spiritually vacuous.
  4. The official formation of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Rabat, Morocco, in 1969, the formation of the Islamic Development Bank in 1975, and the successful establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the revolution in 1979 led by Ayatollah Khomeini, combined with subsequent influences of Wahhabi Islam originating from Saudi Arabia and the al-Qaeda factor, especially in East Africa, all increased the climate of Islamic zealotry.
  5. Liberal democracy and economic prosperity, which African nationalists promised their masses in the 1960s and 1970s, were not achieved; rather, all the inescapable realities of lack of human dignity and economic assurances, with a deepening gap between rich and poor and rising ethnic frictions, broke down the social contract between the state and its citizens. African religious leaders with faith in their belief systems counter that religion should be the keystone in both the personal life and the fulfilling of state obligations; that, measured against the majesty of God's work, the state is subsumed under that majesty.

African states, then, in their earlier stages were conflicted in the interaction with the two great religious traditions in their midst. There was initially a love-hate relationship between the state and the two great religious traditions. Sometimes the politicians cracked down on the religious leaders or their organizations; at other times they tried to appease them. Nasser and the Ikhwan al-Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, Gadhafi and the Sanusiyya brotherhood in Libya, Nimeiri and the National Islamic Front in Sudan, all experienced a love-hate relationship. There was a period of appeasement in the relationship between state and religion, but by the 1980s, powerful Islamic and Christian movements came to be seen as threat to the very existence of the state. In such situations, the confrontations between state and religion took a different turn.

South Africa, with its "state theology," came under serious scrutiny. The Muslim community and a counterreligious consciousness among Black liberation theologians initiated a powerful ideological attack on the ideology of apartheid. Liberation theologians came to see apartheid as a form of "structural sin" and sought to persuade the religious community (the South African Council of Churches, the World Lutheran Federation, the World Council of Churches, and, more important, the World Alliance of the Dutch Reformed Church) of this. The extraordinary role of the members of the religious community (both Christian and Muslim) in mobilization of the oppressed in South African and the international community—that finally came to see apartheid as heresy and apostasy—contributed immensely to the collapse of the apartheid system.

In other parts of Africa, Christian leadership produced Pastoral Letters—a rare, frank critique of African dictatorships in Idi Amin's Uganda, Hasting Banda's Malawi, Mengistu's Ethiopia, Abacha's Nigeria, and, more recently, Mugabi's Zimbabwe. On the other hand, African political leaders who were Christian did not shy away from proclaiming publicly their Christian faith; notice the born-again Christian president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, and the building in 1989 of one of the largest Roman Catholic churches (the Basilica in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast) in modern Christianity in Côte d'Ivoire by its Christian president Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

African Muslims who see the state as a sacred entity under the rule of Allah exhorted the leadership of the secular states for an Islamic dispensation as the politicians go about creating new political formations. The various Islamic organizations in varying degrees encountered problems. In Morocco, the Islamic group Justice and Welfare was ordered to disband in 1990; Algerian "Salafists" who wanted to return to pristine Islamic ideals came under great pressure from the government. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was legalized in 1989. It won the elections of that year, but the Algerian government canceled the second round of elections, jailed most of the FIS leaders, and in 1992 banned the organization. Tunisia never legalized the Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, repressed its members, and closed down its newspaper. The Libyan government disrupted the Islamic movement in that country, and by the early twenty-first century the movement was unstructured, with many of its leaders imprisoned. The Islamic Party in Kenya was summarily denied official recognition during the presidency of Daniel arap Moi. But in states such as Tanzania and Uganda, Islamic organizations were encouraged to form and acquire government patronage. The Egyptian experience with the radical Islamic group "Jihad," which was implicated in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, was very instructive to many African politicians.

The Islamic code of shari'a, which regulates the Islamic community, has received special attention in Africa. Strict Islamic laws—such as the imposition of amputation or death by stoning for transgressions such as theft, adultery, or fornication and the banning of prostitution, gambling, and consumption of alcohol—are elements embedded in the shari'a. These are elements of Islamic law that African secularists deemed too harsh.

Sudan introduced the shari'a in 1990 (although in 1983, Colonel Nimeiri had introduced the "September Laws," which recognized the shari'a as the basis of state law, it was alleged that he did so to serve his own political agenda, not as a sincere application of the shari'a). The civil war that raged in that state from 1957 pitched the north, which is Muslim, against the south, which is predominantly Christian and traditional religionists. With the introduction of the shari'a by the government, the south, under the leadership of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, began challenging the Islamization of the state and its extension to the south. But the Islamization program of the Hassan al-Turabi and Omar Hassan al-Bashir governments took root. Peace negotiations were in progress in 2004 to bring the north and south together, but the south was reluctant to accept the political control of an Islamic republic.

Nigeria, on the other hand, came out of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war in 1971 with the dictum "No victor, no vanquished" under the leadership of a Christian military leader, General Gowan. Yet from 1971 the southern and Middle Belt Christians were continuously victimized, and militant Muslims in Northern Nigeria killed thousands. This religious bloodletting was exacerbated with the introduction of the shari'a, first by the state of Zamfara but subsequently practiced in eleven northern states. The Amina Lawal court case, in which Amina Lawal was prosecuted for illegal sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, received national and international attention. International outrage, particularly the outrage of women's rights groups nationally and globally, and the intervention of the secular state of the Federation of Nigeria, along with a brilliant defense team saved Amina Lawal from the capital punishment authorized by the shari'a.

In addition, Muslim political leaders, in a secretive process, applied for Nigeria membership in the Organization of Islamic Conference. All these actions by the Muslim leadership led to the formation of the Christian Association of Nigeria, whose agenda aimed at putting a stop to further Islamization of the Nigerian state. The Nigerian state, however, presented itself as a mediator in Muslim/Christian relations. The state funded the building of a Christian cathedral and mosque in the federal capital of Abuja, funded pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians, respectively, and also created a Ministry of Religious Affairs.

In both states, Nigeria and the Sudan, the tendency was for religious vigilante groups to form and keep an eye open for any transgressions of shari'a regulations. The Sudan People's Liberation Army and the Christian Association of Nigeria opposed such intrusion of religious oversights in the body politic of their respective states. Unlike the Sudan, where a real war was waged to settle the matter, in other parts of Africa, including Nigeria, a religious "cold war" operated in the context of a constitutional truce.

To anyone who has looked closely enough, the religious leaders of Africa and their beliefs and faith, plainly enjoy a strength. Arguably the greatest strength of all, something truly imposing, is their ability to threaten the state. Their positions and beliefs have broader historical roots than the African states. They are not only popular, wealthy, and global in the sense that they are well connected, they are also institutionally sophisticated. Their ideas appeal to many African citizens who are poised to challenge the state whenever possible. Christians and Muslims alike in Africa should see themselves as effective intermediate civil societies that lie between the state and the household. In this sense, then, they exist to protect and advance their religious interests and values in a plural society. African governments, on the other hand, should be encouraged to look at African religious leaders and their faith as autonomous intermediaries between the state and its citizens. The role that these religious leaders have played in dislodging African dictatorships, apartheid, corruption, and social justice and their implementation of compassionate charities to help bridge the deep gap between the rich and the poor on the African continent is highly commendable. The state governments, however, have in many instances cracked down on the religious leaders and their followers in the pursuance of the dictum of political realism when they felt that the state was threatened.

Three major concerns in the relationship between state and religion in Africa can be deciphered from historical occurrences of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. First, in the genocidal activities that raged in Rwanda in 1994, certain Roman Catholic priests were said to have participated in the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus. The inability of the church to forestall this genocide is troublesome. Second, the recent linkages between al-Qaeda activities and some religious organizations in Africa have foreboding consequences. The intricate web of front companies and individuals in Africa who were associated with the al-Qaeda movement, allowing al-Qaeda operatives to trade in African gold, diamonds, and other gems—thus providing the economic resources and networks that led to the bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam and the possible assistance given to those who shot down the U.S.. Black Hawk helicopter in Mogadishu—and al-Qaeda's presence in Sudan are all indications of serious problems for African state/religious relations. Third, Christians and Muslims in Africa are gradually accepting the electoral system as the moderating instruments to affect change in their states, but when the states are unable to accept the electoral victories of religious parties, political instability of the African states becomes inevitable.

In one sense, neither religion nor state may claim the high ground in any assessment of instability of African political culture. Yet both should strive to use their powerful influence to illuminate African lives in order to fulfill the promise of the majesty of God's/Allah's work. The genius of modern liberal education in Africa in the early twenty-first century is the pragmatic compromise that many African citizens are learning; religion has a place in pursuing the aim of social justice and freedom. Many Africans would love to have the freedom to choose for themselves how they ought to live. Their devotion to God's law and their devotion to the secular state are sometimes conflicted. But these should not be judged trivial when measured against the majesty of God's/Allah's work.

The recent use of the phrase "African Renaissance" by such leaders as President Mbeki of the Republic of South Africa once again reminds African citizens that the ideals and spirit of enlightenment that both the state and African religious leaders are exposed to could be helpful in promoting coexistence. In trying to define "African Renaissance," both the state and religious leaders in Africa should aim at reconciling God and freedom, political liberty, and pragmatic compromise. As the states in Africa mature, there is the hope that the deepest believers in Islam and Christianity will tone down their rhetoric and devise ways to coexist with the state rather than prepare for a possible showdown with the state. The African states, with all their failures, still provide the one political-legal framework that can transcend all the manifold differences between the religious traditions, can accommodate their various belief systems and ways of life, and can serve as a normative basis for their coexistence and cooperation.

Austin M. Ahanotu

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