RELIGION AND POLITICS IN AFRICA
By Paul Ndiho
April 20, 2010
Across the continent, African religions play significant roles in communities where government services may be sparse or absent. VOA’S Paul Ndiho looks at how religion and politics are intertwined in Africa.
Africa’s religious communities broadly reflect moderation, though pockets of religion-based extremism are evident across the region.
Peter Lewis, Director, African Studies, School of Advanced International Studies or SAIS says that religion and politics are intertwined in Africa and there is a need to understand how they interact.
“Religion plays multiple roles, completed roles, and often multi-faceted roles in some situations where some religious communities and religious figures can be sources of extremism and confrontation. Others maybe sources of moderation and mediation and others still maybe largely separated from politics.”
In many parts of Africa, religious institutions deliver social services, build hospitals, schools, and provide employment and in places where government has failed. In Somalia, Islam may be a vehicle to mobilize people against the government or to protest against foreign invasion. In 2006, Islamic courts governed in much of Somalia until they were driven out by Ethiopia’s military. Timothy Longman, Boston University says that religion cuts across African political identities.
“Religious groups are very much caught up in conflict in a variety of ways. What I want to focus on are the two very contradictory tendencies that you find within Christian churches in the region and that is churches are getting embroiled in conflict, being involved in supporting conflict, and on the other hand, churches playing a peaceful role for a conflict resolution role.”
In Nigeria, analysts say religion can fuel Christian-Muslim violence. In the recent past, clashes have taken place between Christians and Muslims in Kano, northern Nigeria, a region which is governed by sharia law. In Jos, hundreds of people lost their lives because of an election that Peter Lewis says took on unusual religious divisions.
“In most of Nigeria, Christians and Muslims have managed to co-exist. We hope that with the improvement in governance, economic opportunities and reduced inequalities that different communities in Nigeria would be better able to get a long.”
A recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Forum on Religion and public life reveals that most people in sub-Saharan Africa are deeply committed to Christianity or Islam; they continue to practice elements of more traditional African religion. The study says that while many Muslims and Christians describe members of the other faith as tolerant, there are signs of tensions between the faiths.