Skip to main content

Religion and National Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa

Dianna Bell, Mellon Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Co-convener
Moses Ochonu, Associate Professor of History, Co-convener
Workshop Dates: 11-12 April 2014

[download workshop poster] [download workshop program]

As African nations continue to fashion themselves after Western states, often financing their development through aid that comes with explicit qualifications about how these countries should conduct themselves, Africans and global interlocutors are continually rethinking culture in Africa. The discussion raises questions on what the role of religion should be in national politics in Sub-Saharan Africa and has frequently resulted in efforts of varying success to strategically shuffle religious culture both in and out of the public eye. For example, state governments throughout Sub-Saharan Africa have enacted laws criminalizing female genital cutting thereby pushing the practice into clandestine domains. Yet despite efforts to control the role of religion in public life, religion across Africa has continued to profoundly factor into both the successes and downfalls of states in unexpected ways. As we see in northern Mali, for instance, Islam has now become the primary idiom through which Tuareg rebels explain their long-standing dissatisfaction with the Malian state. Accordingly, advocacy for an informed and nuanced understanding of religion when designing foreign policy and aid efforts across Africa has increased of late.

This workshop will examine the nexus of religion and the state throughout Sub-Saharan Africa by mapping the various ways that discourse and protests articulated through idioms of religious piety have factored into driving change in national politics. By engaging recent case studies, this project seeks to consider the contemporary impact of religious issues and groups within post-colonial African societies that have long been under international pressure to curb the power of religion in the public arena in order to better model themselves after secular democracies. 

These presentations will explicate the negotiation of political power in Africa by featuring the manifestation of religious authority and civilian observance from a diverse sample of Africa’s varied religious communities. Papers and discussions will cohere around the increasingly visible public role of religion, including religiously adjudicated claims in states where the social and economic fabric is frayed as a result of state calamities and financial hardship. How can we better understand possible correlations between political and economic downturn and renewed interest in religion?  Religion has played a leading role in several seminal historical and contemporary struggles in different regions of Africa. As demonstrated recently in the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi, religious difference became an outlet for expressing frustration with Kenyan troops in the Horn. Conversely, religious groups such as Boko Haram have absorbed political movements in profound ways. The outcomes of this entwinement manifest themselves in multiple areas that will be explored in this workshop.