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Religion and National Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa


David Amponsah, PhD Candidate in Religious Studies, Harvard University
“Cultural Nationalism, Spiritual Power, and Rumors of "Juju" in Postcolonial Ghana: The Nkrumah Years, 1957-1966”
Perhaps no postcolonial African leader has received as much scholarly attention as Kwame Nkrumah. While scholars have dissected his political, social, and cultural thought and policies, little attention has been given to his religious thought. The few that have done so have largely paid attention to the Judeo-Christian influences evident in his life and policies. However, in this paper, and despite being a self-described "non-denomination Christian and a Marxist socialist," I seek to tease out the important ways in which the Akan indigenous religious worldview shaped his thought and actions. I show that although indigenous religion initially worked to Nkrumah's advantage, at his overthrow, he was mocked precisely because of it.

Dianna Bell, Mellon Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Vanderbilt University
“Religious and Political Discourse in Colonial and Post-Colonial Era Medersa Education in Mali, West Africa”
As leaders in the West African state of Mali continue to stress the importance of education and literacy, those seeking to follow the call for formal schooling have an array of options to choose from, including most prominently public schools modeled after the European education system and Qur’anic schools (medersas). This paper focuses on exploring the motivations that lead Malians to select and value medersa education over public schooling. Drawing from life history interviews, archival and ethnographic research, and written sources, this article offers a description of how medersas in colonial and post-colonial Mali have operated, and works to reveal how Malians measure the worth of medersa education. It shows that as Malians speak openly of the dispiriting effects of nepotism, corruption, and unemployment that they directly face in their daily lives, education cannot be understood solely for its potential to alleviate poverty in West Africa. Rather, this article argues that Malians assess the worth of the medersa education through notions of merit (baraji) and as an opportunity for expressing a Muslim identity against the role of French nationals and the French language in colonial and post-colonial Mali.

Joseph Hellweg, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Florida State University
“Doubling State and Society: Zakaria Koné as Dozo Hunter and Political Exemplar in Post-War Côte d’Ivoire”
In Côte d’Ivoire, non-elected and non-appointed political actors have been such fixtures of state power that the distinction between state and civil society has been moot. Yet, the conceit of a separation between these two has offered repeated opportunities for political reinvention. The history of dozo hunters in Côte d’Ivoire shows how some Ivoirians have mastered this doubling of insider and outsider status. Dozo hunter Zakaria Koné is exemplary in this regard. Now a battalion commander of the Ivoirian army in Abidjan and former chief of Ivoirian military police, he was a rebel commander in the 2002-2007 uprising and 2010-2011 post-election violence that brought current president Alassane Ouattara to power.
    Since February 2012, Koné has also, ironically, been calling on fellow dozo rebels to lay down their arms. The new regime of which Koné is a part, and which once saw dozos as allies, now counts them as liabilities, given accusations that dozos perpetrated massacres in 2011 in western Côte d’Ivoire. This contradictory situation explains Koné’s ability and desire—as both dozo and state agent—to urge dozos to abandon their military roles even as he, a dozo, assumes a pre-eminent state office. Koné thus reveals the performative nature of state-society relations in contemporary Côte d’Ivoire and the way in which the occult practice of doubling serves as a contemporary political strategy.

Murray Last, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, University College London
“The Dilemma in Being an Islamic Radical in Northern Nigeria – Whether Non-violent or Violent”
Today so many papers are being written (but not being published) on Boko haram; at least three books are on their way – but they are almost all data-light: commonplaces are being re-cycled again and again even when well past their use-by date. “Writing on Boko haram will ruin your reputation”, different friends in Nigeria tell me on my visits there every 6 months. Currently it’s now recognised (at last) that it’s a real guerrilla war that’s on in north-eastern Nigeria; though Boko haram do not have planes or helicopters, the guerrillas are otherwise as well armed as the Nigeria’s 7th Infantry Division (8,000 men) that has been created to fight them because most of the weapons, including APCs, have been captured from the army. And the guerrilla groups can be large – between 500 and 2,000 have been reported in a single attack.
    Like so many radical religious groups, Boko haram seems to have moved from early idealism to military-style violence – not that the guerrillas do not also still voice religious enthusiasm. Detailed analysis of this shift in emphasis is not possible as no outsider (nor indeed Nigerian intelligence or journalists) have direct access to Boko haram’s latest internal politics. Researchers queue up outside prisons to interview men detained as (ex-)Boko haram operatives, but [a] the prisoners’ data are ‘old’, [b] most deny being serious BH supporters, and [c] their stories cannot be cross-checked. Indeed ‘being ex-Boko haram’ has become one of the clichés of asylum-seeking, replacing now Nigeria’s oldest asylum cliché of all - ‘being threatened with death by the Ogboni society’.
    As the new head of the Nigerian army, an Air Vice-Marshall, has just promised the nation that he’ll terminate Boko haram by April this year, it would be unwise of me (in February) to offer a paper wholly focused on a movement that might not be still there when I speak in Nashville. Instead I will suggest that Muslims in northern Nigeria have long had dual citizenship – one within Nigeria, the other within the wider Islamic umma – and that for many it’s not self-evident which citizenship, in what circumstances, is to be given priority. A current debate running in northern Nigeria is on why it is that Muslim Hausa (e.g. in Kano, let alone in Katsina or Sokoto) have not supported Boko haram as much as might have been expected; hence an issue for my Nigerian colleagues is to explain why Boko haram seems largely confined to the north-east. This is all part of a wider discussion this year – the centenary of Nigeria’s colonial creation in 1914 – over the ultimate unity of a country so (say some) sharply split between Muslims and Christians: in matters of citizenship, when and how should religion trump politics? Indeed, what’s now the wisest strategy, should the world’s end be truly nigh?

Timothy P. Longman, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of African Studies, Boston University
"Explaining Church-State Conflict and Cooperation in East Africa"
Looking at the cases of Christian churches in Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania, this paper seeks to explain why religious groups develop widely divergent relationships to political power. Despite their common missionary and colonial backgrounds, the churches in these countries vary in the degree to which they challenge state power or cooperate with the state. In Kenya and the DR Congo, mainline churches have often been in conflict with the state and have served as important advocates for human rights. In Rwanda, in contrast, churches have tended to work closely with the state. In Tanzania, churches have had very limited political engagement, focusing instead on more strictly spiritual matters. Considering these cases, I argue that the key variables that explain the different relationships the churches have with the state are both internal to the churches (leadership and theology) and conditions shaped by the state (religious policies and opportunity structures).

Isabel Mukonyora, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Western Kentucky University
“Three Ways to Die for Nation and God” 

Blessed be the Land of Zimbabwe
O lift high the banner, the flag of Zimbabwe
The symbol of freedom proclaiming victory;
We praise our many heroes for their sacrifice [on account of the many whose blood was shed]
And vow to keep our land from foes; [colonial power]
And may the Almighty protect and bless our land. [God-the-Powerful]

O lovely Zimbabwe, so wondrously adorned
With mountains, and rivers cascading, flowing free;
May rain abound, and fertile fields; [The Male/Female Deity called Mwari is nowadays transformed by Christian patriarchy]
May we be fed, our labor blessed;
And may the Almighty protect and bless our land.

O God, we beseech Thee to bless our native land;[Christian God-Talk]
The land of our fathers[ancestors] bestowed upon us all;
From Zambezi to Limpopo
May leaders be exemplary;
And may the Almighty protect and bless our land.

This national anthem says a lot about sacrificial blood as something one must remember when thinking about Zimbabwe as a nation. As shown below, sacrifice takes various forms in the agrarian culture fragmented as a result of colonial modernity. Killing cows, chasing goats into the wild as a symbolic act to get rid of evil spirits, killing chickens and serving parts of it as food fit for the elders in honor of the ancestors, and sacrificing crops to the ecological deity, Mwari. Yet, the destruction of human life in the name of freedom features in a telling way as resulting from the collision of two cultures with one depending on the use of force to conquer Africa. The abuse of power though triggered more violence and created difficult human condition of oppression for Africans throughout Sub-Sahara African of the colonial era. This is so that one ends up dealing with beliefs and practices that honor people who kill each other for the sake of the birth of a nation state that makes all other ideas of sacrifice look as if they do not exist.
    This paper uses the above national anthem of Zimbabwe to show what went into the development of a nation that is proud of its social history of wars and treats the sacrifice of human blood religiously. As indicated by the bold letters, fragments of different religious concepts were used to come to terms with violence in a political system embracing modernity, secularism, in a society that is now predominately Christian. The popularity of Christianity, though inexplicitly worded in the same national anthem is also centered on interpretations of Jesus, whose own sacrifice is remembered by Zimbabwean Christians as a victory against Satan. The way that eating bread and sipping wine as part the Eucharist, even if symbolic, suggests that eating the body and blood of Christ leads to heaven is not without problems in a society whose calendar shows a commitment to violence.
    Finally, although the language of sacrifice, heroes, and ancestors in a beautiful country is easier to read in English (and does not feature as strongly fellow human beings destroying each other lives with modern weapons) the Shona version of the national anthem makes it difficult not to raise questions about the religious implications of this modern emphasis, which is not so much war but about the sacrifice of human life on account of war. This paper shows that the talk about the precious blood shed for the country is used so widely to exercise power in ways that cost more life than just those lost in legitimating fighting, especially at a time in history when social and environmental justice are more important causes to promote in relation to ideas that promote more peace and harmony on Mother Earth.

Moses Ochonu, Associate Professor of History, Vanderbilt University
"Northern Nigerian Muslims Elite's Travel Narratives and their Implications for US-Northern Nigerian Engagements"
Scholars and observers have posited a growing ideological divide between Muslim Northern Nigeria and the interests and foreign policy priorities of the United States. Contemporary Northern Nigeria is narrated as a hotbed of Islamist awakening, heterodox forms of Islam, grassroots anti-Western political ferment, and as a part of Nigeria where public opinion has soured on Western objects, ideals, and symbols. Given this disposition of Northern Nigerian Muslims towards America and the West, it is tempting to assume that this divide has always been present, or that it is occasioned by a “clash of civilizations” confrontation. Such a position would be problematic. Northern Nigerian Muslim political elites have not always constructed their internal and external politics against perceived American values. The ideological divergence that is visible today is thus fairly recent and needs to be put into its proper historical perspective. Through analyses of the travel trajectories and narratives of Northern Nigerian Muslim politicians and bureaucrats in the 1950s and 1960s, this paper demonstrates that these officials had a lot more in common with America than the current strain in mutual perceptions might indicate. Although this love affair with America was not without critique or skepticism, and sometimes had to be explained and rationalized to a Muslim political audience at home, the officials openly and proudly flaunted their American associational credentials before their Muslim followers. These Muslim aristocrats did so partly because the relationship conferred political benefits at home and paradoxically boosted their religious and traditional legitimacy in this Muslim milieu. The paper contends that the flirtation was mutual, as Washington found much to like and cultivate in these custodians of traditional Muslim legitimacy in Northern Nigeria, strategically showering them with attention and recognition, which the latter then parlayed into instrumental political capital at home. If this was the state of affairs in the late 1950s and the 1960s, when and why did these ties begin to break down? The paper poses these questions for further reflection and research.

Abdi Samatar, Professor and Chair of Geography, Environment, and Society, University of Minnesota; Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria
“Faith and Politics in Somalia: Synergistic or Diabolic?”

This paper historically examines the relationship between Islam and politics in Somalia. In recent years much attentions has been given to radical political Islam in national affairs in the context of the late Cold War and the War on Terror. Instead of moving along with the herd, this paper puts some distance between itself and the dominant discussions on the role of faith, Islam in this case, in identity formation as well as conflict resolution/prevention (political or otherwise). To do this the paper provides a conceptual framework for studying Islam as a civic force versus Islam as a political agent. Then the discussion turns to the examination of the role of Islam in this society through four historical periods since the end of the 19th century to the present.