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Africa's Traditions and Religious Revival

How have religion and politics intertwined throughout Africa’s history?

August 26, 2005

How have religion and politics intertwined throughout Africa's history?

Anyone who wishes to make sense of the revival of religion in the world must think of spiritual power as real power.

Religion is itself a major historical vector, which links today's practices with the many systems of governance in pre-colonial Africa. Back then, religious specialists or elders with spiritual authority formed a counter-balance to rulers.

Before African societies became subject to organization by bureaucratic institutions and subsequently acquired written constitutions, their religious specialists functioned as checks and balances in systems of governance.

They mediated the rights and claims of various groups, ensuring that power was not abused — in whatever terms it was understood locally.

Of course, they were not always effective in this regard, so that pre-colonial Africa had its share of usurpers and tyrants.

However, the governmental or political function of religion was changed by colonizers. They sought to separate religion from power and church from state. This process has shaped religion and politics in their contemporary African form.

European scholars and administrators, operating with Western precepts of order and governance, sought to confine religion to a private sphere — or within the ambit of cultures that colonial officials tend to regard as discrete systems.

Even the chiefs who implemented indirect rule were often expected to make their religious duties subservient to the needs of bureaucratic administration.

However, the separation of the secular and religious realms did not eradicate older beliefs concerning the relationship between the material and the invisible worlds, or ideas about the spiritual basis of prosperity.

This observation throws an interesting light on the history of the nationalist movements in the mid-20th century. They promised a liberation that had religious and even millenarian overtones.

Rulers who — notwithstanding their formal status as heads of secular states — were perceived partly in religious terms often adopted extravagant personality cults. These were reflections of a power presumed to have its ultimate origin in the spirit world.

More recently, a decline in the effectiveness of state institutions throughout Africa has led to a great deal of political and economic activity taking place outside the formal sphere.

As a result, a statehood entity enjoying international recognition coexists with an effective lack of many of the structures and services that states are supposed to deliver.

Power is located other than where the law proclaims it to be and it is this odd situation that defines the real space of politics in much of Africa. It also forms an economic sphere in which a few people are able to make a lot of money, while most live in poverty.

Africa's current political elites and their foreign partners are able to exploit to their advantage the differences between how things are done in theory and how they are done in practice, or the gap between the formal and the informal. Therefore, they have little incentive for changing things.

Many ordinary Africans — those who are not part of any elite — show deep ambivalence about how they are governed, engaging enthusiastically in clientelist politics when it suits them and lamenting its failures at other times.

Pretty much the same can be said of foreign donor governments, too, over the years.

As a result, for everyone living in Africa, rich or poor, African or foreign, the environment has become very unpredictable. That in turn has had a major influence on people's ideas about chance, probability or providence in general — as well as about time and about the nature of power.

African politicians in search of a political legitimacy that has been lost may have recourse to religion to fill the gap. Thus, the great variety of religious systems and practices existing in Africa has invaded modern politics.

The contemporary African spirit world is chaotic. Spiritual experts have often lost their influence, and the field is wide open to entrepreneurs of every type.

Traditional or quasi-traditional cults and the new religious movements that have entered public space tend to operate without any sense of moderation or checks and balances.

The current religious renewal in Africa may therefore be read in part as an effort to end this spiritual confusion — by seeking to create new patterns of stability.

Such endeavors include attempts to recreate the form and content of village-style or neighborhood communities in modern towns, implying a more or less self-conscious return to traditional ideas.

In other cases, new religious allegiances can be seen as a deliberate break with the past, attempts to create new practices that are thought to offer a better hope of stability and prosperity in today's world.

Charismatic Christianity, strongest in Africa's cities, is often associated with moral appeals to break with village customs, including traditional rituals and polygamy and to build individual responsibility.

Regardless of the specific options pursued, everywhere that religion is emerging in the public space, the remaking of public institutions and their moral standing are at stake.

What seems to be required for a greater sense of stability and order, therefore, is a higher degree of consensus than exists at present on the nature of the spirit world and on legitimate ways of access to it.

This implies the development of institutions that govern the relationship between the spirit and the material worlds.

It may be that, as the colonial era fades into history, a growing number of African countries will adopt institutions and legal systems that have roots in their own pre-colonial history.

For example, there is a debate in several African countries as to whether “witchcraft” is to be made a criminal offense. Another example is the reintroduction of shari'a into the criminal code in much of northern Nigeria.

Such developments cannot be considered as a simple boon. They may cause concern on various grounds, including their implications for human rights.

On the other hand, the rulers of a country must take account of popular views on such matters.

For example, if a majority of people in northern Nigeria, or any other part of the world, prefers a shari'a system of law to a colonial system of justice that has become increasingly unworkable and no longer guarantees physical security, their right to self-determination should not simply be ignored.

This may not be an easy matter to countenance for anyone interested in international justice or equity. Yet, is it not impossible — in principle at least — that shari'a law could be made compatible with international views of human rights.

The various forms of religious revival that are so noteworthy today have to be considered in light of the long, historic engagement of the West in Africa.

The first, heady years of African independence in the 1960s seemed to many commentators at the time as the start of a new and hopeful era. It soon became commonplace to note just how much the new African states owed to their colonial forebears.

In addition, the modernization that brought such massive changes and that appealed to so many intellectuals and power brokers has lost its former luster.

Under those circumstances, it is useful to consider the revival of religion not just in Africa, but worldwide in this light. Religion is now providing a way of reconnecting to older pasts — sometimes assumed deliberately, but perhaps less self-consciously, by many millions of people.

“How to reconcile membership in vivacious primary communities with the imperatives of an emerging cosmopolitanism is perhaps the most urgent issue of our time,” according to a leading world historian who notes that a prime way of achieving this in antiquity was by way of religion.

Ultimately, today's religious revivals, despite their confusing forms at times, could then be described as reconfigurations of available resources for a successful life today.

At the same time, the enhanced public and political importance of religion in a new historical age in which some of the less-pleasing consequences of modernization have become apparent, is not to be confused with a return to the past.

Nor can it be considered as an anachronism, not even when it takes forms that have historical roots extending to pre-colonial times.

It is no longer satisfactory to make stark distinctions between tradition and modernity — and to suggest that the former always precedes the latter. The two coexist and it is this very co-presence that results in change and progress.

Hence, revivals of traditional religion should not be taken for a sign that Africa is peeling off several layers of development, as Western newspapers' addiction to “Heart of Darkness” headlines imply.

No more than anyone else do Africa and Africans have an authentic, unchanging culture that is transmitted from one generation to another — or ought to be.

Just as colonization involved a redefinition of the legal relations between different parts of the world, it also imposed the separation of religion from power that had become conventional in Europe.