The role of religion in African development
Religion in Africa.
The last 60 years have witnessed the accession to sovereign status of dozens of former colonial territories and the birth of the modern development enterprise, but also a rapid secularisation of Western European societies especially. Yet, at the start of a new century, religion seems set to be a major force in international affairs in the world for the foreseeable future. Its public role can no longer be ignored.
Religion is of great importance in Africa in that most people engage in some form of religious practice from time to time, and many profess membership of some formal religious organisation, traditional, Muslim, Christian or otherwise. Many Africans voluntarily associate themselves with religious networks, which they use for a variety of purposes – social, economic and even political – that go beyond the strictly religious aspect. But what does ‘religion’ mean in the context of Africa? The evidence suggests that most of the continent’s people are religious inasmuch as they believe in the existence of an invisible world, distinct but not separate from the visible world, that is inhabited by spiritual beings or forces with which they can communicate and which they perceive to have an influence on their daily lives. Religious ideas typically govern relationships of people with a perceived spirit world. In effect, this idiom can govern relations both of one person to another, or of one person to a community, but also of people to the land they cultivate.
Donor agencies could certainly make greater efforts to consider the role of religion in Africa through relatively simple means. It has sometimes been suggested, for example,
that foreign embassies in Africa may be well advised to appoint religion attachés charged with the task of observing religious life, much as they have defence attachés at present. This does not in any way imply that observers must themselves be religious practitioners or believers, but suggests only that they should have proper knowledge of religious organisations and networks in Africa of all descriptions and inform themselves of the type of thinking that underlies them. They need to monitor and understand processes of religious change, such as those that have given rise to evangelical Christian communities, the development of reformed Islamist organisations, and the revival of neo-traditional groups such as initiation societies.
There are very active debates within religious communities of all types in Africa including, for example, in those Muslim groups and Islamic networks that cause concern to Western countries on security grounds, concerning the proper interpretations of their religious duty. Calls are often heard for inter-religious dialogue, and it is hard to dispute the usefulness of this, but at the same time we doubt whether inter-religious dialogue is sufficient to diffuse religious tensions where such exist. First, people who are inclined to inter-religious dialogue are probably also those individuals who are the least inclined to take up weapons in support of their faith, and therefore are the least in need of persuasion towards the way of peace and coexistence. Second, many of the religious debates that are most threatening to peace or human rights actually take place within religious communities. Hence, we argue that inter-religious dialogue may be less urgent than intra-religious dialogue. Such intra-religious dialogues are worthy of far more attention than they actually receive from development experts. As in other aspects of religion, people or institutions interested in development need in the first instance to inform themselves of the debates that are taking place in particular contexts or in individual countries and to acquaint themselves with some of the key actors. Only then may they be able, in consultation with local partners, to find ways of encouraging dialogue in the interests of human development.
Using religion for development
We would emphasise that an appreciation that religion is a resource for development does not mean that policy-makers can simply add religion or religious institutions to the range of policy instruments at their disposal, other than in rather exceptional cases. However, given that proviso, it is certainly possible to identify specific sectors in which religion could play a positive role in development. Below, we briefly consider a number of such fields, providing brief examples:
a. Conflict prevention and peacebuilding
Peace is a precondition for human development. Religious ideas of various provenance – indigenous religions as well as world religions – play an important role in legitimising or discouraging violence. Increasingly, large-scale violence in Africa is associated with social conflicts. In many such conflicts fighters seek medicines or various objects or substances that they believe will make them effective in battle or will defend them against injury, and the persons who dispense such medicines exercise influence over the fighters. In some cases, this can take on a clear institutional form. In Sierra Leone, for example, the kamajor militia was organised along the lines of an initiation society and was associated with the most influential traditional initiation society in the country, Poro. Similar developments have been witnessed in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Nigeria and elsewhere.
Our argument here is not that quasi-military movements such as these – often responsible for appalling human rights abuses – are to be encouraged. Rather, the argument we are making is that the spiritual aspects of such movements must be understood if the movements themselves are to be understood. Moreover, the institutional affiliations of such movements could provide a means of helping to regulate such movements in future.
Regarding the establishment of unofficial militias such as the kamajors (although the latter eventually received a degree of official licence), it is notable that there are now many African countries where state security forces have lost any realistic claim to a national monopoly of violence, and where locally organised vigilantes or similar groups proliferate and sometimes receive a degree of official sanction. Such local groups almost invariably have a religious dimension (in the sense that we have defined religion: see above), like the kamajors who are thought be protected by powerful spiritual forces. It seems quite likely that in time, locally-established forces will come to be considered in some shape or form as a substitute for fully effective centrally organised police and military forces, that are unable to fulfil their formal mandate in so many African countries. The kamajors, for example, were part of an officially- recognised Civil Defence Force that was instituted by the Sierra Leonean government in 1997: indeed, the recognition of this new force was one of the factors that led to a coup by sections of the armed forces in May of that year. Another example is the Bakassi Boys, a vigilante group originally established by market-traders in south- eastern Nigeria in the late 1990s to protect themselves and their communities against the bands of armed robbers that were then terrorising their areas. The Bakassi Boys were subsequently adopted as part of the official security forces, notably in Anambra State, with the result that they soon degenerated into a personal militia at the service of local politicians, and were responsible for a series of political murders.
Neither the kamajors of Sierra Leone nor the Bakassi Boys of Nigeria, then, are examples to be emulated. But they are both instances of local militias that have at some point in their existence enjoyed a real popularity in some communities, with ties to local stakeholders. In both cases also their cooptation by powerful politicians has reduced their ability genuinely to defend local communities. Thinking is urgently required on whether or how local militias may be made responsible to local stakeholders and how they may coexist with national security institutions in a relationship strong enough to avoid the risk of creating a host of local fiefdoms.
By the same token, the end of armed conflict is often accompanied by ritual action to ‘cleanse’ fighters from the pollution of bloodshed. This is done through traditional rituals in many countries, but also takes the form of the experience of ‘born-again’ Christianity, for example. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by an Anglican archbishop and closely associated with the country’s faith communities, was also based on the idea that long-term reconciliation depends crucially on religious notions of reconciliation and healing, even in the absence of formal justice. Although the TRC has been criticised in South Africa itself, its ultimate success or failure will only become apparent with the passage of time. In the meantime it has been widely imitated. Truth commissions based more or less on the South African model have been created in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone, where they had a mixed record, and have been mooted in many other African countries. These examples suggest that truth commissions are far from a panacea. First, the right political conditions have to exist if they are to have any chance of genuinely helping to reconcile conflicts. Second, even if the conditions are ripe, each country needs to think out the form and style of its own commission rather than imitating the South African exemplar. In Sierra Leone, the establishment of a truth commission simultaneous with a special court posed considerable problems for the institutions of transitional justice. Finally, establishing a reasonably successful truth and reconciliation commission requires considerable finance and the maintenance of an efficient secretariat with real research capacity. In many cases these will require input from external sources.
b. Wealth creation and production
It is widely acknowledged that religious ideas played an important part in the development of capitalism in the history of Europe, not always directly, but in influencing people’s thinking on the legitimacy of wealth and on the moral value of saving or investing, for example. Although it is by no means inevitable that other continents will develop along the same lines, this does suggest the significance of current religious ideas such as the widespread existence of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ in Africa, or the importance of certain religious networks, like the Mourides of Senegal, in creating wealth. Development workers would be advised to monitor such ideas and the groups espousing them closely, with a view to identifying opportunities for policies aimed at wealth creation or enhancement.
Control of land and the role of religion in expressing people’s ideas about the proper use and ownership of land is closely connected to what remains Africa’s most fundamental economic activity: agriculture. At present, some 66 per cent of people south of the Sahara live in rural areas, and many of these derive their living in part from agriculture, directly or indirectly. In many parts of the continent, traditional forms of landholding preclude women from ownership of land or even place taboos on the ownership of agricultural implements by women, despite the key role they often play in cultivation. There are also many examples of traditional chiefs having the power to grant land while retaining the right to recall its use – a power that is open to abuse. In some cases, particular ethnic groups may traditionally be forbidden from owning land but may enjoy usufruct rights only. (Such a principle has been associated with violent conflicts in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.) All of these are examples of traditional ideas concerning landholding that may offend against current ideas concerning universal human rights and also be in contradiction with Western-style systems of individual land tenure guaranteed by law. Hence it is no solution to argue for the preponderance of traditional forms over modern ones inspired by Western models. Rather, what is required is to consider what elements of traditional systems might usefully be adapted for current purposes in the light of contemporary ideas of justice and human rights as well as the demands of agricultural efficiency.
Although it is risky to generalise about a sub-continent as large and diverse as sub- Saharan Africa, it is clear that many countries will not emerge as industrial producers or with internationally competitive service sectors in the foreseeable future. It remains as important as ever that agriculture be encouraged. Enormous obstacles exist to the expansion of agriculture in Africa, ranging from the subsidies paid by governments in the European Union and the USA to their own farmers, making African products uncompetitive, to the phenomenon of ‘urban bias’ inherent in the policies of the many African governments that, for political reasons, prefer to favour urban sectors at the expense of rural-dwellers.
However, even if such issues are addressed, it is also important to integrate into agricultural policy crucial elements of culture and religion that are associated with the prosperity of agricultural societies. For example, in many places, policies aimed at encouraging individual legal title to ownership of land may need to be modified to take account of traditional ideas concerning land ownership, in which land is typically viewed as being owned by a community of people by virtue of their relation with ancestor spirits or with spirits of the earth, frequently clash with systems of individual title recognised by the state. Much more research is necessary on how land tenure can be protected by state law while also acknowledging the importance of traditional ideas concerning community or social rights to land that often have a reflection in religious ideas.
The possible role of religiously-based networks in Africa’s future governance extends far beyond the fields of security and the law. It is striking, for example, that revenue collection is one of the main problems facing states in Africa, which typically have budget deficits and which are unduly reliant for their revenue on dues levied on import- export trade, or on external sources of funding, including aid. Most have a poor record in the collection of taxes from their own populations, making states unhealthily dependent on foreign sources of finance rather than on their own populations. The relationship between a state and its domestic tax-payers is an important element of real citizenship. Meanwhile, many religious networks in Africa survive largely or entirely from tithes or other monies donated by their members: in effect, their ability to tax their own members is testimony of the success of many religious organisations in developing a close bond with their adherents, and a degree of accountability to them, in contrast to the problems of citizenship faced by African states in general.
The question may be asked whether, in the considerable number of African countries where the state exercises little real authority outside the main cities or a handful of nodal points, and where states have very little ability to tax their nominal citizens, religious networks will not assume some of the functions of government in future.
In short, in the considerable number of African states in which government through efficient, centrally-controlled bureaucracies is clearly inadequate to ensure the country’s security, or to raise sufficient resources through taxation as to fund the reproduction of the state itself, or to ensure a minimum level of welfare for the country’s people, non- state organisations are destined to play a much greater role in future. Many of the best- rooted non-state organisations have an explicit religious basis, whether it is in the form of educational establishments run by churches or by Muslim networks or in vigilante movements underpinned by traditional initiation societies. In future, state and religious organisations may be called upon to play a complementary role in the governance of society.
On closer inspection it is also apparent that many Africans in fact debate key political questions, including the fundamental legitimacy of their own governments, in religious or spiritual terms. This is apparent from the popular literature, videos and other published material that circulates all over the continent and that is consumed and discussed widely. Many such publications discuss current problems of governance, crime and morality, typically viewed as manifestations or conceptions of evil. In what might be termed a spirit idiom, they express concern with what in development jargon is termed poor governance. Ultimately, this is having a great effect on governments whose fundamental institutions, having been founded in the colonial period by Europeans who had a view of the proper form of governance based on Europe’s own history, risk being considered of dubious legitimacy.
*Stephen Ellis is a senior researcher at the Afrika-studiecentrum, Leiden.
*Gerrie ter Haar is professor of Religion, Human Rights and Social Change at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague.