As religion grows, so does inter-faith conflicts in Africa

Friday February 17 2012

With both Muslim and Christian populations in sub-Saharan Africa growing rapidly, issues of inter-faith relations will become increasingly explosive if measures are not taken to address growing tensions between the two major faiths in countries across Africa.

With both Muslim and Christian populations in sub-Saharan Africa growing rapidly, issues of inter-faith relations will become increasingly explosive if measures are not taken to address growing tensions between the two major faiths in countries across Africa. 

With both Muslim and Christian populations in sub-Saharan Africa growing rapidly, issues of inter-faith relations will become increasingly explosive if measures are not taken to address growing tensions between the two major faiths in countries across Africa.

The January 20 bombings and gun battles in Nigeria’s second largest city of Kano have added urgency to efforts to seek a lasting solution to religious conflicts on the continent. The Boko Haram militant group, which claimed responsibility for the attacks in which up to 165 people were killed, has in the recent past gone for an all-out campaign of terror in its efforts to establish Sharia rule in Nigeria.

Last Christmas, the group was responsible for a wave of bombings that claimed over 80 lives.

But Nigeria is not an isolated case, though arguably the worst affected by religious animosity. Egypt has also experienced a wave of attacks on churches over the past year; sectarian violence between Muslims and Orthodox Christians protesting against the attacks claimed 24 lives last October, according to reports. Ivory Coast was effectively split along religious lines in the aftermath of its insurgency. In Kenya, Al Shabaab propagandists have attempted to portray Kenya’s foray into Somalia as an attack on Islam.

Even in Tanzania, which enjoys a relatively high degree of religious harmony, tensions have occasionally run high; early last year, The Citizen newspaper reported that the Muslim Council of Tanzania (Bakwata) had asked the government to form a special commission comprising religious leaders to explore the increasing religious animosity in the country. This kind of scenario described in these examples is replicated to a lesser or greater extent in countries across Africa.

But Christians have not merely sat back as lambs waiting for slaughter. Christian leaders in Nigeria urged their followers to exercise restraint after the Christmas attacks. It remains to be seen how they will react following the latest attacks, with fears of reprisals gripping the nation.


Indeed, following attacks by Muslim Hausa cattle herders on Christian ethnic Taroks in 2004, the latter attacked Muslim cattle-herders in the town of Yelwa in central Nigeria’s Plateau State. Wire agencies reported then that the Tarok ethnic group used machine guns mounted on jeeps, along with rifles and machetes, to attack the Muslim community. Three mosques were damaged and at least 67 people were killed, with hundreds more fleeing or unaccounted for.

A close look at the statistics shows that Africa could be headed for a conflagration of mammoth proportions unless national and religious leaders spearhead a sober, reasoned approach that will ensure the followers of the two faiths can live together in harmony.
Sub-Saharan Africa has more than 500 million Christians, which makes it the region with the third largest number of Christians worldwide, says a new report. The continent has 242.5 million Muslims.

The study, Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population, was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in the US.

An earlier study on Muslim populations released early last year and conducted by the same firm forecast that the Muslim population will grow at about twice the rate of the non-Muslim population over the next two decades – an average annual growth rate of 1.5 per cent for Muslims, compared with 0.7 per cent for non-Muslims.

According to the report, “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030,” the Muslim population in Nigeria is projected to increase by more than 50 per cent in the next 20 years, from about 76 million in 2010 to about 117 million in 2030. If current trends continue, Nigeria – arguably the country worst affected by Africa’s religious wars - will have a slight Muslim majority by 2030. Muslims are expected to make up 51.5 per cent of the population in 2030, up from 47.9 per cent in 2010.

The projected increase in Nigeria’s Muslim population is primarily due to high fertility rates. Although the rates vary considerably throughout the country, the average fertility rate for Muslim women in Nigeria is between six and seven children per woman, compared with an average of five children per woman for non-Muslims. High fertility rates among Nigeria’s Muslims are related to factors such as lower levels of education and lower use of birth control.

This sorry state among Nigeria’s Muslims has exacerbated the conflicts in the country. The reasons are partly historical. According to Nigerian scholars Eghosa E. Osaghae and Rotimi T. Suberu, “British colonial policy fostered the uneven socioeconomic and political development and mal-integration of the various Nigerian peoples.

Historical genesis

The more damaging aspects of the British colonial policy of uneven development included the exclusion of Christian missionary activity and the highly prized mission-sponsored schools from the predominantly Muslim areas of the north, thereby creating a huge imbalance in westernisation between north and south, which continues to haunt the federation; the discouragement of any official political contact between north and south until 1947, when politicians from the two regions sat together for the first time in the central legislative council; the official promotion of segregated residential settlement patterns and inflexible land tenure systems, both of which reinforced discrimination against migrant communities; and, the lopsided recruitment of Nigerians into the army and police.”

The Global Christianity report, which was released December 2011, makes comparisons of current figures with estimates of Christian populations a century ago. The fastest growth in the number of Christians over the past century has been in sub-Saharan Africa (a roughly 60-fold increase, from fewer than 9 million in 1910 to more than 516 million in 2010).

The report categorises Christians into Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Other Christians. The latter accounts for Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses and other minority groups that are often considered cults by the mainstream denominations.

The report does not capture the emergence of radical strands of Protestantism that would be expected to play a critical role in the igniting or perpetuation of religious conflict. It also fails to recognise the quiet emergence of restorationist groups and house churches, which are now growing rapidly across the continent.

While important differences exist between the various Christian and Muslim sects, violence between adherents of the two faiths does not discriminate along any such lines. The perpetrators, however, belong to the more militant sects of either faith.

Among Christians in Nigeria, for example, there has been a rapid growth of fundamentalist groups in recent years. Even among the so-called mainstream clergy, the tendency has been to lean toward conservative values. This played out prominently during the debate over ordination of gay clergy that virtually split the worldwide Anglican communion, with Nigeria taking a prominent role in the breakaway by Africa and other Third World countries from the Western churches that accepted the ordination of gays and lesbians.

The same fundamentalist streak is to be found in the growing Muslim population in Nigeria as elsewhere on the continent. Growing poverty, unemployment and economic desperation provide powerful fodder for messianic preachers of both faiths, who find multitudes all too eager to listen to their radical messages of a better tomorrow.

Often, these preachers are no more than conmen eager to take advantage of their gullible countrymen. Unfortunately, the almost total mind control exercised by these extremist leaders on their followers – whether in Pentecostal Christianity or Wahhabi Islam – ensures that there is always an army ready to wage war for ideals that show little of Christian love or Muslim charity.

In Africa, ethnic and religious conflicts are rarely a localised affair; they have a way of spilling over from their original theatres to cover whole regions of a country, or even other regions within the same country.

This is as true of the 2007 ethno-politio clashes in Kenya as it has been true of religious conflicts in Nigeria. And although ethnic conflicts have often spilled across international boundaries, this has largely been confined to areas near the affected countries. With the rapid growth of fundamentalist Christianity and jihadist Islam, the continent may soon have to contend with a new and dangerous prospect: the internationalisation of conflict.

The seeds for such a development have already been sown. Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab do collaborate on an international scale. Unconfirmed reports say that Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants share links with both of these groups. The growth of social media has made it possible for people to share ideas and information across borders within minutes. Technological advancement and liberalisation in countries with weak regulatory systems have made it relatively easy to move and hide funds across countries. Christian fundamentalist groups boast of diehard followers across nations, with income from tithes and offerings that would be the envy of many profitable private-sector enterprises.

But all is not lost and Africa does not have to look resignedly at the looming religious Armageddon. Inter-religious dialogue has been taking place, albeit feebly and intermittently. Because religion does not make headlines — except where there is conflict or some prediction for the end of the world — many of these efforts hardly receive the prominence they deserve.

Prophetic, non-sectarian leadership is not easy to come by; when this arises, their impact is blunted by inability to reach the masses through the mass media. Tackling fundamentalism head-on will cost loads of money and a steely resolve. Famous televangelists have the financial muscle to dominate Christian programmes on radio and television across various channels, hypnotising their followers with all sorts of empty promises. They face little opposition on the airwaves from concerned Christians, largely due to financial constraints. To break the hold of such preachers on the people will take a conscious, prolonged campaign to detoxify the minds of their followers. One way or the other, this will have to be done not just among Christians but across the religious divide if Africa is to be saved from religious wars.

While Muslim-Christian tensions are to be found in many countries across the world, Africa is in the unique position of having huge blocs of followers of both faiths across most countries. Moreover, while much of the Muslim population in the West is made up of migrants, in Africa these are indigenous peoples who share a common history of slavery, oppression and colonialism with their Christian counterparts.

If continent-wide efforts at inter-religious dialogue are not given the required impetus, together with conscious attempts to counter fundamentalism in all its aspects, religious conflict may well be Africa’s undoing.

Isaac Mwangi is the immediate former chief sub-editor of the The EastAfrican