Safiya Hussaini stands outside a Sharia court in northern Nigeria. She had been convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning. Hussaini was appealing the sentence because she said her infant daughter was conceived by rape. © Reuters/Vincenzo Pinto, 2002

The Untold Story of Africa’s Secular Tradition

Unlike in Europe and in other parts of the Western world, secularism has not succeeded in defining the political landscape in Africa. In fact, the secularization of Africa has been marked by contrasts and contra-dictions, false starts and setbacks, misconceptions and misrepresentations, dilemmas and ambiguities due to the complex interplay of religion and politics in the region. The process of separating religion and state has been under siege due to the powerful influence of Christian churches—including support from the Vatican and American evangelical groups—and Islamic organizations funded and backed by Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries. The major challenge is that the notion of secularization is largely misrepresented by politicians in Africa, who are bent on sustaining the image of a “religious continent” to further their own interests.

Rooted in the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment, secularism guarantees the state’s neutrality and impartiality on religious matters and provides institutional protection against the establishment of theocracy and religious dictatorship. Constitutionally, separating religious and state authorities guarantees the equality of individuals of different faiths and of none before the law and protects the human rights of all, including the rights of religious minorities.

Africa is religiously and culturally plural. Hence, it is imperative that governments be secular—that is, unbiased for or against any religion. But this is often not how it turns out. Many African states are constitutionally secular in principle, but in practice there is a lot of melding of religious and political spaces. Religious groups pressure governments to make their dogmas and doctrines state policies.

As Nigerian columnist Abimbola Adelakun observed: “Religion in Nigeria, by the way, is about politics and politics is about contesting spaces. When sects push for space for their religion to thrive, it is not necessarily about social equality. The aim is their cut of socio-political relevance and the capital they can build with it.”

Religious groups interfere with state matters as they contest for space and influence. Many of the de jure democracies we have in Africa today are really only quasi-democracies—de facto Christian, Islamic or “chrislamic” theocracies. Many politicians regard the idea of separating religion and state as a Western notion that is alien to African political culture and values. Some view secularism as a legacy of European cultural imperialism and political irreligionism. They equate secularism with atheism and think secularization is a process of eliminating religion from society and enthroning atheism as the state “religion.” Some Africans think separating religion and state is incipient communism—a creeping socialist agenda. To certain Muslim eyes, the roots of secularism lie in Christian Europe, making it a repugnant worldview to Muslim theocrats, who do not subscribe to the notion of separating mosque and state.

But the idea of separating religion and government is not new to Africa. Elements of secularism are identifiable in pre-colonial African societies, unlike what some African religious leaders would have us believe. For example, in 2006, Professor Maake Jonathan S. Masango from South Africa told the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus that “in the African tradition, religion is a very integral part of our culture. So it is not easy to simply place things in compartments; ‘this is the religious part [and] this is the secular part.’” Such misrepresentations serve the interests of priestly politicians and political priests. On the contrary, in Africa, worldly and otherworldly things have actually existed in compartments, not merged as contemporary religious ideologues claim. Unfortunately, the colonial mentality and Christian and Islamic indoctrination prevent many Africans from acknowledging the secular elements and roots in their culture.

Separation of Religion and State in Pre-Colonial Africa

Kingdoms and chiefdoms, or their variants, prevailed in pre-colonial Africa. Magico-religious beliefs were strong and widespread. Priests, soothsayers and diviners were among those social actors who managed the communities.

Still, political and spiritual roles were separate and distinct, and these royal and clerical powers were not always invested in one person. The kings and chiefs were not the priests or clerics. The chiefs handled secular issues and usually referred spiritual matters to the priests. Secular and sacred spaces were not one and the same. The palace was distinct from the shrine. The distinct roles of traditional rulers and priests/priestesses have been documented in communities in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Zambia. Indeed, there was the notion of the divine rights of kings, which meant that the kings were chosen by the gods, not that the kings were priests. Among the Azande in Central Sudan, the duties of kings and princes were separate from those of the oracles. And for the Ibos in Southern Nigeria, the functions of the traditional rulers—the Ezes and Obis—were different from those of shrine managers (Didia afa) and other custodians of the local deities and spirits.

There were, however, also cases where the chiefs were the priests and performed political as well as religious duties. These were the exceptions, not the rule, in pre-colonial Africa. In the Mamprusi region in contemporary Ghana, the Gambarana, as the chief of Gambaga is called, is the only chief in the area who has both political and spiritual powers. Other chiefs do not; they have priests who carry out religious functions and responsibilities. The Gambarana, by contrast, is both the chief and the chief priest of Gambaga.

So the idea that the separation of religious and state affairs was completely unknown in precolonial Africa is patently untrue and does not reflect the social and political reality at this phase in African history.

Secularism in Colonial Africa

The situation changed with the advent of colonialism. The colonial authorities introduced new dynamics to politics and religion in Africa. These dynamics transformed state-religion relationships in the region.

Colonial authorities enthroned the European model of legal and governmental institutions to assert their power and legitimacy over the colonies in Africa. The state bureaucratic system they established was supposed to be secular, but it was not. The colonial establishment had a religious layer—a strong Christian religious coating and character. The colonial presence comprised not only administrators, explorers, armies and settlers, but also missionaries sent to Africa by different Christian religious orders and denominations in Europe. The colonial state system was not religiously neutral. Through the colonial alliances with churches, Christianity was introduced into the African political process.

The idea of separating religion and government is not new to Africa. Ele-ments of secularism are identifiable in precolonial African societies, unlike what some African religious leaders would have us believe.  

This meant that Christian colonial authorities faced resistance from Muslim-dominated parts of Africa. (Before European colonists arrived in Africa, Islamic rule and religion held sway in parts of the continent. Muslim clerics and warriors from North Africa and the Middle East had colonized many parts of the region through trade, preaching and holy wars.) Through their policy of indirect rule and military conquests, colonial governments were able to forge alliances with local Muslim rulers and establish political control over these communities. However, Muslim theocrats opposed colonial rule because they saw it as a front for Christian domination and expansionism. This opposition galvanized into an anti-colonial struggle that engulfed the region.

The Catholic church did not play an active role in the early days of the struggle against colonial authorities because the hierarchy of the African church was mainly white missionaries, some of whom were also part of the colonial establishment. The church had a vested interest in the colonial status quo. In fact, some colonial governments provided financial aid to mission schools. State grants were critical to the sustenance and survival of Christian mission schools in Nigeria.

This was not the case in Muslim-majority communities. Muslims opposed European Christian domination and the rule of “infidels.” They mobilized against colonial oppression and exploitation, but for reasons that were incompatible with secularism. According to historian Benjamin Talton, Sheikh Almadou Bamba, a Muslim leader who founded the Mouride Brotherhood in late 19th century Senegal, was an example of an African leader who worked to separate “from colonial authority rather than challenge it.” Bamba’s goal in establishing his fraternal organization for Sufi Muslims was to “protect Islam from the corruptive forces of European rule,” and not directly oppose European rulers, although he was targeted by colonial authorities all the same.

Other Africans—Christians, traditionalists or non-believers—allied with liberation movements from other countries in their fight for independence and self-rule. The movements against colonial domination had a religious undercurrent, as politics in postcolonial Africa would reveal.

Separating Religion and State in Postcolonial Africa

The early days of independence were promising for secularism in Africa, with the separation of church and state offering a solid framework upon which to build modern, progressive states. The prospect of shaping a free, democratic and secular Africa was bright. Many countries adopted a secular constitution establishing a wall separating religion and state—with the powers of the presidents on one side and those of priests and bishops, imams and sheikhs on the other. But decades after independence, many of the secular hopes and promises have been dashed. Some governments have pulled down this wall of separation or have gone so far as to merge religion and state. Many African politicians have campaigned with, and were elected for, religious reasons. Others campaigned as democrats but ruled as theocrats. This trend has been mainly due to pressures from religious groups and institutions.

The separation of religion and state in Africa has had some of its most pronounced breaches in matters concerning sexuality education and the reproductive rights of women.   

At the end of colonial rule, Muslim-majority countries in Africa adopted Islam as the state religion and sharia (Islamic law) or its adaptation, as state law. For example, shortly after Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, Muslim-majority states in the north imposed sharia law in a country that “was supposed to be secular,” as Ali Mazrui, a writer on African and Islamic studies, observed. The espousal of sharia has had numerous negative impacts on human rights in the region. In 2003, a sharia court sentenced a Nigerian woman to stoning for adultery. In 2010, Sani Ahmed Yerima, a Nigerian senator, defended his marriage to a 13-year-old girl by citing Islamic law. The freedom of religious minorities has also suffered in the region. Since sharia came into force, non-Muslims have been subjected to discrimination in the workplace, in education and in political appointments. Churches have been destroyed, Islamic dress and codes curtailing drinking have been imposed on non-Muslims. In November in the Nigerian city of Kano, police enforcing the Islamic principle of Hisbah—maintaining a society in conformity with the laws of Allah—destroyed over 240,000 bottles of beer as part of its crackdown on “immorality” in the state.

The separation of religion and state in Africa has had some of its most pronounced breaches in matters concerning sexuality education and the reproductive rights of women. The Catholic hierarchy in Africa opposes sex education in schools as well as the use of condoms, even with the continent gripped by the HIV & AIDS pandemic. The hierarchy continues to frustrate African governments’ plans to make contraceptives more accessible and abortion safe and legal. The hierarchy in Uganda, under the aegis of the Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC), has come out against the proposal to legalize abortion from Sarah Opendi, the state minister for health. The executive secretary of the UJCC, Fr. Silvester Arinaitwe Rwomukubwe, explained his opposition to the proposal in an interview with Uganda’s Observer, stating that abortion was against the teachings of the Bible and the church. Health experts say that at least 1,500 girls in Uganda die every year from complications resulting from unsafe abortions.

In Nigeria, the Catholic hierarchy recently pressured Governor Rochas Okorocha, the governor of the Imo state in the southern region, to repeal a law that had legalized abortion—according to the local archbishop’s interpretation of it. Archbishop Anthony Obinna mobilized the hierarchy and the community against the governor because of a section of the law that stated: “Every woman shall have the right to enjoy reproductive rights including the right to medical abortion in cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where the continued pregnancy endangers the life or the physical, mental, psychological or emotional health” of the pregnant woman. The Catholic hierarchy in Nigeria, in the name of its “prolife” campaign, continues to block the government’s efforts to provide legal protection for the lives and health of women by guaranteeing access to safe and legal abortion.

The Endangered State of Secularism

Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba, a Pentecostal Christian who ruled the country from 1991 to 2002, declared Zambia a Christian nation shortly after he was elected. Chiluba was praised by Christian groups and leaders across the world, including American evangelist, Pat Robertson. The case of Chiluba is indicative of the endangered state of secularism in Africa.

In particular, it demonstrates that there is an international dimension to mixing religion and politics in the region. African religious organizations and leaders often act under the influence of the Vatican and the Organizations of Islamic Cooperation. They receive moral and financial backing from rich and powerful evangelical and Islamist groups and institutions around the globe. Until African politicians begin to muster the will and the statesmanship to neutralize these pressures from theocratic establishments, the promise of a secular Africa will continue to elude the people of this region, and the idea of an Africa where religion and state are separate will remain a pipe dream.

Leo Igwe is a former Catholic seminarian and current freelance journalist and human rights activist. He holds an MA in philosophy from the University of Calabar in Nigeria and is working on a PhD project at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies in Germany.

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