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Religion and social change in contemporary Africa

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By Prof Sulayman Nyang

In the post-colonial era, three patterns of responses to social change can be identified. The first pattern, evident all over the continent, is the utilisation of religion to legitimise the rule of new African leadership. During the presidency of Léopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal, Muslim religious leaders, locally called Marabouts, played an important role as brokers between the rural poor and the politicians based in urban Senegal. They were usually called upon to give blessings to the modernising efforts of the government, although their cooperation was not guaranteed.

Their disciples responded to government development projects on the basis of religious instruction from the leadership of the Sufi brotherhoods. Indeed the evidence from Senegal suggests that social changes which enhanced the power and influence of the Sufi brotherhoods were sanctioned and accepted by the Muslim religious leaders, while those that were perceived as negative to their corporate interest were either avoided or rejected outright.
These differential responses to government policies and programs of modernisation have led some commentators to see at least the Muridiyya brotherhood in Senegal as an African Muslim embodiment of the “Protestant Spirit” which Max Weber claimed to be the motive force behind capitalist development in the West.
Another manifestation of the first pattern described above, was the use of religious leaders to help rationalise theologically the modernisation drive of the government. This process of rationalisation was most advanced in Egypt under Nasser. During his 18-year rule of this North African country Nasser pursued political and modernisation programs by taking two important measures.
The first was the appointing of religious scholars (ulema) who were not only modernisers but sympathetic to his cause. The second was the requesting of fatwa (religious rulings) from the Muslim jurists that justified and legitimised the government’s modernisation programs. To facilitate this arduous task, Nasser found it necessary to stack the cards in his favour by appointing young Egyptians trained in Western universities. By so doing he undermined the power of the traditional ulema, whose interpretations of the Qur’an were deemed unacceptable.

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Through this effective use of religious leaders Nasser’s government pushed through programs such as family planning, greater women’s involvement in development, and other liberalisation measures of socialist Egypt.
Religion was also used to strengthen the political power of post-independence leadership in Africa. In East and Central Africa, Christianity and traditional African religions played less significant roles than did Islam in predominantly Muslim Africa.

President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia has been the African leader who employed Christian values more frequently than anyone else. In his drive for humanism he has appealed to the Christian values which missionaries inculcated in his people. He tried to steer the Zambian society along the path of Christian/African development, and used his power of expression and political clout to create a moral order that reflects what he perceives to be the best of old Africa and the best Africa can borrow from the West.
To a limited extent, one can similarly argue that President Nyerere of Tanzania was another African leader whose Christianity has manifested itself in his political thought. While President Nyerere did not appeal directly to the scriptures to promote his ujamaa programs, his political and social thought were very much influenced by Christianity, and he earned the respect of many of his fellow countrymen who see him as a humble leader dedicated to human service.
The second pattern of response is the use of religion by groups who feel that the political establishment in the country is oppressive and corrupt and thus deserves to be eliminated. Such groups are disturbed by social changes unleashed by the forces of modernisation in their country. Unwilling to accept such socially disruptive developments, many undertake political actions to rectify what they believe to be wrongs in their society.
In North Africa the emergence of groups such as the Takfir al Hijra in Egypt, shows that the sword of religion is double-edged and can cut both ways.

The Takfir al Hijra came to world attention when its members assassinated President Anwar Sadat in October 1981. This heinous act, for which many Muslim fundamentalists are scheduled to face the firing squad in Egypt, demonstrates beyond doubt that social changes in the Muslim world could have negative consequences. It is true that President Sadat died because of a host of reasons and that the radicalisation of Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt was only one of these reasons. Yet in conceding this fact, one must point out that modernization in Egypt has always been a bone of contention between fundamentalists and secularists.
This second pattern of response to social change has also manifested itself in Sub-Saharan Africa. Northern Nigeria has been the theater where these forces of religion have acted most violently. Since 1980 three major disturbances have taken place. During the 1980 incident, a fundamentalist group led by a cleric called Muhammadu Marwa, went on the rampage in Kano. Working on the assumption that he was a messiah chosen to cleanse Northern Nigeria of all its corrupt elements, Marwa called upon his followers to take up arms and destroy the targeted enemy.

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Acting on the teachings of their leader, these fanatically motivated members and supporters of the Maitatsine Movement raided bars, shops and buildings believed to be dens of iniquities and corruption. In the course of their rampage, and as a result of military action by the authorities in Lagos, many of those rebels lost their lives.
The violence of 1980 was again repeated in 1982, when the followers of Marwa started a violent confrontation with the security forces in Maiduguri and other Northern localities. The death toll was high, and Nigerians were again reminded of the dangers posed by religious groups. Indeed, this message was brought home to the Nigerian people in the spring of 1984 when religious riots broke out in Yola and other Northern urban centers.
Reacting to these developments, the Nigerian government launched a commission of inquiry in 1980. The oil boom in Nigeria and the social changes it created, due to the present religious malaise in Northern Nigeria. Marwa’s followers were drawn largely from the urban poor who flocked to Northern Nigerian cities from neighboring countries and rural Northern Nigeria. A sense of alienation and relative deprivation among the poor migrants from rural Northern Nigeria and the immigrants created a sense of solidarity. In other words, the followers of Marwa were united by a common cause in poverty, and by an ideology woven by a leader who mistook himself for an African Muslim Messiah.That they were willing to die in large numbers meant that their ideology was sufficiently powerful to galvanize action against their perceived enemies.
One can also speculate that the Maitatsine Movement could have swelled with some of the 90,000 Nigerian Muslims expelled by Saudi Arabia in 1978/79. Considered unwelcome pilgrims by the Saudi authorities, these Nigerians were deported back to Nigeria. Some of these men and women were terribly disturbed by these developments. It is possible that some of the poorer elements in this group saw the Maitatsine Movement as a refuge and a sanctuary. Indeed there is some evidence from the activities and beliefs of the Movement which suggests some disillusionment and hostility to Arabs, especially Saudi Arabians.
A number of political parties have emerged in West Africa whose leaders have tried to employ religion as an instrument of political mobilisation. In Ghana, before independence, Gold Coast Muslims put up a political party to challenge the position of Dr Kwame Nkrumah. This party was short-lived, for it did not enter the post-colonial stage of Ghanaian political life. It was quickly banned by the Nkrumah regime, and the Muslims were forced to press their demands through the single party ruling the country. Some of them were reconciled with Nkrumah, and this eased their way into the corridors of power in independent Ghana.
This Ghanaian experience was different from what transpired in both Gambia and Northern Nigeria. The Gambia Muslim Congress of Ibrahima Garba Jahumpa used Islamic symbolism and rhetoric to organise the Muslim vote against what he at the time perceived as the dominant Christian minority in the country. His appeal to Muslim sentiments struck a responsive chord among young Muslims aspiring for greater access in the colonial government.
But this was not the feeling of the majority of the older generation of both the Wolof and non-Wolof Muslims living in the Colony area of the country. Since the majority of these people were Wolofs of Saloum descent, they responded more favorably to the sloganeering of “Saloum-Saloum” from their Catholic brother, Gambia barrister Pierre Sarr Njie. Njie outpolled Iahumpa who had defeated him at the 1951 elections. From 1954 onwards the Gambia Muslim Congress suffered terrible electoral defeat. Indeed, retrospectively speaking, one can argue that Jahumpa’s decision to drop the word Muslim from the reconstituted Congress Party in 1964 was a belated realisation of the lack of responsibility to religious rhetoric among the Gambian electorate.
But, if Mr. Iahumpa was unable to exploit religion as a political tool to enhance his political standing in Gambian society, the then primarily rural party called the Gambia Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) was able to do so in a slightly different way. Instead of appealing directly to Muslim sentiments, the PPP leadership pandered to the ethnic loyalties of the rural majority in the country. And to consolidate its power among these voters, it employed Islamic symbolism and Muslim oaths of fidelity to defeat its urban opponents. They used the Qur’an to assure itself of the continued support of the Muslim elders in rural areas. The Qur’an was used to make the elders swear allegiance to the party; the first chapter “Surah al-Fatihah” was recited publicly in all party meetings.
The Nigerian experience was different from both the Gambian and the Ghanaian. In the case of Nigeria, regionalism helped heighten religious division. The Northern part of the country is predominantly Muslim, and those Muslim leaders who wanted to protect Northern regional interests at the Federal level tried to rally support for their cause by calling upon Muslims to unite. This appeal to Nigerian Muslim sentiments did not succeed throughout the country. The Yoruba Muslims were generally more loyal to their ethnic brethren than to fellow Muslims. As a result, the Islamic solidarity that Northern leaders, such as the late Sardauna Ahmadu Bello, tried to build remained mainly a Northern phenomenon, with only scattered support in pockets of Muslim presence in the Southern part of the country.
Yet, in retrospect, one can argue that the Sardauna succeeded in building a strong Northern alliance which captured the seat of power in Lagos and then worked out a modus vivendi with predominantly Catholic partners. This alliance between the Ibos and the Northerners ruled Nigeria until the first coup d’état swept the partners out of office. This army takeover changed the course of Nigerian politics and further secularised political organisation.
I believe certain conclusions are crucial in any study of the relationship between religion and socio-political change in Africa.

First, traditional African religion suffered a severe blow when it came into contact with alien religions. This was particularly true in the case of Euro-Western Christianity that planted itself in the continent during the nineteenth century. The arrival of Christianity coincided with the unchallenged supremacy of Europe; and the material transformation ushered in by the European advent helped weaken African culture and religion. With the withering away of traditional African self-confidence, social changes that were previously resisted began to gain wider acceptance.
The second conclusion is that the colonial period fostered social change which helped the alien religions in Africa gain greater numbers of converts. This was true of Islam in many parts of West Africa. It was also true of Christianity in other parts of the continent. In fact, the Christian movement in Africa benefited from the material civilisation of Europe, just as the Muslim traders traveling across the Sahara in the medieval period had once made breakthroughs in Africa owing to their material advantage over the African buyers of their goods.
Last, but not the least, the present situation in most of Sub-Saharan Africa seems to suggest that religion may assume greater significance, but not to the point of becoming a state-established institution. This is to say that an Islamic state is not likely, and the only use to which religion will be put is to further secular objectives. The Gambian and Nigerian examples are likely to serve as models of how politicians will exploit religion to maintain power and ward off opponents.

Prof Nyang, a Gambian, was the director, Centre for African Studies and Research Centre, Howard University, Washington, DC, USA. This is an excerpt for a speech he made on Thursday, April 22, 2010.

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