‘Removing the Obstacles to Religious Freedom in Africa’

Rev Yunusa Sabo Nmadu Jnr, FIPS, MNIM, MyrP.

Founder and Chief Executive, CSW Nigeria

18 August 2021


“Religion remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. … Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history.” This statement by Jonathan Sacks, a former Chief rRbbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Commonwealth shows that religion and the exercise of the practice of religion has become a subject of immense importance to the world. As a matter of fact, freedom of religion is considered to be amongst the cornerstones of modern democracy, and its principles have been generously captured or reproduced in the constitutions of many countries that prioritize freedom.

However, moderate to severe violations of religious freedom or freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) are witnessed in many places around the globe. Both government and non-state actors have been complicit in the abuse of religious freedom from minor to moderate infringements and restrictions, to more advance cases as manifested in genocidal actions targeting religious minorities.

Africa, as we know, is a continent with a rich diversity of religious belief with differences in practice, acceptability, and popularity. While the degree of religious freedom on the continent differs greatly from nation to nation, the chain of value in Africa’s social, economic, and political dynamics attributable to religion is growing.

Religion-related tensions of varying kinds and degrees of intensity, both intra-religious, and between religious communities are occurring in many African countries.  Religion is either instrumentalised as a rallying point or is the raison d’ étre of armed non state actors seeking to enforce an extremist interpretation of their creed.  It is used by individuals or political parties as a bridge to power and rallying point.  In addition, some governments view religion, or certain religious or non-religious groups, as threats, exercising control through excessive registration requirements or more forcible means. 

While every country on the African  continent is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with its expanded articulation of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), and the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), where the right to change or refuse ones religion or belief as an act of conscience can be inferred from Article 8, in parts of the continent, human rights in general, and FoRB in particular, are subject to arguments about cultural relativism and frequent, but erroneous, assertions that they are a Western construct. 

Thus, despite being parties to international and regional treaties, most African countries either do not give legal effect to them, or create exemptions for their implementations. This has further exacerbated their already poor profile of human rights protection.

Religion-related extremism

In several countries FoRB violations are closely related to the activities of terrorist organizations and other armed non-state actors who pose a transnational threat, and who generally embrace an extreme and narrow interpretation of the religion they claim to espouse.

Events worldwide have illustrated that religion-related terrorist groups such as Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Fulani militia – who also appeal to ethnicity – thrive in ungoverned areas, or where the structures of governance are weak or have been weakened, including by corruption.  These groups also take advantage of local grievances, nurturing victim narratives in communities which, rightly or wrongly, perceive themselves as being marginalized by the centre.  They appear, at least initially, to provide a solution, only to expose their deeply repressive nature once they have gained ground and cemented their authority in an area.

Such groups have been able to advance largely due to a failure of governance.  While the security challenges they present must be addressed swiftly to prevent them from growing, mutating and advancing, this must be accompanied by initiatives that improve community relations, strengthen state institutions, and encourage social cohesion, unity and respect for diversity.

Interventions must be undertaken to reduce social hostilities by addressing local grievances, ensuring that the dissatisfaction that provides an entry point for extremism no longer exists.  This may include initiating development programmes that unite and improve the lives and prospects of members of the local community, which in turn will build their resilience to reject extreme ideologies.  There must also be efforts made to re-integrate those who have been seduced by such ideologies. However, this must not be done at the expense of ensuring justice for the victims of this violence. Bespoke restorative justice programmes may need to be formulated that prioritize the rights of victims to restitution.

Key institutions of state will also need to be strengthened, with corruption addressed at every level.  In particular – and if necessary – security sector reform must be undertaken with a view towards rendering it representative of local and national demography to assist with intelligence gathering, build trust and model inclusivity. Reform must also ensure the equitable distribution of national resources to combat the pattern replicated so often in many contexts whereby the centre of political and/or commercial activities benefits disproportionately, and to the detriment of the periphery.

Engagement with politicians to help them understand FoRB as a human right and to appreciate the importance of protecting this right for all citizens. Such engagement should emphases the role of FoRB in fostering unity and building consensus in ethnically and religiously diverse nations and ensuring that all are treated equally by the state regardless of their creed.

Government repression and societal hostility

Most countries in Africa have enacted legislation recognizing freedom of religion as a right conferred to all individuals. The extent to which this legislation is enforced in practice varies greatly from country to country. Several countries have laws which prohibit religious discrimination. Some countries, particularly in West and Southern Africa, have a high degree of religious tolerance, both as enforced by the government, and as reflected by societal attitudes. Others, however, have significant levels of religious discrimination, either practiced by government apparatuses, by the general public or both.

Governmental repression generally arises either from (a) adherents of the majoritarian or dominant faith whose members are in political ascendancy and use religion or belief to gain or maintain power, (b) from authorities who believe religion or belief are problematic, and should be “controlled.”

The societal, or horizontal hostility generally reflects and amplifies governmental, or vertical, discrimination.

Symptoms of governmental hostility include the targeting of religions or beliefs that do not enjoy government sanction through:

  • The formulation and biased application of registration laws or other requirements
  • Restrictions on the construction of houses of worship, and arbitrary seizures, closures or demolitions of existing building and properties citing zoning requirements, public health issues, unsafe construction, lack of permission to build
  • Censoring religious output – teaching, preaching, documentation – on grounds such as quality control, counter-extremism, etc.,

In a few cases, the concerns articulated by governments may in fact be legitimate.  However, in most they are excuses utilized by increasingly repressive leaders as an instrument of general control of religious practices. 

The right to freedom of religion or belief has also been termed the ‘first freedom’ given to humanity by God. It is a touchstone human right, often serving as a ‘litmus test’ for whether other rights are at risk of being abused.  Since human rights are “interrelated, interdependent, indivisible and mutually reinforcing,” restrictions on FoRB generally forewarn of impending wider repression that will eventually impact the rest of society. 

The situation in Eritrea, a country whose leadership is suspicious of all forms of faith illustrates this phenomenon in a particularly stark manner.  In 2002 every religious community bar four (the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran denominations and Sunni Islam) were forced to close and to submit to a registration process that is intrusive, stringent and ultimately inconclusive, since the final step requires the signature of the president, which has not been forthcoming so far.  Meanwhile repression has increased, with even members of permitted religious communities imprisoned without charge or trial, and eventually became comprehensive.  In 2016 Eritrean officials were deemed by a UN Commission of Inquiry to have been committing crimes against humanity since 1991, and the country has earned the unenviable reputation of being “the North Korea of Africa.”

Removing the obstacles

Empirical data shows that religious freedom is an indicator of free societies with accountable governments and thriving civil societies; conversely, denying religious freedom increases conflict and hostility, leads to restrictions on civil and political rights, hinders democracy and stability, and breeds violent extremism (HRF, 2012: p. 1).  FoRB “is a bellwether human right… Where FoRB is under attack, often other basic rights are threatened too. In societies where freedom of religion or belief is respected, it is much harder for extremist views to take root’ (UK FCO, 2010, updated 2016: p. 5) 

Given the persistent use by regional governments of the mantra ‘African solutions to African problems,’ even when faced with the mildest questioning, these governments may be more open to advancing FoRB if it is presented in the context of advancing policies formulated by the African Union (AU).

The AU’s Agenda 2063 is a strategic framework formulated to achieve “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”  It articulates Seven Aspirations, which if realized, would move Africa closer to achieving this vision by the year 2063, none of which can be realized in any meaningful sense if current religion-related issues persist.

Particularly significant are Aspiration 3, which includes “a universal culture of good governance, gender equality, and respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law;” Aspiration 4, which emphasizes peace, security, and nurturing a culture of peace through education; and Aspiration 5, which speaks of a strong cultural identity, shared values and ethics, heritage, and respect for religious diversity. 

Thus, FoRB training should be added to peace building and interfaith work undertaken by regional bodies such as the AU, IGAD, and ECOWAS. This training should emphasis that FoRB is a right available to all and should be protected not just as a social good but in accordance with international & regional laws that protect the rights of citizens. 

A means of overcoming the primordial sentiments aroused by religion or religious terminology would be to couch FoRB issues in civil rights terminology, emphasizing equal citizenship, equality before the law and rule of law, as articulated in Aspiration 3As part of nurturing a culture of peace through education – i.e., Aspiration 4 – endemic societal intolerance must also be tackled through civic education programme that emphasizes the benefits of FoRB in:

  • creating a climate that respects religious diversity reduces the prospects of violence and religious extremism and promotes peace and security for all.  The routine violation of the right to FoRB causes division, fear and suspicion between societal groups, heightens inter-communal tension, and can contribute to grievances and schisms that destabilize a society or country. Full realization of and respect for FoRB assists in strengthening the social fabric, promoting harmonious relations between societal groups
  •  Ensuring respect for religious diversity and coexistence can also result in positive economic outcomes. Research suggests a correlation between FoRB and economic growth, as religious

hostilities and restrictions create a climate that can discourage local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt important sectors of the economy

  • Advancing democracy.  Pervasive religious discrimination prevents a nation from benefiting from the contributions of the brightest and best of its citizens, giving rise to a religious favoritism that fosters nepotism, entitlement and inefficiency, and entrenches corruption.[1]

Essential for all these recommendations, however, is the existence of the political will to respect human rights, and FoRB specifically, to combat corruption and mismanagement, and to advance justice and the rule of law. Recent events in Sudan demonstrate that a significant political change can bring with it the will to address some of the most pervasive obstacles to FoRB. The removal of the death penalty for apostasy, for example, is a significant development; however, in practice the crime remains on the statute books.  Thus, changes will need to be sustained over the transitional period and into the next democratic dispensation, and this will be a bigger test.

There is also a need for governments to take immediate and effective action to address purveyors or inciters of religious hatred or violence. This should include the formulation of anti-hate speech and incitement legislation that conforms with international legal standards, being guided by Resolution 16/18United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate SpeechRabat Plan of Action, and the Fez Plan of action.  Governments will also need to dismantle and reform structures and institutional  and extra-legal practices and customs that underpin and contribute to religion-based discrimination in all its forms, including discriminatory or overly restrictive registration and other legislation, or a practice prevalent in Zanzibar whereby construction of houses of worship by minority faiths required the permission of the local community. 

In particular, governments will need to summon the courage to repeal blasphemy legislation, which is prevalent across the continent. As well as being a driver of religious extremism, blasphemy legislation is also incompatible with regional and international obligations to which most states are party and has a ‘stifling impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and on the ability to engage in a healthy dialogue about religion.’[2] Moreover, governments must expressly guarantee the right of any individual to change his or her religion, or to espouse no religion whatsoever, and recognize the right to peaceably manifest and express a religious belief in a non-coercive manner.

Finally, governments must also emphasis justice for victims of FoRB violations, ensuring that security operatives and others entrusted with maintaining law and order, upholding the rule of law and dispensing justice function without bias and free from political interference.  Additionally, ensuring adequate remuneration for officers of the law and members of the armed forces will greatly assist in combatting corruption.

The role of civil society organizations and individuals

International organizations and other members of civil society have done significant work in raising awareness for the need to promote, protect and fulfill religious freedom. Recently, the discourse is expanding into seeking a more sustainable way of removing the obstacles to religious freedom. There is no simple and single approach to this. What is herein encouraged is a multi-layered method or tactics

  • Sustained advocacy on religious freedom and its benefits to assist in improving understanding of the right through quality presentations, debates, and engagement with policy makers, duty bearers, stakeholders, and all persons with influence to change behaviors. Speaking out against obstacles to FoRB is key to inhibiting further violations.  Also mounting legal challenges that pursue a case to the highest possible level, if necessary, where this is possible and where safe for victims, can also inhibit violations, once perpetrators find impunity is ended.
  • Strategic engagement with the media to bring violations to the awareness of the international community should be expanded to include state and non-state actors, assisting them to recognize the immense losses the nations are suffering in terms of international goodwill, investments and other dividends that accrue in the absence of a restriction- free environment.
  • Civil society must participation in regional multinational organizations in a more vigorous and intentional manner, raising issues of religious freedom in Africa.
  • Civil society members must formulate programmes that educate the public about religious freedom.  Garnering the support and understanding of the people is an invaluable strategy that is vital in removing obstacles to religious freedom. The commitment of the public will greatly consolidate other ongoing efforts.
  • A consortium must be created of passionate and concerned religious leaders who are interested in working for the advancement of religious freedom and respect for diversity in our continent. History is replete with examples of transformations of societies that were occasioned by the inputs and impact of key religious leaders, including the enjoyment of civil rights.  Like-minded religious leaders must unite, dialogue, and work together. Inter-religious coalitions should be formed specifically to advance religious freedom and the support for the institutions that protects it.
  • Finally, civil society in countries with similar FoRB issues as Nigeria should campaign for legal reforms, including for the creation of a Religious Equity Commission (RECOM), as recommended by the Committee on Religion at the last Nigeria National Conference’s. Such an organisation should be mandated to:
    • Monitor, investigate and prosecute cases of religious discrimination and violations;
    • Serve as a platform for the promotion of inter-faith unity, understanding and harmony;
    • Serve as a watchdog and enforcer of religious rights of all persons thereby creating confidence and trust in every citizen no matter their religious affiliations;
    • Monitor, investigate and prosecute cases of hate sermons, teachings, publications, speeches, utterances and conducts capable of inciting religious crisis;
    • Detect early warning signals that can trigger religious tension and nip them in the bud;
    • Monitor cases of religious extremism (both in ideology and in practice) and formulate counter narratives (that are balanced and tolerant) to neutralize such extremism;
    • Create awareness of the common grounds of all religions and promote the practice and sharing of such commonalities.

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