Living on a prayer

Trying to balance religion and politics in West Africa can be a hard game to play

France has been accused of stoking up religious tensions with its recent decision to ban full-face covering garments, such as the Muslim niqab and burka. However, in its former African colonial heartland, religion and the state are managing to carve a delicate balancing act.

The Francophone countries of West Africa tend to have huge Muslim populations. But in Mali, for example, Barcelona FC shirt-wearing men and bare-ankled women abound. Beer is brewed and drunk. Secularism dominates the constitutions of countries such as Niger, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Far from the Maghreb and the Middle East, it seems that the customs and animism of the area has infused with Islam to breed a slightly different take on the faith. However, the people still faithfully queue outside the vast, mud Mosques on Fridays. There are millions of Christians also living in the area, although they are more numerous in Anglophone states such as Ghana and Nigeria.

There are exceptions, of course. The civil conflict in Ivory Coast, although primarily based on politics, had strong religious undercurrents. Laurent Gbagbo, the deposed former president, is a Catholic and his internationally-endorsed successor, Alassane Ouattara, is a Muslim.

Nigeria held the first-round of a presidential election on Saturday 16 April. According to exit polls, it seems that incumbent (Christian southerner) Goodluck Jonathan will head to a run-off against his main rival Muhammadu Buhari (Muslim northerner).

It is a country with a bloody record when it comes to religious and political balance. Recent years have seen regular fighting and hundreds of deaths in the central prefectures where the Muslim and Christian populations meet. There is a growing Islamist insurgency calling for sharia law to be imposed in the north. The radical group Boko Haram shot dead two people on Friday 15, the day before the presidential polls opened.

Nigeria has a rough agreement to rotate the presidency between the largely Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, although when Mr Jonathan assumed the presidential office last year on the death of his northern predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua that cycle was broken.

The balance of the stability of the region depends on similar domestic accords. Yet if such agreements can be broken without provoking resultant religious fury then the region will have be able to look forward again.

The region’s capability to forge nations out of the bubbling and potentially venomous cauldron of post-colonialism, animism, Christianity, Islam, strongmen and dictators, developing democracies, oil and cocoa, deserts and droughts, rivers and floods and linguistic differences must be lauded and the nations must strive towards growing co-operation and confidence in one of the main areas they have had some success and are trying to improve at the moment: balancing religion and politics.

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