Smoke in the region

The papal election could allow West Africans to hit the headlines for the right religious reasons

So far the main international news this year from West Africa has been linked in some way to the French-led battle against Islamist insurgents in Mali. France unleashed a ground and air operation there on 11 January, fighting what it claimed was the growing risk posed to the region and Europe by a bullish al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgency.

The conflict is continuing in the sandy mountains of northern Mali and troops from across the region are involved. But the mission seems to have spurred on Islamist extremists in the area as well. A French family was kidnapped last month from the far north of Cameroon by the Nigerian Boko Haram militants; in an online video of the family one of the abductors cites the French deployment in Mali as a “war on Islam”. And the Ansaru breakaway faction of Boko Haram has murdered both Westerners and locals in what it sees as its ‘struggle of good against evil’.

Islam and Christianity dominate West Africa, although they are often mixed with traditional beliefs. Islam holds sway in nations such as Burkina Faso and Niger; there are more Christians in Benin and Liberia. Countries like Nigeria are split half and half. It is a cultural and religious concoction, nowhere better illustrated than in Senegal.

More than 90% of Senegalese are Muslims but there is respect for the Christian minority, which is open and powerful enough to have one of its cardinals in the Vatican right now: 76-year-old Théodore-Adrien Sarr is the Archbishop of Dakar. And he is not alone. In the Holy See with him are four other West African cardinals, of whom one is among the favourites to be voted into the papacy. The two Nigerian men in red are 76-year-old Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, who’s the Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos and John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, the 69-year-old Archbishop of Abuja. Guinea’s Robert Sarah, who’s 67, is the President of the Pontifical Council and finally there is the affable Peter Turkson. At 64, he’s the youngest of the West African crew and the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He is also high up on many people’s betting slips for the top job.

Clearly, the secretive voting and burning going on in the Vatican City at the moment only concerns Roman Catholics, and an argument can be made that this negates the papal election having any pan-religious bearing on the region. But this only takes the conclave’s significance at face value. By electing an African pope (and there are also bishops from the other side of the continent in Rome, such as the Sudanese Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako and Tanzania’s colourfully-named Polycarp Pengo) the cardinals will be supporting the notion that the continent can be the driving force behind development in the coming decade; that Africa won’t just be in the lead pack when it comes to economic drivers but that it can also take on the weight of a world faith for the future.

That the responsibility is to head up a Christian denomination does not belittle or criticise the other major global religion – Islam. It supports the importance of faith in the region, be it from a mosque in Dakar or a church in Lagos. Nor does the Catholic factor denigrate the other Christian off-shoots.

However, the Catholic Church is going through a rough period at the moment with global sex scandals and Vatican financial scandals hurting the papacy. What also clouds some of the positive vision that some may have for an African pope are the conservative policies – particularly on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS and on homosexuality – that remain popular and preached to the faithful. The welcome image of an African pope and all the hope that could bring may well be stained by the realisation that while he may look forward on overall development in his continent, he will also be looking backwards on internal social development.

Last week, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his forces that they are going to be staying at war in Mali until the security of the country is assured. That will take a little while longer yet. Papal conclaves are somewhat shorter affairs and the result of this one could bring what would be (on the surface) positive news to West Africa – with one of the Christian leaders following in St Peter’s footsteps for the first time.

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